Sam Phillips
The Sound and Legacy of Sun Records

listen Listen to Bob Edwards' Morning Edition interview with Sam Phillips.

listen Web Exclusive: Hear an extended version of the interview.

Read a timeline of Sam Phillips and Sun Records.

Nov. 28, 2001 -- The story of Sun Records founder Sam Phillips is very much the story of rock 'n' roll.

Sam Phillips and Elvis

Sam Phillips (L) plays guitar with Elvis Presley, his biggest star.
Photo: Courtesy Country Music Hall of Fame

Sam Phillips

Sam Phillips sold Sun Records in 1969.
Photo: Murray Riss

The Sun Sound

listen Listen to Elvis Presley's "That's All Right"

listen Hear Paul McCartney's version of "That's All Right" from The Legacy of Sun Records tribute album

listen Listen to Jackie Brenston's "Rocket 88"

listen Hear Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues"

And for Phillips -- who brought us the sounds of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and many other musicians who came through his studios -- the story goes back to 1945, when he first came to Memphis to work as a radio station disc jockey.

As he tells Bob Edwards on Morning Edition: "Beale Street convinced me that with the talent coming out of the Delta, especially (of black artists), I really wanted to try to do something with that talent because I was very close to it all of my life. I saw the great association between country music and black blues in the South."

That association led Phillips to launch his Memphis Recording Service in 1950 and record Elvis as well as such artists as blues legends B.B. King and Howlin' Wolf.

Phillips is full of stories about his famous artists. Like the time country singer Johnny Cash came to Phillips saying he wanted to record gospel music. The studio executive replied: "'Johnny, go sin a little bit, (then) come back and sing me some songs…' You didn't have to say that to Jerry Lee Lewis."

Or Elvis' obsession with his hair and his own looks. "Elvis kind of liked my hair," Phillips says. "His hair was just a mess. (There) was actually a lot of it, but I've never seen hair in my life growing in every different direction..." Phillips jokes that he offered to trade his hair for Elvis' good looks.

Phillips agrees that the Memphis studio's distinctive acoustics and the informality of the recording sessions were keys to its -- and his -- success.

"I am a sound freak. I could play around with sound forever. I know that was part of my success. There's no amount of brains and dollars and sense... that can bring you around to getting the joy out of doing something in sound that I see and feel until this day and always will until I'm no longer around physically."

The American Masters documentary, Good Rockin' Tonight: The Legacy of Sun Records, airs Wednesday night on many PBS stations.

Sam Phillips/Sun Records Timeline

Jan. 5, 1923
Sam Phillips is born in Florence, Ala.

June 1945
Phillips moves to Memphis, taking a job as an announcer and maintenance and broadcast engineer at WREC.

Oct. 1, 1949
Phillips signs a lease on a storefront at 706 Union Ave. in Memphis.

Phillips opens Memphis Recording Service and begins recording several local blues artists, including B.B. King, Howlin' Wolf and James Cotton.

Sam Phillips in the studio

Sam Phillips at the reel-to-reel console at Sun Studios in Memphis, Tenn.
Photo: Courtesy Sam Phillips

Phillips records "Rocket 88" with singer Jackie Brenston and Ike Turner's band for Chess Records. This recording, widely considered the first rock 'n' roll record, hits No. 1 on the R & B chart. Phillips records "How Many More Years/Moanin' At Midnight," the first single by Howlin' Wolf.

Phillips launches his own label, Sun Records, with the release of "Drivin' Slow" by saxophonist Johnny London.

Elvis Presley stops at Memphis Recording Service to record two songs, "My Happiness" and "That's When Your Heartaches Begin," as a birthday present for his mother. Phillips notes that Presley has a good feel for ballads and should be invited back. Sun releases "Mystery Train" by Little Junior Parker.

Elvis Presley, Scotty Moore, and Bill Black record "That's Alright Mama" at Sun Studios. It becomes Elvis' first hit.

Drawn to Sun by Presley's first single, Carl Perkins and his band audition for, and are signed by, Phillips. Phillips signs aspiring country singer Johnny Cash and releases his debut single, "Cry! Cry! Cry!/Hey! Porter." Despite Presley's growing popularity, his five Sun singles fail to make a dent on the national charts. Phillips sells his contract to RCA Records for $35,000.

Carl Perkins' "Blue Suede Shoes" becomes Sun's first certified million-seller.

Sun releases "Flyin' Saucer Rock 'N' Roll" by Billy Riley and His Little Green Men. Featuring Roland Janes on guitar and Jerry Lee Lewis on piano, the song is a rockabilly classic. The label also issues Lewis' second single, "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On."

Phillips launches a new label, Phillips International. Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash sign with Columbia Records. Perkins leaves Sun immediately and Cash leaves in August when his contract is up. Jerry Lee Lewis hits No. 1 with "Breathless."

Phillips opens a new studio at 639 Madison Avenue in Memphis.

Phillips sells Sun Records to Shelby Singleton.

1970 - present
Phillips' sons run the family studio, the Sam Phillips Recording Service, and a music publishing company in Nashville. Phillips focuses on radio stations he owns in Alabama.

Phillips is inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Phillips is inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

July 30, 2003
Phillips dies in Memphis of respiratory failure.

Source: American Masters, Thirteen/WNET New York

In Depth

Bob Edwards reports July 31, 2003, on the death of Sam Phillips.

audio Listen to Bob Edwards' Sept. 24, 1993, interview with Sam Phillips.

audio Listen to member station WFUV Music Director Rita Houston's interview with Sam Phillips about the early days of rock and R&B.

We Record Anything-Anywhere-Anytime: Sam Phillips & the Early Years of the Memphis Recording Service, a Lost and Found Sound feature

audio Listen to an NPR 100 feature about Jerry Lee Lewis' "Great Balls of Fire."

audio Listen to an NPR 100 feature about Johnny Cash's "I Walk the Line."

audio Listen to an NPR 100 feature about Elvis Presley's "Hound Dog" and "Don't Be Cruel"

audio Listen to an NPR 100 feature about Carl Perkins' "Blue Suede Shoes."

Other Resources

Visit the Sun Records Web site.

Visit The Legacy of Sun Records tribute album Web site.

Visit the PBS American Masters Good Rockin' Tonight Web site.

Read a Salon article about Sam Phillips.