We traveled down memory lane. Actually, to be specific, we traveled to 706 Union Street in Memphis… a simple building in a humble neighborhood of simple buildings. Yet, few places have had such an outward influence on the life of so many. Union Street was the home of Sun Records recording studio. Sam Phillips, the owner, was a man with a golden ear. He helped shape American music by the acts he recorded and the public agreed with his choices. Oh, how they agreed.
Elvis, Johnny Cash, Conway Twitty, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Charlie Rich, and Carl Perkins are just a few of the uber successful performers to emerge from the Sun Studio. What they all had in common besides great commercial success was Sam Phillips. In reviewing history, we often see clusters of famous people in a specific vocation whether it is acting, musical performance, baseball, or business success. The brain wonders what caused a little area of the country to produce such an outsize influence. Was it talent feeding on talent, God just having fun, or something in the water? Who knows? But, when it occurs, it sure is interesting.
Less known to Rock and Roll fans is the fact that many of the great R and B and Blues artists recorded at Sun before the Rockabilly phenomena hit. Ike Turner, Howlin’ Wolf, B. B. King, Junior Parker, and Little Milton are just a few of the early talents that recorded at Sun. For many of the artists, it was their first recording anywhere. The fusion of R and B and country was a precursor to Rockabilly, which was the starting point of Rock and Roll. Sun Records was an evolutionary place. Sam tried many different artists. Many of these artists went on to great commercial success, but the recordings sold by Sun just barely broke even on balance — until ELVIS. Then, the world changed for Sun Records.
By the way, if you find a mint condition copy of Elvis first single from Sun, “That’s All Right”, hold onto it. The first pressing of the record is worth up to $10,000! Other earlier Sun records from the early 1950’s, even of some obscure never heard from again artists, can bring $10,000 or more. Ironically, if Sam Phillips had held onto all the early records which did not sell, his heirs would have more money than he walked away from when he eventually sold Sun Records in the 1960’s.
The success of the musical acts emanating from Sun made it the brightest light of the independent studios, which dominated 1950’s music. In the 1950’s, thousands of Ma and Pa operations existed throughout the country recording local talent. The cost of recording equipment had fallen and what had previously been the domain of major operations now lent itself to smaller operations. Few studios ever found even a single act of consequence. Yet the dream, a typical American dream, of finding the undiscovered talent was alive and well before the major corporate studio era re-emerged in the 1960’s.
Sun was the driving force behind rockabilly becoming mainstream in the U. S. Rock and country (or hillbilly to some) music blended together for a sound America was ready to embrace. Sun records was named after the Sun, by Sam Phillips, as a sign of perpetual optimism each new day… Well, it turned out Sam had a lot to be optimistic about. Whoever designed the original logo also did a great job, a rooster crowing at sunrise to a bright new day. Awesome. For a neat souvenir, be sure to purchase a sign or a guitar pick like the ones shown below. They are great display pieces.
Touring the studio, you realize just how small an operation Sun was. It reminds one of the small corner grocery of days gone by. This makes Sun’s contribution via discovering and promoting so many now renown talents all the more special. What did Sam hear that others missed? Why was his timing to release these acts better than the rest of the southern independents? Many have pondered these questions. All we know is that Sam saw something in these acts and knew how to launch them to a higher level.
Tours of the studio let you connect with the history of Rock and Roll. Ringo Starr, U2, and other rock legends have all toured this facility, paying homage to the birthplace of Rock and Roll. You can actually stand where Elvis stood and you will be humbled by the simplicity of the place. Musicians still record here.
The studio has been featured in major motion pictures such as “Walk the Line”, “Elvis”, and “Great Balls of Fire”.
Though Sam Phillips never cashed in on the Rock and Roll phenomena like some of the acts that passed through his doors, he did make a lot of money. But, he also spent a lot of money promoting his records. Sam sold Elvis’s contract to RCA/Colonel Tom Parker for $40,000, a sum that at that time would buy about 8 modest houses in Memphis. That was a lot of money for an act that had yet to break nationally. RCA now owned the record contract and Colonel Parker owned the management contract to Elvis. Elvis was still a southern act and Colonel Parker had a national vision for Elvis, one that the public embraced.
Showing he was not a one dimensional thinker, Sam also was an early investor in the Memphis-born “Holiday Inn” hotel chain. Another major success was investing in radio stations. Sam had an eye for talent like few others. Pretty good for the son of a poor tenant farmer who had picked cotton in his youth.
Sam Phillips was part of the first group inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame along with two other Sun Records alumni, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley.
Tours are offered daily. Parking on site is available and shuttle buses run from Graceland and also the Rock ‘n’ Soul museum.