THE SUN BLUES YEARS - When Sam Phillips formally opened the Memphis Recording Service, large numbers of local blues musicians walked through the
company front door. In order to understand Phillips' success, it is necessary to examine his relationship with Memphis musicians and key figures in the music business.
the time, the record business was dominated by corporate giants. The major record labels - Decca, RCA, Columbia, and Capitol - soon found that they were challenged by three new labels: MGM, Mercury, and London. To Phillips' surprise, none of these companies
paid any attention to the blues. Several small labels - Chess, Atlantic, Imperial, and others - were competing for the artists at the center of Sam Phillips' attention, however.
At first, the Memphis Recording Service simply recorded master tapes for these other small labels to release. Leonard Chess or one of the Bihari brothers would order a tape, and Sam Phillips would record the artist. While there was no money in making
these recordings for others, Phillips found it excellent training for future success with his own label.
Initially, Phillips' plan was to sign and record some of the
best local artists, and sell the master tapes to the growing army of independent record labels. He began asking around about music groups that he could record. If a band could be recorded effectively, Sam Phillips reasoned, the master could be sold to a name
record label by his recording company.
Bill McCall of 4-Star and Gilt-Edge Records became one of Sam Phillips' earliest customers. 4-star, a Los Angeles-based company,
had discovered Cecil Gant, a black crossover piano player with a boogie-woogie sound. McCall also bought songs from an Oakland-based songwriter, Bob Geddins. Geddins was one of many black songwriters who convinced McCall that black artists could record in
a white vein. The ties that Phillips established with McCall not only helped educate Sam about the record business, but McCall provided an example of a slick record promoter whose astuteness interested him even more in the commercial possibilities of black
When Bill McCall asked Sam Phillips to cut some demos for 4-Star, Sam jumped at the chance. In May and June 1951, Sam Phillips recorded two blues artists, a piano
player, Lost John Hunter, and a blues guitarist, Charlie Burse. One song from this session "Cool Down Mama" (4-Star 1942) by Lost John Hunter and the Blind Bats was registered with B.M.I. in September 1951 and released to immediate obscurity. It is an important
song, because this was Sam Phillips, first blues release.
Sam Phillips also entered into an agreement with Modern Records magnates Jules and Saul Bihari to produce tapes
for their new RPM label. After recording Joe Hill Louis, Phineas Newborn, and the Gospel Travelers, Sam Phillips once again was struck with the notion of turning out his own records. The Joe Hill Louis tapes intrigued Phillips because he realized that Louis'
versatile musical talents could be used in the studio to back other artists.
The Biharis recognized Memphis' unique musical talent. In the summer of 1949, B.B. King signed
a contract with the RPM label and recorded songs that became Memphis hits. B.B. King's "Woke Up This Morning", "B.B's Blues", and "B.B's Boogie" were songs that Sam Phillips loved, and they influenced his decision to open his own record business. RPM had not
only released B.B. King's records, but regularly scouted local Memphis clubs for new acts. When some of the artists that Sam Phillips recorded for the Biharis opted for other labels, there were harsh words. By late 1951, the tension between Phillips and Bihari
brothers were obvious to most musicians hanging around the Memphis Recording Service; Phillips, everyone also noticed, thought incessantly about turning out his own records.
Phillips' reputation as an innovative producer was largely due to his recording of "Rocket 88". The tune featured the lead vocal of Ike Turner's saxophonist, Jackie Brenston. Sam Phillips recorded Walter Horton's harmonica and jug band virtuoso Jack Kelly.
Sam recorded Jackie Boy, Little Walter and Johnny London.
Sam Phillips was a perfectionist with an ear for the right sound, and if the sound wasn't exactly right he shelved
plans for the record. The key to Sun Records reputation and success was the quality of its product. From the beginning, Sun recordings had to be commercial in order to be released. All of the early blues recording sessions, which took place at night because
Sam was selling his products during the day, were supervised by Phillips' because he didn't trust the instincts of those around him.
One of the most obscure but significant
Memphis musicians was an harmonica player named James Cotton. In 1953, Cotton's band featured guitarist Pat Hare, and in December of that year Sam Phillips brought Cotton and his band into Sun Records to record two songs.
It was Les Bihari who made the deal with Sam Phillips to produce masters for Modern, and they released some Howlin' Wolf tunes. Many of the Howlin' Wolf songs that Phillips recorded were not released, because
of arguments over songwriting credit.
Most Sun Records' artists have commented that Sam Phillips did pay his artists a fair royalty. He was often late with the royalty
payments, but this was due to the lack of available cash. During recording sessions, Phillips paid a small, but fair, wage to his session men.
By 1952, however, Sun Records
was established as a legitimate business. The first two years were experimental ones as Phillips learned the ropes. It was necessary to turn a profit with vanity records to guarantee that enough money could be generated to continue the Sun Records operation.
Once the company began, however, Phillips was confident that he could turn out successful blues records.
From 1951 to 1953, Sam Phillips strongest efforts were in the
blues field, where he turned out some of the finest music in the South. He recorded or listened to B.B. King, Bobby "Blue" Bland, Big Walter Horton, Little Junior Parker, Willie Nix, Big Ma Rainey, Howlin' Wolf, Rosco Gordon, and Rufus Thomas among others.
In Memphis, blues artists enabled Sam Phillips to sell large quantities of records. Phillips paid the artist a fair price for the music and didn't interfere with their recording style. It was this widespread confidence in Phillips' production techniques that
fostered a word-of-mouth reputation which brought the South's best blues acts to the Sun studio.
By the oddest coincidence, the man who is ascribed as having written
the first "Memphis Blues", in 1912, W.C. Handy, was born - like Sam Phillips - in Florence, Alabama. Handy became a bandleader, playing dances throughout the South, tunes like "Cotton Blossoms" or "Sousa's Stars And Stripes Forever". However, Handy also heard
the music of the field hands and railroad workers as he travelled through the South, and one night in 1903 at Tutwiler railroad station he heard a "lean, loose-jointed Negro" play a blues which featured the line "Goin' where the Southern cross the Dog". It
was a revelation to Handy, and he gradually incorporated elements of blues into his work. Like Sam Phillips would some halfcentury later, Handy too, worked in Memphis and in 1909 found himself hanging out at Pee Wee's saloon and gambling joint, and working
to elect. E.H. Crump as Mayor. The tune he used gradually became the "Memphis Blues", with its 12-bar format. It was the first of many blues, but the (relatively unsophisticated) musicians whom Handy had learned from would have to wait their turn in the spotlight
until he advent of the 78-rpm disc.
Black musicians had been recorded on wax cylinders as early as 1902, but what is widely accepted as the first blues recording - Mamie
Smith's "Crazy Blues" - wasn't made until 1920. Its subsequent success ensured that many more would follow, and after running the gamut of vaudeville singers, Jazz bands and Choirs, the record companies gradually picket up the courage to record country blues
- and were frequently astonished at the resulting sales figures.
From 1927 onwards, Memphis was often the target of field recording units, but after the Depression this
ceased - apart from one lone ARC session in 1939. Strangely enough, three of the singers featured here in this publication - Charlie Burse, Jack Kelly, and Jimmy DeBerry - got a chance to record then, their last sessions before recording for Sam Phillips more
than a decade later.
The outbreak of World War 2, allied to record company policy, the shellac shortage, and the recording ban enforced by the AFM scotched any further
local blues-oriented recording dates in the short-term. Meanwhile, the major record companies had settled into a formulaic rut (so what's new?) using session musicians, and generally ignoring individual talent from the South. They continued in this vein after
the war, and were subsequently usurped by the burgeoning power of the Independent labels, who were quick to exploit public demand for more exciting, up-to-date rhythm and blues, and soon swept the majors out of the scene.
Sam Phillips was the forefront of this upsurge, and initially, he had Memphis - the natural migration point for blacks from the Tri-State area (Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee) - virtually to himself. He
sought out local musicians via radio shows (notably his own spot on WREC radio and his "blood brother" Dewey Phillips daily WHBQ radio show) and talents scouts (e.g. Ike Turner) and quickly built up the roster of talent which earned him a formidable reputation
- and ultimately, the successes which led to the appearance of serious competition locally via labels like Meteor Records.
After great blues came great rockabilly but
after a decade of hectic recording Phillips started to lose interest and eventually sold out, investing his money in the Holiday Inn chain. But that's another story.
Colin Escott, Hank Davis, and Martin Hawkins