COUNTRY MUSIC IN MEMPHIS BEFORE SUN RECORDS - When Sam Phillips opened his Memphis Recording Service in 1950, he was literally taking a chance on
a new area of business in Memphis. There just had not been any successful attempts to set up a commercial recording venture. There were no record labels currently operating in Memphis. Even a company called Royal Recording, set up in 1948 to record private
function and the like, had folded during 1949. ''It was because of the closure of the Royal Studio downtown that my bosses at WREC warned me against trying to start my own recording business'', recalled Sam Phillips.
Despite the legendary reputation the city now has for its recorded music, Sam Phillips could have stood in his new studio and looked back over the short history of recorded sound seeing no local expertise upon
which to draw other than radio. Thee local radio engineers sometimes recorded music or advertising material onto did for subsequent radio broadcast. Occasionally radio studio would be used by an out of town recording company. Other than this, and the booth
in a local store where you could record a message for your own private use, there were no recording facilities in Memphis.
Major national recording companies had occasionally
made recordings in Memphis 'on location' as part of a field trip to find regional music forms, but there had been no concerted effort to document or market Memphis music, be it popular, jazz, blues, gospel or hillbilly. In other regional centres, it sometimes
occurred to local furniture stores to make recordings to sell in their shop along with the phonographs. Bullet Records of Nashville and Trumpet of Jackson, Mississippi starts in this way, but there appears not to have been a Memphis equivalent of these ventures.
Similarly, there had been little interest shown by local radio engineer or record distributors as sometimes occurred elsewhere. There were large record pressing and distribution organizations in Memphis from the late 1940 - Plastic Products, and Music Sales
- but they were geared to the major labels and to west coast and north easter independents.
Sam Phillips was a radio man. At heart, he still is. It was through his friends
and contacts at WREC in Memphis that he acquired sufficient equipment to set up his studio in the first place. He bought his first recording machines from WREC'S country disc jockey Buck Turner. Sam had come to Memphis in 1945, from Florence, Alabama by way
of Nashville, to work as a radio announcer and assistant to the transcriptions manager, and subsequently as a dance-band promoter. As a further sideline, Sam did disc jockey work on WREC'S country music show ''Songs of the West''. His association with country
music in Memphis therefore predated his better-known interest in blues and roll and roll by five and ten years respectively.
When he moved to Memphis, Sam Phillips would
have been aware that in those immediate post-war years there had been a sudden upsurge of 'independent' recording companies, largely in California and the northeast but also in some regional cities. He was also aware that the Memphis area harboured a lot of
untapped talent in roots music; jazz, blues, gospel and hillbilly.
Back in 1903 another man from Florence, Alabama had come to a similar realization. He was W.C. Handy,
the black musician who composes and popularize the first copyrighted blues music. Handy put Memphis on the map as far as the outside music world was concerned when he came out with his ''Memphis Blues'' in 1912. As Handy was laying the seeds of the jazz and
blues legend in Memphis, a young pianist named Bob Miller was gaining his first jobs on Mississippi River steamboats. Working on the 'Idlewild' and taking in the sounds and sights of river city life - a fusion of danceband jazz, folk and hillbilly tunes -
Bob Miller was inspired to develop a successful pop-country songwriting career. He had his songs published in Memphis as early as 1923. Moving from Memphis to New York in 1928, Miller become known for tunes like ''Eleven Cent Cotton'' and ''Forty Cent Meat''
and the wartime hillbilly favorite recorded by Elton Britt and others, ''There's A Star Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere''. Along the way, he became a song publisher and an A&R man. Miller's nephew, Hal Miller, became a Memphis television personality and
recorded some unissued titles for Sun. Miller's story would be an interesting one, but, immediately upon his death in 1955, his wife pitched everything related to his career into the garbage.
All this, of course, told the world nothing about the real blues and hillbilly music of the mid-south. This only came to light, gradually, during to late 1920s when the large northern recording companies recognized a possible market for down
to earth rural blues and folk music. The man who first 'discovered' local Memphis music was Victor's Ralph Peer who brought portable recording equipment to the city between February 24 and March 1, 1927. Using the McCall Building downtown as a studio, he reorder
34 tunes, mostly blues, and came back during the three succeeding years building up a strong roster of blues which include the Memphis Jug Band, Cannon's Jug Stampers and Tommy Johnson. On the first trip in 1927 Peer recorded 26 titles by black blues or gospel
artists, 4 by a jazz band, and 4 by a white gospel septet. There was no white country music as such.
Victor's Ralph Peer and representatives from Hoke and Vocalion made
repeated trips to Memphis in the years before the Depression. In general, they recorded black music although country styles were increasingly represented. Few of the artists saw their careers resurrected after the Depression but one of the survivors was Rice
Fleming. He recorded for Victor, ARC and Decca as part of a duet with Vespers Townsend. In the post war years he reappeared at Sun Records in the company of Malcolm Wellington.
the Depression hit the recording industry. there were to be no more field trips to Memphis until 1939 when Art Fatherly brought a Vocalion team to the city. In June and July that year Fatherly recorded 22 songs by the Swift Jewel Cowboys and six by Gene Steele.
Born Lloyd Bob in 1908, he had acquired the name Gene Steele by the time he flit appeared on radio WMC in Memphis in 1937. Steele remained a WMC regular until 1959. Known as the Singing Salesman on WMC, Steele recorded in a bluesy semi-western swing style
for Vocalion on songs like ''Ride 'Em Cowboy'' and ''Just A Little Of The Blues''. Later, in the early 1950s, Steele appears to have also recorded for Sam billies on unissued titles which included ''Alimony Blues'' and ''Daisy Bread Boogie''. When he retired
from music Steele turned to dog racing in West Memphis and apparently did very well in his new line of business until his death in 1984.
The Swift Jewel Cowboys had originated
in Texas, working on radio for the Swift Company, manufacturers of Jewel Salad Oil. Their manager, Frank Collins, moved them to Memphis in 1934 where, led by guitarist Slim Hall, they played over WREC until 1936 and then over WREC until 1952. One member of
the group, cornettist Pee We Wamble, is still resident in Memphis. The Cowboys were a jazzy western swing outfit, whose best tunes included ''Chuck Wagon Swing'' and ''Memphis Oomph''. After the band left Memphis, Pee Wee Wamble continued to play in Memphis
and he recorded in the 1941 as a member of Freddie Burns' Ranch Boys.
During the pre-War era, a few Memphis country artists who had been missed by the field trips nevertheless
appeared on records. One was Ramblin' Red Lowery who arrived in Memphis in 1933 from Kentucky. Able to perform well in the then-popular style of Jimmie Rodgers, Lowery recorded several titles for Vocalion in New York in January 1934, including ''Ramblin' Red's
Memphis Yodel'', numbers 1. 2. 3 and 4.
Apart from the few recording sessions mentioned above, the main reflection of commercial country music in Memphis in the 1920s,
1930s and 1940s came via the local radio stations.
Just as recording companies realize during the 1920s that there was a market for real blues as hillbilly music rather
than the popularised versions first heard on cylinder and records, so the fledging radio industry soon turned to folk artists to sell certain products over the air. Country musicians, and bluesmen, were particularly in demand for shows sponsored by agricultural
product companies and the like.
In the early days of radio, the 1920s, airtime was much more limited to country musicians than became the case later on, particularly
during to 1940s and early 1950s. Back in the 1920s, hillbilly music was likely to be heard mainly in a barn-dance format pioneered by stations such as WLS in Chicago and WSM in Nashville. Ironically, the founder of WSM'S hugely influential Grand OIe Opry programs:
which started in Nashville in 1925, George D. Hay, had gains his first radio experience in Memphis. George Hay was columnist with the Memphis Commercial Appeal newspaper when the company branched out into radio as owned WMC as Memphis first radio station in
1923. Hay was drafted in as one of the first announcers on the station. He left for Chicago the following year. Had he not, it is just conceivable that the Opry might eventually have been spawned in Memphis rather than Nashville.
The second station appear in Memphis, in March 1925 was WHBQ. This was followed by WGBC in 1925 and WNBR in 1927, the latter owned by another newspaper, the Memphis Press-Scimitar. These stations combined to
become WMPS in 1937 and developed into the largest station in town when taken over in 1947 by Plough Incorporated. The top news and information station in town was WREC which moved to Memphis in 1929 from earlier locations in Goldwater, Mississippi and Whitehaven.
Tennessee. Other stations followed these into a regional market which, by the 1940s, was the eleventh largest in the USA. The other stations included KWEM in West Memphis and WHHM.
the 1940s, WMPS developed into the top country music programmer in Memphis. The station had move heavily into a country format in 1939 but the tenure of Smiling ''Eddie'' Hill at the station between 1947 and 1950 pave new impetus to the station. Hill's show
quickly became the leading country program in the region. Hill and his band were supported by other top acts: including the Louvin Brothers, the Carlisles. Dan Snyder and the Loden Family. Disc jockey Bob Neal became the top country disc jockey in the area.
WMC developed into the second most important country station. Its stars included Gene Steele, Bob McKnight and his Ranch Boys with vocalist Freddie Burns, Curley Williams' Georgia Peachpickers,
Curley Fox, Harmonica Frank and, in 1945 and 1946, the Delmore ' Brothers with Wayne Raney and Lonnie Glosson. Alton Delmore has recalled Memphis as, ''the best place we ever worked''. The Brothers had an early morning show on WMC during the heyday of their
King Records career in the wake of hits like ''Hillbilly Boogie''. The longest running country program in Memphis was also on WMC. This was the Slim Rhodes show, which ran from 1944 into the early 1961 and later expanded into TV.
Slim Rhodes' competitor on WREC was Buck Turner with his Buckaroos. Turner, from French Camp, Mississippi was probably not the same Buck Turner who recorded out of Dallas in the 1930s and had a manor success
with ''Sing Sing Blues'', although Turner's story has never been properly investigated.
He died sometime in the early 1970s without having been interviewed. Details of
his Buckaroos are also scant, but the croup included Curt Gilmer on guitar whose cousin Will Gilmer recorded before the war with the Leake County Revelers. Before Buck Turner's days at WREC, during the 1930 and 1940s, Ramblin' Red Lowery and the Swift Jewel
Cowboys had appeared regularly on the station. Sam Phillips himself as a country disc jockey when he came to WREC in June 1945. He was the host of the ''Songs of the West'' program, where he was known as ''Pardner''. Sam's brother Jud was also on WREC as a
member of the Jollyboys vocal quartet.
Across the river in Arkansas, KWEM was developing a restated for country music. In the 1950s, their to disc jockeys were Bill Strength
and Dick Stuart, supported by live acts including Clyde Leopard's band, Charlie Feather and Jack Earls.
The competition for Bob Neal in the country disc jockey stakes
came from Dick Stuart on KWEM and Sleepy Eye John Lepley on WHHM. Other forms of specialized music programming included some blues and gospel on stations, particulars KWEM and, of course, the black station WDIA.
Unlike WSM, Nashville, which obtained a nationally-networked slot for its country program, the Memphis country shows remained localised products for a mainly rural regional audience in west Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas,
Missouri and Alabama. There were networked shows out of Memphis, though, particularly on WMC, affiliated to CBS, and on WREC which broadcast live dance bands from the Skyway Restaurant in the Peabody Hotel. These shows indeed to Ted Weems Band with Perry Como,
and the Ozzie Nelson show. One of the producers of the Skyway shows from 1946 to 1951 was Sam Phillips.
Just as a few Memphis-based artists were able to record in the
1930s by trammelling to major label studios, so in the 1940s some of Memphis' top radio acts appeared on record. Again, though, they had to sign with labels from outside the immediate area to achieve this.
The Delmore Brothers were contracted to King Record of Cincinnati at the time when they were appearing on Memphis radio in the late 1940s. Similarly, Freddie Burns, based in Memphis, appeared on Start Talent out of Dallas. Curley
Williams, who wrote ''Half As Much'' and other songs for Hank Williams (no relation) used Memphis as a radio and touring base but was recording for Columbia out of Nashville. Eddie Hill was the leading light on Memphis country radio, but his records appeared
in the 1940s on Apollo Records of New York and on Decca and then in the 1950s Mercury out of their Nashville office. The Eddie Hill Decca session in August 1949 was held at the same time as the session on Bob Price. Decca had a distribution office in Memphis
(from 1938 to 1952). Other labels with offices in Memphis included Capitol (from 1946 to 1955) and King (from 1952 to 1956). Mostly these offices were for distribution and promotional staff and had no connection with the recording side of the business, but
it could be that there was some scouting of Memphis talent through these offices.
As to recordings actually made in Memphis in the immediate post-War years, very little
activity has been uncovered before the establishment of Sun, Duke and Meteor in 1952 and Starmaker in 1953. Ike Turner recorded some blues in makeshift studios for Modern Records of Hollywood in 1951 and 1952, and Rufus Thomas and others recorded for Star
Talent at Johnny Curry’s Club in Memphis. There were some very short-lived labels operating in 1953, including one-issue blues labels like Wasco (Professor Longhair) and Back Alley (Tippo Lite). The only vaguely substantial recording enterprise to predate
Sun appears to have been the Buster label formed in the late 1940s by Buster Williams as an offshoot of the Plastic Products record manufacturing set-up which Williams started in 1949. However, the evidence suggest that the Buster releases were in fact reissues
of material from west coast record labels and that Buster was primarily a manufacturing and sales exercise rather than a recording enterprise related to local musicians.
the labels so far mentioned concentrated on blues. There were also some gospel recordings. The Spirit of Memphis Quartet recorded for King on location at the Masonic Temple in Memphis in 1952. Earlier the Reverent W.H. Brewster had recorded in 1950 for Gotham
on titles which may have been made at WDIA radio or another Memphis location. WDIA would have been to most likely place for the recording of black music in 1949, and in fact the first two records made by B.B. King were recorded at WDIA for Nashville's Bullet
Further research may reveal other Memphis recordings and labels. There are still some puzzles to be solved. Someone called dreamy Joe recorded ''Hardin's Bread
Boogie'' on a promotional 78rpm for Action Promotions. There will have been other promotional discs made, and possibly some of these saw limited commercial release. Then again, it is clear that Sam Phillips' first professional job when he opened his Memphis
Recording Service in January 1950 was to make acetates of WREC country singer Buck Turner for radio broadcast. Sam has long since forgotten whether there were other similar deals, or whether any of these recordings also saw commercial release. For instance,
it is not clear whether the several vocal performances by a Buck Turner issued on Nashville's Bulleit label between 1950 and 1952, issued under the name of Tani Allen and his Tennessee Pals, were in fact recorded by Sam Phillips.
The four Slim Rhodes singles included here on this website therefore remain the earliest country recordings known to have been made in Memphis since Gene Steele and the Swift Jewel Cowboys recorded for Vocalion
in 1939. Sun 190, ''Blues Waltz'' by the Ripley Cotton Choppers, remains the first country record known to have been issued on a Memphis-based record label.
By Martin Hawkins
(with grateful acknowledgment to Tony Russell and Colin Escott)