Wednesday, September 9, 2009


Recently, while walking through Memphis, like the Marc Cohn song, we visited the ghosts of Elvis and Johnny Cash at the Sun Studios. Visiting the studio, located at 706 Union St., in a questionable neighborhood, next to Walker Radiator Shop, is an almost religious experience. One is overpowered by the thought that giants of the music industry had walked this hallowed ground. The rich history this ancient building has seen cannot be comprehended. When Sam Phillips opened his music business on this site some 60 years ago, with a 10 year lease, nobody could have dreamed that this nondescript building would become an iconic monument of the rock era.

In the beginning, the struggling Phillips' Memphis Recording Service would record anything--weddings, funerals, bar mitzvahs and amateur musicians on his 50's era Ampex recording device. The company's slogan was "We record Anything-Anywhere-Anytime." In this Delta blues country, he recorded many Black musicians like Riley King (we know him as B.B.King--B.B. stands for "Blues Boy") and Chester Arthur Burnett (named after the 21st president), a huge man with a booming voice who became known as Howlin' Wolf, along with many lesser names known mainly to serious blues aficionadoes. A young Elvis Prestly (at least his first name was spelled correctly in the program) had recently performed successfully in his high school talent show and wanted to cut a record for his mother's birthday. In his now familiar baritone voice, the young Presley sang My Happiness, an old Tin Pan Alley song, later a 1959 hit for Connie Francis.

Phillips was off that day in 1953, and his office manager Marion Keisker did the recording. She thought Presley had some potential and played the recording for Phillips who was unconvinced. She kept lobbying, and several months later, Phillips needed a backup singer and called Elvis into the studio. He didn't do well, but Phillips put him in touch with Scotty Moore and Bill Black. They made a few country songs together, and one day, the three were jamming in the studio with Elvis singing a country blues song by Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup called That's All Right Mama. Phillips knew then that he had something--a white singer who sounded black. Sun recorded the song and got play on the local stations with the help of DJ Dewey Phillips (no relation) who interviewed Presley, emphasizing that Elvis was a graduate of Humes High School--many listeners had assumed that he was black, but knew that Humes was an all white school.

We entered the crowded shrine and found a small soda fountain selling milkshakes as well as every imaginable souvenir--postcards, t-shirts, caps, pictures, posters. The walls, counters and tables were covered by 50's newspaper clippings, photos of singers like Roy Orbison, Charlie Rich, Johnny Cash, B.B. King, Jerry Lee Lewis with his 13 year old second wife, and, most of all, Elvis! You can buy a Hawaiian shirt with a large picture of Elvis and Ann-Margret. I later saw a guy on Beale Street wearing one.

The tour guide was a pleasant, personable young man with Buddy Holly glasses named El Dorado. I didn't ask if that was his real name. In any event, Mr. Dorado has a sense of irony and understatement, which is easy to have in the presence of so many musical geniuses. For example, he spoke of the 1956 jam session in the studio featuring the new star Presley with Carl Perkins (Blue Suede Shoes) and Johnny Cash, with their then unknown piano player whom we now know as Jerry Lee Lewis. The large photo of that so-called million dollar quartet is now a collector's item.

The walls are peppered with old 45 rpm Sun label records with the names of so many legends. In some cases, Phillips recorded the songs for other labels like Chicago's Chess Records, and Jerry Wexler's Atlantic Records. Mr. Dorado would play samples for us from the original recordings. He played the 1953 Sun recording Bear Cat by Rufus Thomas which sounded to me an awful lot like the Big Mama Thornton song Hound Dog, which I called to his attention. "You ain't nothin' but a bear cat!" At that time, the lawyers thought the same thing and filed suit. Phillips had to pay a settlement. Elvis's later recording of Hound Dog on RCA Records sold millions.

The first rock 'n' roll song was the 1951 song Rocket 88 by Jackie Brenston and the Delta Cats, an ode to the popular Oldsmobile model. The accompaniment band was led by none other than Ike Turner, long before Tina came along. Brenston was a saxophone player in Turner's band. Bill Haley's Rock Around the Clock came 4 years later.

The early years of the Memphis Recording Service featured local Black blues musicians like Little Junior Parker, Little Milton Campbell, and Little Walter Horton. All those "little" people left Phillips longing for some BIG names. He recorded many of those artists for other labels. The local blues guys began to flee the poverty of the Delta region and migrate to Chicago where Chess Records was snapping them up. Phillips started Sun Records in 1952 with his brother Judd (later Jerry Lee Lewis' long time manager) to protect his business. He had to win a legal battle to use the name "Sun" Records which had been used by several record companies. For example, Sun Records in New York featured singer Herman Yablokoff singing the popular 1950 song Papirossen (cigarettes) in Yiddish. When that company went defunct, Phillips' company copied the design of the record label.

A successful recording was done by a group of inmates at the Nashville State Penitentiary who called themselves the "Prisonaires". For obvious reasons they couldn't come into the studio, so Phillips had to travel to the prison. Their lead singer, Johnny Bragg wrote Just Walkin' in the Rain which became an R & B hit. In 1956, singer Johnnie Ray covered the song making it a megahit which Ray performed on the Ed Sullivan Show.

When Elvis came along, Phillips struck gold. He signed the "King" to a 3 year contract, and after about a year and a half, he sold the contract to RCA Records for $40,000, of which Elvis received $5,000. In retrospect, that appeared to be one of the worst business decisions in history, but a closer look reveals that it was not. Phillips didn't have the resources to promote his artist properly, and he needed the money to pay off debts. Don't shed tears for Sam Phillips. He invested some of the money with a new Memphis hotel chain named after a 1942 Bing Crosby movie called Holiday Inn and did OK for himself.

He also changed the focus from blues to "rockabilly" which was a combination of hillbilly and rock 'n' roll music. Carl Perkins recorded a No. 1 hit with Blue Suede Shoes which was also covered by Presley. Perkins was in line to be the next superstar, but a serious car accident derailed his career. He drifted into alcoholism for several years but found redemption in England, of all places, after the Beatles hit the big time. He was the "anti-Beatle" and became very popular there with people who couldn't handle the Beatles' contribution to culture.

A couple hours later, we left the studio, out of breath from the intense experience, and went down to Beale Street to make sense of all we had learned. To sit at the piano that Jerry Lee Lewis had played, to stand on the same spot with the same microphone where Elvis and Johnny Cash had recorded--that is the essence of the uniquely American musical experience.




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