DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. In January 1950, a red-haired Alabama boy named Sam Phillips, who'd learned about radio and electronics in the Army, opened the Memphis Recording Service at 706 Union in Memphis. Three years later, overwhelmed by the success of his efforts for other people, he started Sun Records.
To celebrate the 60th anniversary of that event, Bear Family Records asked the top Sun researchers - Colin Escott, Hank Evans, and Martin Hawkins - to assemble three massive multi-disc boxes respectively focusing on blues, country, and rock tracks recorded at Sun. Today, our rock historian Ed Ward tackles the 15 hour blues box.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
ED WARD, BYLINE: Sam Phillips is famous for saying that if he could find a white boy with the authentic negro sound and feel, he'd make a billion dollars. Seeing him in his striped sport coat and tie in 1950, you might well wonder if he'd know that sound and feel if it came up and bit him. But all that would mean was that you didn't know Sam.
He'd been a fan of blues and country music since childhood, and he bet that his technical knowledge and feeling for this music could make him money. Even before he was finished building his studio, Joe Hill Louis, a one-man band who'd recorded for some national labels, walked in and commented that a decent studio was something Memphis needed. Soon enough, he was making a record for Sam.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOOGIE IN THE PARK")
JOE HILL LOUIS: (singing) Running my baby. Running my baby. Boogie in the park. Boogie in the park. Boogie in the park, want to boogie till the sun come out.
WARD: "Boogie in the Park" wasn't even a local hit, despite Phillips' partnership with local DJ Dewey Phillips - no relation - in the It's The Phillips label that released it. Sam Phillips kept on recording local musicians, though, and his big break came when a huge 40-year-old farmer who'd just given his cropland to his son and made a big life decision came in the door. He was going to be a blues singer, he'd decided. Sam heard that he already was.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOANIN' AT MIDNIGHT")
CHESTER BURNETT: (humming) (singing) Yeah. Somebody knocking on my door...
WARD: The voice of Chester Burnett - the Howlin' Wolf, as he called himself - was, as Phillips later commented, where the soul of man never dies. All of the 11 tracks Sam recorded were bought by Chicago's Chess brothers for their new blues label. They only released three of them, but "Moanin' at Midnight" was one, and enough of a hit to lure Wolf north eventually. Sam had lost out.
Well, sort of. Ike Turner was a skinny kid, a great piano player and guitarist, and a bandleader who developed talent in his Kings of Rhythm. He was delivering talent to labels in Los Angeles and Chicago, so he figured he should make a record, too. The problem was he was a lousy vocalist, so Phillips suggested he let one of his saxophonists, Jackie Brenston, record a song he did in the Kings' show.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCKET 88")
JACKIE BRENSTON: (singing) You women have heard of jalopies, you've heard the noise they make. Well, let me introduce my new Rocket 88. Yes, it's great. Just won't wait. Everybody likes my Rocket 88. Baby, we'll ride in style, moving all along.
WARD: "Rocket 88," often called the first rock 'n' roll song, was a huge hit in 1951 - again, on Chess Records. Ike was furious that his own name wasn't on the record and stayed away from Sam thereafter, but it hardly mattered. The word was out, and everybody in town came looking for sessions, B.B. King, Rosco Gordon, Rufus Thomas and Little Junior Parker, who became one of the first blues artists on Phillips' new label, Sun, in 1953.
Parker started having hits immediately, and on the B-side of "Mystery Train," "Love My Baby," inadvertently made the first rockabilly record.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "LOVE MY BABY")
LITTLE JUNIOR PARKER: (singing) Love my baby. Keeps our business to ourselves. Love my baby. Keeps our business to ourselves. Well, our friends don't know it, don't even know about it. Big fat mama...
WARD: Another hit Sam had early on with Sun was something of a novelty. One of his partners was Jim Bulleit, a Nashville record man who knew his city's black music well, and whose cousin had shown him a newspaper article about a group in a local prison. Bulleit made a tape, and Sam leaped at it. The group's first single sold nearly a quarter-million records.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "JUST WALKIN' IN THE RAIN,")
THE PRISONAIRES: (singing) Just walking in the rain. Getting soaking wet. Torture in my heart by trying to forget. Just walking in the rain. So alone and blue. All because my heart still remembers you.
WARD: The Prisonaires, however, only did limited touring, and always with an armed escort. Guitarist Pat Hare probably should have had one, too, since he died in jail after murdering his wife, but Sam was lucky in having him in the band with another young blues artist who cut his first sides for Sun.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COTTON CROP BLUES")
JAMES COTTON: (Singing) Aren't going to raise no more cotton. I'll tell you the reason why I says so. Ain't going to raise no more cotton. Tell you the reason why I says so. Well, you don't get nothing for your cotton and you seeds so doggone low.
WARD: By 1954, when James Cotton's "Cotton Crop Blues" hit, Sam had other concerns, although Little Milton, Earl Hooker, Billy "The Kid" Emerson and others continued to record for the label. Sam had found his white kid, and another chapter was beginning for Sun.
BIANCULLI: Ed Ward is FRESH AIR's rock historian. He reviewed music from the Sun Records Blues Box. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MYSTERY TRAIN")
PARKER: (singing) Train I ride, 16 coaches long.
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