APRIL 29, 1959 WEDNESDAY
HE'S MADE $2 MILLION ON DISKS - WITHOUT A DESK
Story of Sam Phillips, Memphis Recording Pioneer
by Edwin Howard Memphis Press-Scimitar Amusement Editor, April 29, 1959
Behind the dusty, bent Venetian blinds in a three desk office at 706 Union stands the man who in six years had brought a brand-new industry to Memphis, and helped make Memphis a leader in that industry. The man is Sam C. Phillips.
The office is identified only by a small neon sign in the window which says Memphis Recording Service. The man stands because, altho he has made roughly $2 million for himself in those six years, he has no desk at which to sit down. Even without a desk, Phillips
somehow manages to run 11 corporations from the building at 706 Union, which consists of a tiny reception room (two desks), a studio which doubles as a mailing room, a control room with attached half-bath, a promotion office (one desk), and a storage room.
Keystone of the vest-pocket empire is Sun Record Company, which started Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny cash on their way to fame and fortune, and made Memphis the rock and roll capital of the world. The same little studio is the home
of Phillips International Records, which introduced Bill Justis and a million' selling record called ''Raunchy'' to the world.
OFFICES – One day within the next two months, however, Sun and Phillips International and related firms will be moving to swanky new studios nearby. ''Because we ran out of corners for corporations'', Phillips has luxurious new offices and the
last word in recording facilities under construction at 639 Madison Avenue. The new studios, which will be available for use by other companies as well as used for Sun and Phillips International releases, should be ready by summer, Phillips said. He is personally
supervising the construction and the installation of electronic equipment, while at the same time tending to his oil interest in Illinois, his zinc and lead mines in Arkansas, and his other financial interests, including the Holiday Inns stock, the Memphis
all-girl radio station, WHER, and the new all-girl station, WLIZ, which he is opening in Lake Worth, Florida, adjoining Palm Beach and West Palm Beach.
live at 79 South Mendenhall, Sam, his wife Becky, and their two sons, Knox and Jerry, for whom two of his music publishing companies are named. (There are five publishing companies in all, the others being Hi-Lo Music, Jack Clement Music, and Justis Music.
Jack Clement and Bill Justis are partners in the last two). Some have wondered why Phillips never dressed up the studio at 706 Union or hung out a sign identifying it as the Sun Record Company. After all, it has been five years since Sun began its swift rise
in the record firmament, and three years since it reached its apex. Sam Phillips has several reasons.
OUT OF PROPORTION - ''I don't
know. I just felt like if I put up a bug sign on this little building, or tried to fancy it up, it would look all out of proportion. There's something about that little Memphis Recording Service sign that just goes with it. As for a desk for myself, well,
I'm not the kind that runs things by hangin' on a desk, so I didn't figure I needed one. Anyhow, I've got four girls and a man at three desks we do have that know how to handle all the desk work''. Sally Wilbourn, Barbara Barnes, Regina Reese, Marion Keisker,
and Sales Manager Cecil Scaife. Everyone around here has a smattering of knowledge of the whole business. And I've got no secrets. Plenty of times, I've talked thousands of dollars worth of business with 10 or 12 people squeezed into the same room doing different
things. Allegiances and enthusiasm are what gives us our efficiency. And our informality is what gives us hit records. Out artists get the feeling we're just goofin' around as I tell 'em, there's no sence being nervous, because there's nobody else here that
can do any better''. Sam himself makes no bones about being a country boy. He was born on a farm near Florence, Alabama. In the evenings on the farm and later in town with an old negro who worked for the family, Uncle Silas, would pull Sam into his knee and
sing to him.
UNCLE SILAS' SONGS – Little Sam's favorite song, both rhythmical and funny, was about a trip to Africa where ''they
got battercake trees, and right next to them sausage trees. We gonna pick us some of those fluffy battercakes an' some of those juicy sausages an' go down to Molasses River an' have ourselves a time''. ''Uncle Silas lived with us from the time I was 12 till
I was 17'', Sam recalls, ''and practically raised me. He'd tell me those fantastic stories and sing me those funny songs, and man it just fascinated me''!
Sam never outgrew
his fascination with the rhythms and nonsense of the negro, altho other musical styles crowded it out for a while. At 17, he went to work for a Muscle Shoals radio station as engineer-announcer, then moved to WLAC in Nashville, where he learned to appreciate
the so-called hillbilly form of folk music. In 1945, he moved to Memphis and an engineering job with WREC. ''I used to handle those Peabody band feeds (to the CBS network) and man, did I get tired of listening to the same old arrangements over and over''.
In order to hear and share with others, some of the different kinds of music he liked. Sam persuaded the station management to let him have his own record program on Saturday afternoon – the Saturday Afternoon Tea Dance show which Fred Cook has continued.
Sam not only played music, he talked about it avidly and articulately and developed a large, faithful following.
– At the end of 1949, while still working for WREC, Sam started putting some of his strong musical tastes into practice. In his spare time, he cut so-called rhythm and blues records in Memphis, leasing the master tapes to some of the independent record
companies which were springing up in
other cities, such as Chess, RPM and Modern, among the Memphis negro artists he helped start on their way were B.B. King, Rosco Gordon, Little Junior Parker, Jackie
Brenston, and many more. ''It got so you could sell a half-million copies of rhythm and blues records'', Sam said. ''These records appealed to white youngsters just as ''Uncle Silas'' songs and stories appeal to me. To city-born white children who had never
had an Uncle Silas, it was something new, and it became their nonsense – like faily tales. But there was something in many of these youngsters that resisted buying this kind of music, the southern ones, especially, felt a resistance that even they probably
didn't quite understand they liked the music, but they weren't sure whether they ought to like it or not. So I got to thinking how many records you could sell if you could find white performers who could play and sing in this same exciting, alive way'' As
the whole world knows, he found him.
THEN CAME ELVIS – In 1952 and later re-started in January of 1953, his own Sun Record
company, giving Memphis the first of its presents 14 record labels, a few months later, a young truck driver came in to use the Memphis Recording Service facilities to make a record for his own. He sounded so distinctive that Sam wrote down his name and address
and kept an ear out for material for him to record for Sun. Early in the summer of 1954, Elvis Presley – and Sun Records – were on their way with a disc called ''That's All Right'' b/w ''Blue Moon Of Kentucky''.
Elvis was first classified as a hillbilly – or country music, as the phrase had become – artist. He guessed on the Louisiana Hayride and Grand Ole Opry shows. But he was not the conventional country-type
singer. Marion Keisker, who constituted Phillips' office staff ten, called him ''a hillbilly cat''. What his style really stemmed sung to negro and rhythm tunes. One reason Memphis became the capital of this music, which came to be called rock and roll, was
that Nashville, already a recording center, snubbed it. ''They not only snubbed it'', declares Phillips. ''They fought it. With the Grand Ole Opry there, they were committed to country music. They didn't think rock and roll would last, and they did all they
could to kill it. Finally, of course, they realized they couldn't lick it, so the joined it. The old established Grand Ole Opry stars got so they couldn't draw the crowds anymore unless they had rock and roll artists with them. Eventually, the Opry's two top
executives resigned and went into the rock and roll publishing business. But in the meantime, Memphis had become the rock and roll recording capital of the world. Even tho Nashville has come around, We're still neck and neck with them as the country's fourth
or fifth biggest recording center in actual number of session held''.
WHY HE SOLD ELVIS – The question most often asked Phillips
is, doesn't he regret selling Elvis Presley's contract. ''Never'', he says firmly. ''Selling that contract gave us the capital we desperately needed at the time for expansion. The record business isn't like any other branch in show business. You can borrow
money to produce a movie or a play, but not a record. The record business is so precarious, you can't get financial backing until you don't need it. I had gotten a lot of offers for Elvis' contract, but I had turned them all down till I learned RCA was interested.
I asked them just twice what I thought they'd pay – about $40,000 – for the contract and all the masters. To understand why I have never regretted the decision, you have to remember something. At that time, most of the experts thought Elvis was
a flash-in-the-pan. Even RCA wasn't sure they had made a good deal. We had Carl Perkins ''Blue Suede Shoes'' just out then, and RCA wondered for several months if they had bought the wrong contract. Of course, the sale turned out to be tremendous for RCA,
and it gave us what we needed then – proof that we weren't one shot flukes, financing for expansion, and good credit. A total pressing bill of $150,000 at our three pressing plants (in Memphis, Los Angeles and Philadelphia) isn't unusual, so you've got
to have good credit.
ROCK AND ROLL NOT DEAD – ''No'', says Phillips. ''The kids got tired of some of the ''typical'' rock and
roll, but I think they've shown they don;t want any big change. We're keeping the flavor and modifying the best and the lyrics a little. Yet you still have one of those wild ''Stagger Lee'' type of things every now and then. No, rock and roll isn't dead. We'll
feel its influence for a long time to come''.
IS SUN COMMITTED TO THIS KIND OF MUSIC? - ''Not exclusively, no. The reason we're building
the new studio is to make more EPs (Extended Play) and LPs (Long Play), a better grade of pop, and to get into stereo, which is just getting started good. We'll continue rock and roll, but we're broadening our scope. We have to consider the fact that 60 percent
of the record business is now on EPs and LPs. To get into this end of the business, out outlay will be more and our return slower, but at the same time we'll be stabilizing our product. I believe the record business is still in its embryonic stage. It will
continue to grow and develop, and with our new studios we expect to grow and develop along with it''.
''A lot of people thought we were thru after Elvis. We came up with
Carl Perkins. They thought we were finished when we had some bad luck and began to fade. We came up with Jerry Lee Lewis. Then Bill Justis. And altho Johnny cash is no longer with us, we're still bringing out new singles by him and we have two LP albums and
three EPs that are consistent top sellers. If people don't realize it by now, let me say it one more time. We're in this business to stay''.
This article appeared in the
April 29, 1959 edition of the Memphis Press-Scimitar for posterity.