SAM PHILLIPS' ROCKING YEARS
Introduction and interview by Martin Hawkins
Sam Phillips almost
invented rock and roll twice. First in 1951 with rhythm and blues musicians like Ike Turner, Jackie Brenton and Rosco Gordon, when he recorded top selling black hits such as ''Rocket 88''. Then again between 1954 and 1956 when Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins
evolved with Sam the rockabilly style, and the Sun Sound. In March 1986, some thirty years after Perkins' ''Blue Suede Shoes'' became the first really big-selling Sun rock and roll record, I talked to Sam about the origins of rockabilly and of Sun main artists.
Sam had this to Say:
I started out recording country music and rhythm and blues We gained some hits in the blues field, too, but if couldn't get the music liked to a
wider audience. I knew that a lot of white people, particularly the younger people. Were listening surreptitiously to black music. My only path into the white audience was a that time through country music. However, between the west coast and Nashville, I
really didn't think there was of scope for me to overturn the patterns that were becoming established in pure country music. I knew I had to find something different.
see, I knew that there was a lot of raw talent, in blues and music. I saw my role as being the facilitator. The man who listened to an artist for his native abilities, then tried to encouraged and channel the artist into what would be a proper outlet tor his
abilities. I wasn't interested in just a good singer; there had to be something distinctive there me to decide to spend time with an artist.
So, really. the rock and
toll we came out with was the result of a time of experimentation. Scotty Moore and Bill Black really kinda evolved the rockabilly sound through discussions that we had right there in the studio. I credit Scotty Moore with being one of the easiest persons
to work with, and for having a real desire be innovative his mind was open and that was an awful lot of help to me. He had a lot of patience too, though he was serious in his intentions, He had been around the studio for a while hoping there was some way I
could use him, and he was sympathetic to the thing I was trying to do - to see if we could come up with something a little different.
Scotty was maybe not the greatest
overall guitar player I worked with, but he was able to develop style playing, first with Doug Poindexter and then with Elvis Presley. One thing did not like was that Scotty was a great fan of Chet Atkins and I didn't have that kind of playing in mind. But,
like say, he was willing to try something else, end he was really keen to succeed.
Bill Black was playing with Poindexter and Scotty Moore, and he just caught my ear
as a real good rhythm bass player. He had a stand up that had an unusual sound, a slap beat and a tonal beat at one time. It was important that we worked a rhythm into the patterns since did not use drums much back in 1954.
Both Scotty and Bill felt that w hat I was trying to do was right. When Elvis came along they were willing to work hard on coming up with a sound. Bill, though, was not nearly as it Scotty was Bill was a night
gig type of person, at least at first.
You see, most artists that came into my studio were amateurs in the sense they had to be given time to get comfortable with recording.
Only people like Slim Rhodes or someone who was on radio or gigging regularly with band would even begin to know what was involved in the techniques of recording.
Of these so-called was Elvis Presley. When he to me he was not gigging regularly. He didn't even know the protocol of how to get an audition with me. Apparently he walked past times he even had the courage to walk to 706 Union. Finally he got the courage to
come in and ask to make a personal disc for his mother, which I did help him with.
For all his inexperience - he had not played professional until he going on club dates
with Doug and Scotty - Elvis was very accomplished in one way. He was very aware of what was going on in the music world. He knew all the black musicians and the country guys too. He could sing some pop. Mostly though, when I first saw him. he was very much
into gospel quartet music.
The first time I saw Elvis was when he came into the studio one day, I can recall what he looked like. He was without hardly any means at all.
He had a style about him but he was obviously from a humble background. Physically, he had the long sideburns which was unusual then, and the hair oil that was unconventional. He put too much oil on his hair because, I later found out, that he was disgruntled
with his hair. It grew out in all directions. That was why he combed his hair all the time. Apart from those things, what impressed me was his eyes, which were very pure. Here seemed to he a genuine sort of person. He was very contrite, very keen but totally
lacking in confidence.
Anyway he went into the studio to make the record which he said was for his mother. When I first heard him on microphone, I was very impressed
with the innate purity of his voice. It seemed to come through, even though in the audition situation he was under some stress.
As things evolved and I decided to work
with Elvis to see if we could make a record, I found that music was such a great part of his life. He was so desirous of co-operating of being a success. I don't mean that he had stars in his eyes, that kind of thing. He to succeed just like did, but also
he was a good student. He was very bright and he comprehended all kinds of music. He understood and listened to me when I told him that we had to be cautious and to take things slowly and come up with something good and new. Because he was the type of person
who listened and who believed in my advice, he learned to know that I was trying to do things right. When I told him something was good. he know it. The basic talent was there, I knew that, but Elvis was ready to do anything, to sing anything, I helped him
realise that it had to be done right.
Apart from Scotty and Bill, who developed a real fine feel with Elvis, the other person I used on Elvis' records later on was Johnny
Bernero. I can't recall exactly how we came to use Johnny, but I believe he came in with his band which at that was a kind of western-swing band. Now Johnny was a good drummer. I mean is it was easy for him to behave in the studio. People forget that there
were lot of microphones in studio in those days I only used one mike on the drums and it was important that the drummer could control his volume. Most people wanted to play to loud, but Johnny could not only play styles and execute real well but he could control
the strength too.
Later on, I began to use J. M. Van Eaton as our studio drummer. He had come in sometime in 1956 with Billy Riley and it seemed to me that he was maybe
a little better drummer and certainly with more of a feel for the harder rock roll that was coming along. His fault was that he was prone to break time, but did have the rocking approach that was needed later on.
The first day I met Carl Perkins. I knew here was an artist I could work with. He came in, I believe, just little after Elvis came with us, and he was, like Elvis, open to suggestions. He was very eager, but he was also very
polite and ready listen. Most of all, had talent in abundance.
My way was to audition an artist and area of music where he was the most comfortable, then to move him
on from there to a style that he could live with but which was a little different and might lend itself to some record sales. Now when Carl Perkins very first came in, he was playing rockabilly guitar. I mean he had it all worked out, songs like ''Movie Magg''
which just impressed me so much. He was a tremendous honky tonk guitar picker. He had this feel 'pushing' a song along that very few people had. But I have to say that although I knew that Carl could rock, and in fact he told me right from the start that he
had been playing that music before Elvis and Scotty came out on record, I was so impressed by the pain and feeling in his country singing that I originally wanted to whether this wasn't somebody who could revolutionise the country end of the business. I really
This doesn't mean that we going to rock with Carl. That was because he had such a rhythm in his natural style. His success in the rock field came sooner than
I planned or expected it would, however.
It was really a combination of two things, his tremendously driving guitar style and the finding of the right song which of course
was ''Blue Suede Shoes''.
There were so different types of people who along to me after Elvis Carl hit with rock and roll. My job then was to assess each person and see
how best to use their energy because, as I said before, many of these people were amateurs in the entertainment business and certainly were new to recording.
I will never forget is Ray Harris, ''Come On Little Mama''. Ray was a very intense person. He really put himself into it, you know. In fact he looked like he was going to have a heart attack every time he played. He just gave it everything. He wanted it to
be right. Of course, Ray was a steel worker and he was not really going out on the road with a band or anything. So he had to to build up a record in the studio from nothing. He had a player called Wayne Cogswell later in the Bill Black Combo, and he had drummer,
Joe Reisenberg. Joe was an older man, maybe in his forties or fifties whereas most of the musicians I used would be in their twenties. I think they could have made it for all that, but they lacked a little confidence and maybe some patience. ''Rack em up boy,
let's go'', that was Ray's saying. If it didn't go well, he would be off. He didn't stick around.
As we were talked rock and roll, then the person to give some credit
to here is Sonny Burgess. Sonny was a rocker, man, I mean a real rocker. It was a real disappointment to me that Sonny never made it because, he was a pleasure to work with, he had awful lot of confidence in what he was doing, and we had some astoundingly
good cuts on him, he didn't come off, we'll probably never know.
Sonny could been as one of the greats rock and roll. I mean he had this band in Arkansas, and they were
a working band. What knew what they were doing and they had a sound like never heard. They were pure Rock and roll. There was no way Sonny was going to be a ballad singer. Rock was his forté, he just never got the right break. We gave him several record
releases because I believe in this guy. We gave him what exposure we could but ultimately it is the DJs and the public who make the decision.
Maybe Sonny's sound was
too raw, I know. But I tell this. He had a big-sounding voice and he was a very contagious performer. He had a rhythm that never stopped. Contrary to what the record charts say, in my mind Sonny Burgess was one of the great rockers of all time. He was committed
Another good rocker from those days was Gene Simmons. I never did see him being what you'd call top line artist, but he was a rocker of some ability and we had
some very fine cuts on Gene. I was not all surprised that he later came out with some hits on Hi Records. He had a belief in what he was trying to do, a real desire beyond the normal to get a hit. Gene Simmons love the stage, and he would play and perform
all kinds of music, rock, blues ballads. I never did see him as a ballad singer, but he certainly had a feel rhythm music. That ''Drinkin' Wine'' sold have been a hit.
of hits, there another person for whom I have no explanation why he didn't make it. That is Hayden Thompson. His ''Love My Baby'' is one my favourite records. It was a classic. Hayden had an awful lot talent and I would like to have had more time with him.
He worked with his band a lot to get things right, and he was very confident and a good act. Maybe there was too much of an Elvis influence in him, that's all I can't think of.
the most intense person I recorded was Ray Smith. Nobody wanted recognition more than Ray. He was totally wrapped up in what he doing. The problem was that I could never seem to quite find a groove as far as making records although we did release several.
I liked his ''Sail Away'', and then I thought that ''Rocking Little Angel'' was a good records and I was glad to see him get a hit event it wasn't on Sun. Also, Ray was e great showman. I got a kick out of watching him play the piano. He was not a great player
but he had a lot of antics. There was never a dry thread on him after a show.
To end with. I say that I am proud that so many my artists came through. People like Elvis,
Call, Jerry, Charlie and Bill Justis. Carl Mann too. But I just wish I more time then to work with other people who deserved to make it. Here I particularly Billy Riley, Hayden Thompson, Gene Simmons and Ray Smith. And mast of all Sonny Burgess. That guy had
a band they just wouldn't quit.
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