SUN RECORDS : AN INSIDERS VIEW
Cecil Scaife in conversation with Colin Escott
Cecil Scaife has enjoyed a thirty year career behind the scenes in the record business. He has worked for Hi, Sun, Columbia/CBS and his own labels and, looking out over the Columbia River, from his palatial house in the suburbs
of Nashville, he can look back on a good measure of success.
Scaife originally saw his future in the movie industry. Born in Helena, Arkansas, he was spotted on a talent
search and despatched to Tinsel Town. With thirty five years hindsight, Scaife wishes that he had stayed but the movie industry seemed to be in a terminal decline. Paramount, the studio who had brought him out to the West Coast, was putting new productions
on hold and filming its remaining commitments in 3-D.
After another brief sent as a protégé of M.GM., which saw Scaife go to New York and act in a couple
of off-Broadway productions, he returned to Memphis and became the first frill-time employee of Hi Records. At that point, Hi were just on the point of opening their tiny operation out of a house that Poplar Tunes and Hi
Records boss Joe Cuoghi had leased on Poplar Ave. It also contained the first Hi studio which was, as Scaife noted, a ''prehistoric set-up''.
Scaife worked on getting
Carl McVoy off the ground and then received a phone call in the wee hours of the morning.
On Joining Sun
"I was back in Helena. Sam phoned me and asked me what I was doing. It was about two o'clock in the morning and of course I was sleeping. Sam asked' me if I wanted to come up to Memphis and talk to him about joining Sun. He was wanting to
make a fast move because Jud had just left. That night I went to Memphis and had dinner with Sam and Sally Wilbourn out at the Embers. I could see that Hi wasn't going to get off the ground immediately so I went with Sun''.
"I started right away making the rounds of the radio stations and distributors. We usually tried to have different distributors for Sun and Phillips International in most centers because we felt that we got better
promotional coverage that way. We worked local sock hops and local television shows that featured rock and roll artists. It was an exciting time to join the record business''.
On Jerry Lee Lewis
"Just after I joined Sam, it was my awesome task to try and take Jerry's image and get a new direction
for him. The press was making mincemeat out of him. At that time he had his hair peroxided blonde and it was extra long. That was the image that the cartoonists caricatured. He would be holding his wife's hand in these cartoons like she was five years old.
Holding a teddy bear, you know. 'I had a very serious talk with Jerry regarding his image. We went next door to Taylor's restaurant and sat down in a booth. Jerry had one of his pickers with him. He always
had someone with him. You could rarely get him one-on-one. I told him what I thought we should do in as much detail as I thought he could absorb in one sitting. What I wanted was to get him out of the typical
rock and roll regalia. Ive League was in. I wanted him to get a crewcut. I wanted to have a press conference and invite key members of the press and announce that he was somewhat remorseful. He would take on an adult image''.
''We discussed it for over an hour. Jerry was very polite and listened. He would not every once in a while, but he kept looking at his watch. Finally, he shook it like it wasn't working and he looked at his buddy
across the table and said, 'What time is it'? The guy said, 'It's five before one' Jerry said, 'Oh! The double feature starts at the Strand in five minutes. It's Return of the Werewolf and The Bride of Frankenstein meets Godzilla'! Then he jumped up and left
the table. That was the last time we discussed Jerry's image''.
''I remember I later cut a terrific version of ''Will The Circle Be Unbroken'' with Jerry but Sam wouldn't
let me release it. Jerry was a phenomenal entertainer. When he came to Memphis we'd go into the studio and, while we were going over material, he would play to you as if you were 10,000 people. He would sit there and entertain you. He had this innate ability
On Charlie Rich
''The truth was that it wasn't in Charlie's nature
to perform. He was a great talent but had a hard time recognising his talent and believing in himself. He only believed in himself as a writer. He would tighten up when he was singing and try to sing higher than he could have but the problems really began
when you got him out of the studio and on the road. He could make a front man like me a little nervous''.
''Charlie was a good looking guy and, on promo trips, people
would mistake him for Elvis Presley. He had that look. He looked like a star and he could have been a star then if he'd had the desire. He was so shy, though. I remember one time we were on the Dick Clark show out of New York. We were trying to break ''Lonely
Weekends''. Charlie was a nervous wreck and perspiring something awful. I said, 'Charlie, all you gotta do is just sit here and lip sync it. The mike's dead. Dick Clark tried to interview him and Charlie just clammed up. Dick would ask a question and then
have to answer it. I thought that this was the end of us with Dick Clark but Dick helped us with other artists''.
On Carl Mann
''You know, the last two hits of any size on Sun came out of the old studio, ''Lonely Weekends'' and ''Mona Lisa''. And ''Mona Lisa'' was my baby''.
''Before Jack or Bill got canned, they had invited this group from Jackson. I think Rayburn Anthony was supposed to be the front man. Anyway, his car blew up on him so we just had the backing group: Carl Mann, Eddie Bush and W.S. Holland.
We waited a couple of hours and the musicians decided that they would entertain themselves. Carl did a beat arrangement of ''Mona Lisa'' which was one of my favourite songs. He was playing it on the piano and faking a lot of it, playing with two fingers on
his left hand and three on his right. I turned the machine on and I remember thinking, 'This ole boy has the potential of cutting a hit if we can get it right''.
couldn't wait for Sam to hear ''Mona Lisa'', but he wasn't interested in it Weeks and months went by and Conway Twitty was on his way into town and called me to see if I had any material for him to record sitting in our publishing catalogues. He was coming
off ''It's Only Make Believe'' and I had helped to get that song off the ground when I was on the road because we had been friends back in Helena. I spread the word and even handed out records. I told Conway when he came in that we didn't have anything that
we owned but we had an arrangement on ''Mona Lisa'' that sounded good I played him Carl's arrangement and he got real excited. He said, 'I don't believe you're give this to me'. I said, 'You can borrow arrangement if you put it on an LP. I still have hopes
of putting it out on Carl as a single''.
''MGM put it out on the LP and then pulled an EP from the album. It started hitting the charts in Minneapolis and it was doing
good in the mid-West I took the charts to Sam and said, 'We're losing a hit'. Sam said, 'l don't put out mediocre product'. I thought on that for a while and then there was a dee-jay convention coming up in Miami. I just hated to lose the record and see Conway
get the credit. I said, 'Sam, unless you tell me not to put out Carl's version of ''Mona Lisa'', I'm gonna put it out and do a promo number down in Miami that everyone will remember'. So I went to Miami
and hired a model to stand in the hotel lobby with a sash saying, Ask Me About Mona Lisa'. She was handing out promo copies, too. She got the attention. Then I persuaded Sam to let me put an ad in Billboard with that same girl. I was telling everyone that
Carl had the original version even though Conway's had come out''.
''I took Carl on a whirlwind promo tour through Atlanta, Charlotte, Baltimore and New York Dick Biondi
was in Buffalo at that time on a 50,000 watt station and Dick called me when I got back. He was gonna lay on it 'til he broke it. And he did. It became one of the last really big hits on Sun".
On Sun Studios
''We had problems at 639 Madison from day one. For a start, the roof leaked because the building had a number of flat roofs. Every time
it rained, I'd have to go over there with buckets and mops. It delayed the opening for six months. Then the room wasn't tuned properly. I took some Nashville guys over there to record and they walked out. The sound was too hot. Too alive. It didn't have the
range that the old studio had. The board was never right either. It was awful hard to create there. 706 Union had a terrific atmosphere. A creative atmosphere. There was a naturalness about it and you felt up when you walked in the new studio had a sterile
atmosphere. It was like a doctors office. It was too state-of-the-art''.
''Soon after we opened the new studio Memphis, Sam got the idea to build one in Nashville. Memphis
was slowing down as a recording centre and Nashville was really starting to happen. Sam visited Nashville one time and he was looking for a publishing office because Frances Preston at BMI was encouraging
him to open up an arm of his publishing business in town. He was looking for office space in the old Cumberland Lodge Building which was a Masonic temple. It had wood floors and walls and high ceilings. It was a perfect ambient hall for back then when the
character of the room made the difference. Sam saw the room and loved it''.
''I was down in Palm Beach, Florida looking after Sam's all-girl radio station down there,
He called me and said, 'Cec, I've found this room. It's be great for a studio. If you'll come and run the operation, I'll buy it' I hopped on a plane, came and looked at it and we made arrangements for
me to move to Nashville and manage the studio. Billy SherrilL - would be the engineer. Kelso Herstom the session guitarist, would run the publishing companies from an office in the same building''.
''At that time the Cumberland Lodge Building was considered to be the music building. Mercury, the Wilburn Bothers, Tree and some other publishers were all there. I remember that the Wilburns brought Loretta Lynn there when she first came to Nashville. She practised walking on high heels on the marble floors outside our office. The Sun studio did a lot of demo work for Tree and a lot of publishers. We did a lot of custom work too.
I remember Fats Domino came in there. I went out and bought him the biggest cowboy hat I could find when I heard he was coming in to record. His face lit up when he saw it. He tried it on and it fit perfectly. He said, 'Lawd almighty, how did you know my size?'
I said, 'Fats, I just got the biggest one I could find''.
"I don't really know why Sam sold the studio. I know it had one problem that we couldn't correct - and that
was the parking problem. WSM, the Capitol building and a lot of other companies were nearby and you just couldn't find a place to park there. When Sam was ready to sell, he called me and asked if I would
be interested in buying it. I had left Sun by that time and was out on my own. I gassed and Fred Foster at Monument bought it''.
On Sam Phillips
''Sam's interest was really in radio during that time, I believe. Most of the time when we would meet, he would talk about the stations he was buying or applying for or expanding or enlarging
the wattage or something. For some reason, his interest in the music business had diminished''.
''I know that he was concerned that sessions were getting more expensive
and that was part of the reason that he canned Bill Justis and Jack Clement, I believe. He didn't want them to run up a budget on recording. Jack could be pretty close with a buck but Bill was a schooled musician and often brought in horns and voices. I think
Sam had become disenchanted with the direction those two had been taking, especially the money spinning. The record sales weren't justifying it Sam also demanded loyalty and the official reason for their dismissal
was ''insubordination'', I believe''.
"I think he also detested the expense involved in putting out albums. And he never really believed in them. I remember him saying,
'You're giving away all your singles.' It took a lot of persistence to get Sam to put out an album''.
a lot from Sam, though he was very astute man He had a lot of insight. He understood humanity and human nature. It was just demoralising to work there toward the end. It was an uphill battle. I had no budget to remote. Sam's thought was, 'If they happen -
fine; if they don't - fine'. There was no honest effort in going to, say, Nashville or New York and getting songs together for a recording session''.
On Leaving Sun
''I had no reason to leave Sam except I couldn't make any money. I didn't own a piece of the company but I had a percentage
of the profits, which were going steadily down. We parted on good terms. He actually paid me a backhanded compliment when I left. No, I guess it was a real compliment. Billboard asked him who he was going to get to replace me. He said, 'You don't replace Cecil
Scaife.' I didn't realise he cared 'til I left".
Source: Cecil Scaife interviewed by Colin Escott, June 12, 1987