Thursday, February 9, 2012

February 9: Sam Phillips

Throughout the course of music history, there are a handful of figures who were not musicians, but without whom, the entire art of music would never have developed as it has.  Though some of these are songwriters, engineers, and other such personalities, there is one man who occupied many roles in the production side, but it was his business in general that remains one of the most vital entities of popular music.  In some ways, it is impossible to not only separate his name from the business, but also the names of some of the most famous and important figures in music history.  Though he had already been doing a great deal of recording, as well as a longtime job as a DJ, there are few pairings of words in music history that demand as much respect as Sun Records and their owner, Sam Phillips.  The list of artists who made their name as part of the Sun Records family is largely a list of the most well known figures of the rockabilly movement, as everyone from Elvis Presley to Johnny Cash to Jerry Lee Lewis to Carl Perkins to Roy Orbison all cut their finest recordings for the label.  Yet along with this, the studio was home to what is now know as "The Million Dollar Quartet;" which was an impromptu "jam session" featuring Presley, Cash, Lewis, and Perkins that occurred on December 4, 1956.  Due to his constant quest to combine musical styles, as well as the sheer fact that his studio was home to so many historical moments, music history would simply never have run this course without Sam Phillips.

Truth be told, even before the "explosion" of artists at Sun Records, Phillips had established himself as a pivotal figure in the music scene.  Throughout the 1940's, Phillips was a radio DJ for a station in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and due to the station having an "open format" in terms of programming, he was exposed to a wide range of different musical sounds.  After nearly a decade in radio, he moved to Memphis, Tennessee, and opened the now-famous Memphis Recording Street on Union Avenue; and the building still stands as it did then.  Due to this love for music and knowledge of recording techniques from his previous job, Phillips allowed countless amateurs to use his studio to record demos, and though most are unaware, artists like B.B. King, Howlin' Wolf, Junior Parker, and many other legends all made recordings for Phillips.  In turn, Phillips would "shop" these recordings to larger record labels, building the seed money to open what would eventually become Sun Records.  But perhaps the most important turning point for both Phillips and music in general occurred in March of 1951 when he recorded a group named Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats performing a song called "Rocket 88."  The group, which was led by a young man named Ike Turner, and this song are widely regarded as the "first" rock and roll recording.

It was Sam Phillips constant attempt to completely ignore the racial issues surrounding the rock and roll sound, in order to find the best talent in the country.  The fact that he was attempting this in what was then the still heavily segregated "South" of the United States was not only a move of artistic integrity, but it was also a rather courageous pursuit.  At the same time, though it may seem odd now, the reality is that the rockabilly artists Phillips was recording were not making very good sales figures, and Sun Records struggled greatly just to stay in business.  Even when Presley arrived, he was recording mostly ballads, and Phillips knew that these would not find great commercial success.  In fact, while the sessions were done at the Sun facility, it was not until Phillips sold Presley's contract to RCA that "Blue Suede Shoes" became a hit; though Phillips was able to benefit financially from this due to contract terms.  Furthermore, it is well known that RCA experimented with countless different attempts to recreate the Sun Studios "sound" after signing Presley, and yet they never achieved the correct tone.  However, many artists a long list of artists would keep Sun Records open and functioning, aside from a single ten-year period, and to this day, musicians can still record in this legendary spot in the evening hours.  Yet while it was the performers he recorded that may have reshaped culture as a whole, there is no question that without the efforts of Sam Phillips, rock and roll music likely would have never progressed in the manner it has for more than half a century.

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