Sun Studio History
How did Sun Studio become “the birthplace of Rock’n’Roll”?
The following information has been compiled from publicly available interviews on the internet. At the bottom of this page, you can see some interesting facts about music recorded at Sun Studio and some links for further reading.
“I have always considered that God gave me one thing if he didn't give me anything else, and that was a good ear”
Sam Phillips explains how he discovered music talents.
”Sun Studio’s was meant to capture the pure raw energy of Beale Street”
Sam Phillips, rock pioneer who opened Memphis Recording Service and the Sun Record label at 706 Union Avenue in Memphis, Tennessee, on January the 3rd, 1950
"I used the old 1-foot-square acoustic tiles, and I knew there were a lot of ways to approach it to make a live-er studio or deader studio. I never truly liked a dead room for what was I going to do with a very sparse number of people on the session - maybe two to four or five was a big band - so all that was taken into account."
Lacking in funds, Sam Phillips did most of the renovations himself with the aid of a carpenter.
"The room sound, even with the gear they have in there now, is still special. It has to do with that old asbestos square acoustic tile, which covers everything but the floor. When you speak, you can feel the air pressure in the room. The more volume that you put into that room, the more the midrange compresses. It is sort of like the Phil Spector principle of putting in too much in too small of a space, and the whole room becomes a compressor."
Jim Dickinson, who worked as a sound engineer at both Sun and later at the Phillips Recording Service
"All of the great recordings at Sun were literally made with five microphones, which included a RCA 77DX, Shure 55, RCA 44BX and an Altec Lansing pencil mic. The RCA 44-BX microphones and 77-DX (introduced in 1954) Poly-directional microphones are high-fidelity microphones of the ribbon type that are specially designed for broadcast studio use. The Shure 55 has all but become synonymous and easily identifiable as "the Elvis mic". Most of these mics at the time were bought in abundance for the military and could be picked up used as surplus very cheaply.”
“We record Anything – Anywhere – Anytime,”
Sam Phillips remembers his first promotional slogan.
“I was really impressed with the fact that his (Howlin Wolf) voice was so different, so unusually bad, but so honest that it fascinated me, and the Wolf and I worked together better than I did with any other artist. I just enjoyed working with the Wolf. When he went to Chess I don’t think they really ever gave that psychological bent that the Wolf needed. In my view very few people honestly had that ability, and Wolf was one of those people who had to believe that you believed in him. I’m not saying that the Chess brothers didn’t and I’m not speaking disparagingly about them, but they never did capture his potential, and had I continued to have the Wolf, I think he would have been a mammoth seller in the white community as well as the black. I had a lot of different things that I wanted to do with the Wolf. This Wolf had really a lot of potential that you just didn’t hear on the few records that were out both on Sun and on Chess. I had other routes and other approaches, like I did with Elvis Presley, that I wanted to attempt with the Wolf, but after he left and went to Chess Records I didn’t get to do my laboratory work with him”
Sam Phillips recalls working with Howling Wolf in the early 1950s
“We had no way of getting it fixed, so we started playing around with the damn thing, stuffed a little paper in there and it sounded good. It sounded like a saxophone”
Sam Phillips comments on Willie Kizart’s guitar amplifier used on the recording of “Rocket 88” in 1951. The song is commonly referred to as the first rock and roll song recorded, earning Sun Studio the title of "Birthplace of Rock and Roll".
"I cannot truly judge what the first rock & roll record was, because that would be unfair, but in the sense of the term 'rock & roll' — which to me wrapped up black and white youth and vitality — it really was the first rock & roll record."
Sam Phillips on “Rocket 88”
“We were travelling from Clarksdale to the studio in Memphis. There were 11 of us in the car. We had the big upright bass tied up on top, we had the drums in the trunk, with the trunk open. When we changed a flat tyre in the rain, one of the tubes on the amplifier cracked. That’s where the distorted sound came from. The record sold half a million in 1951. I got paid $20!”
Ike Turner, on the experience of recording «Rocket 88» with Jackie Brenston and the Delta Cats at Memphis Recording Service in 1951. Ike played piano on the song which inspired Sam Phillips to start his own record label in 1952; the Sun Record Company.
"He did’t play with bands. He didn’t go to this little club and pick and grin. All he did was set with his guitar on the side of his bed at home. I don’t think he even played on the front porch.”
Sam Phillips on Elvis Presley’s musical experience prior to the Sun recordings.
"I said, "What kind of singer are you?" He said, "I sing all kinds." I said, "Who do you sound like?" He said,"I don't sound like nobody."
Sam Phillips' Assistant Marion Keisker was the first person to record Elvis Presley on July 18, 1953. Keisker was alone in the office of Sun Recording Service when Elvis came in to pay $3.25 to record his two first songs "My Happiness" and "That's When Your Heartaches Begin".
Sam (Phillips) and I had become good friends. See, I had a group that Sam released a record on. It was country songs. But through that we became real good friends. And I would go down and we’d meet in the afternoon and talk, just talk about generalities. And one day his secretary, Marion Keisker, was having coffee with us and she brought Elvis’ name up, although she didn’t explain his name. She said, ‘how about that boy that was in here last week or so? What’d you think about him?’ Sam just nodded and said, ‘oh yeah, he was so and so...’ And then I bugged Sam then for a couple weeks, so he finally told Marion, ‘get that boy’s name and give it to Scotty.’ And he turned to me and says, ‘give him a call and ask him over your house and see what you think about him.’ That’s where it all started!
Scotty Moore, guitar player meets Elvis Presley for the first time.
"He has a White voice, sings with a Negro Rhythm and borrows mood from country style."
Sam Phillips on Elvis Presley
"Elvis cut a ballad, which was just excellent. I could tell you, both Elvis and Roy Orbison could tear a ballad to pieces. But I said to myself, 'You can't do that, Sam.' If I had released a ballad I don't think you would have heard of Elvis Presley."
Sam Phillips on Elvis’ first recording acetate, recorded at Sun which included “My Happiness” coupled with “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin”. Elvis paid $3.25 plus tax for the record.
"The door to the control room was open, the mics were on, Scotty was in the process of packing up his guitar, I think Bill had already thrown his old bass down — he didn't even have a cover for it — and the session was, to all intents and purposes, over. Then Elvis struck up on just his rhythm guitar, 'That's all right, mama...' and I mean he got my attention immediately. It could have been that it wouldn't have sold 10 copies, but that was what I was looking for! There was no question in my mind. I didn't give a damn what the song was. That was the sound, the feel, even the tempo. I think we moved the tempo around, but we didn't do much to that song, man. We did a couple, three, maybe four takes on it, and we had something that we had been looking for for months.”
Sam Phillips on Elvis’ recording of Arthur Crudup’s “That’s all right, mama” in 1954.
“When I was called to make my first record, I went to the studio and they told me what they wanted me to sing and how they wanted me to sing it. Well, I tried it their way, but didn't work out so good. So while most of 'em were sitting around resting, a couple of us just started playing around with “That's All Right”, a great beat number. We were supposed to be resting for ten minutes or so, so we just did it natural. It came off pretty good, and Mr. Phillips, the man who owned the recording company, said I should go ahead and sing all the songs my own way, the way I knew best. We tried it, and everything went along a lot better. They decided to put “That's All Right” on record, and backed it up with “Blue Moon of Kentucky. That was my first record. I'll never forget it.”
Elvis Presley remembers his first recording of “That’s all right, mama” at Sun Studio during an interview at 20th Century-Fox studios, Hollywood, California, 28 August 1956
“Lately, as you probably know, there's been a lot talk about all the 'bouncing around' that goes on during one my shows. I'd like to tell you how the bouncing around all got started. When Mr. Phillips called me to make that first record, I went into the studio and started singing. I started jumping up and down, they tell me, and I wasn't even aware of it. My legs were shaking all over, mostly because I was so nervous and excited, but also because I can feel the music more when I just let myself react. After the third rehearsal Scotty Moore, the guitar player for the band, came over to me and said, 'You still scared, Elvis? You shake all over when you start singing.' I told him I wasn't scared once the music started, and that I didn't even realize I was moving around at all while I was singing. I told him I'd try to just sit still during the next rehearsal. But at the next rehearsal the same thing happened. The minute the music started, I wasn't me anymore. I couldn't have stopped moving around if I'd wanted to. Because all that motion was just as much a part of the music to me as the words I was singing. I told Scotty and he said, 'Okay, then, do whatever comes natural.' So that's what I did.”
Elvis Presley explains why he is “bouncing around onstage” 28 August 1956
"Elvis had sex written all over him from the day he walked in the door. I don't mean anything about him being good-looking, because he really wasn't as good-looking as he would develop a little later on, but he had sex written all over him, and the right kind. When this man opened his mouth it had sex, when you saw him on stage you couldn't take your eyes off him, and that was even as a male. I don't want to use the word 'charisma', but this guy — and I'm talking about him in a total, total personal way, in addition to fantastic talent as far as his singing was concerned — had a certain ability for contact, and to a measured degree he could give you that sexual feel, or whatever feel was needed, if a song indicated that it had that potential."
Sam Phillips on Elvis Presley
“I have been accused of having had my attention diverted from making blues records by working with Elvis, and to an extent it's true, but it was not for the reason that people might think. - I had a very small operation, and by that time I knew that there was an awful lot of excellent rhythm & blues records — or, as they were mainly called then, 'race records' — being produced by so many different labels. I had felt all along that, as long as the artists were black, you were going to get a limited amount of play on the air. In fact, I had found that out and I knew that, because I had been in radio myself since the '40s, and I had thought that if there was a way for some white person to perform with the feel of a black artist... I did not want anybody who did not have a natural feel, but I said to myself — and this is true — 'Man, if I can find a white person who can give the feel and the true essence of a blues-type song, black blues especially, then I've got a chance to broaden the base and get plays that otherwise we couldn't.' And man, did that prove to be a phenomenal philosophy!”
Sam Phillips’ philosophy.
“There was a label called Sun Records in Memphis that was pretty hot, with Elvis Presley, and two or three locally well-known country acts, and some black, blues and gospel singers. When I got out of the Air Force I went and knocked on that door and was turned away. I called back for an interview three or four times, was turned away. So one morning I found out what time the man went to work. I went down with my guitar and sat on his steps until he got there. And when he got there I introduced myself and he said, "You're the one that's been calling." I said, "Yeah." You know, I had to take the chance, he was either going to let me come in, or he was going to run me off, turn me down again. Evidently, he woke up on the right side of the bed that morning. He said, "Come on in, let's listen." So he did. He said, "Come back tomorrow and bring some musicians." So I went down to the garage where I worked, where my brother, Roy worked, and was introduced to two musicians down there. Brought them back to the studio and the next day was our first session. We recorded, and released the songs that we recorded the second day.”
Johnny Cash remembers cutting his first single “Cry, Cry, Cry” with B-side “Hey Porter” at Sun Studio on 21st June 1955.
"Johnny Cash could have gone by the wayside if I had tried to make a rocker out of him. Johnny Cash had folk all over him. When he came in for his audition, Johnny basically apologised for not having more musicians. He said, 'Mr. Phillips, the next time we come in I'll have a steel player and probably a fiddle player,' but after we got through with the audition and I'd heard the 'band' that he did have, I said, 'Johnny, let's just play around here a few more sessions before we think about adding anything to the "instrumentation" of your "band"!
Sam Phillips on Johnny Cash
"I mean, [guitarist] Luther Perkins could literally play one string at a time, and I loved that! It blew me away. Johnny would get disgusted with Luther — he'd get in and have a great feel on a cut with a good vamp going, and Luther would take a break and hit the wrong note, and Johnny would get so upset because Johnny had done a good job in his mind. Luther's hair looked like it would stand on its end when he'd make a mistake, because he was scared to death, but I loved Luther and I loved all three of those guys, including [bass player] Marshall Grant and Johnny.
Sam Phillips remembers recording Johnny Cash’s first single in 1955.
"The only reason he sold Elvis was to get the capital to produce the others. He figured that with the money he could have four or five Elvises instead of one. It didn't quite work out that way but he came pretty close."
Scotty Moore on Sam Phillips’ decision to sell Elvis Presley to the RCA Victor Label in 1955 for the then prodigious sum of $35,000.
“Sam used to say, ‘This room’s got a sound,’ and I thought he was full of you-know-what, but I later realised this was true. It has leakage, but it’s good leakage. It doesn’t sound off-mic; it just fills up the sound, and the room isn’t big enough for there to be too much echo. It was a very simple setup and it worked. We were always talking about constructing an echo chamber out back, but Sam didn’t own that building, he was renting it. So, even though he knew how to build one, we never did do it.
Jack Clement, recording assistant at Sun Record Company in the 1950’s, later a famous record producer in his own right.
"I really was looking for an artist who could be a lead piano player and hopefully a vocalist, too, and damn if Jerry Lee Lewis wasn't like that. I really do think that the guitar is the greatest instrument on the planet, but there were so many guitarists by that time that I wanted a piano. So, when I heard this demo of Jerry Lee Lewis I said, 'Where is that cat? Get ahold of him and get him in here! I want to talk to him!' And we were doing a session with Jerry Lee Lewis within a matter of two to three days. I was just blown away. The guy was different. You know, Jerry still sings a little bit nasal, but the expression, the way he played that piano and how you could just feel that evangelical thing about him... Man, was I looking for that, and there it was!"
Sam Phillips remembers first hearing Jerry Lee Lewis in 1956. “The Killer” would go on to record some of rock n’ roll tunes during his stint at Sun Studio, including 'Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On', 'Great Balls Of Fire', 'Breathless' and 'High School Confidential'.
“I knew it was a hit when I cut it. Sam Phillips thought it was going to be too risqué, it couldn’t make it. If that’s risqué, well, I’m sorry.”
Jerry Lee Lewis remembers recording “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On” at Sun Studio.
"That boy can go. I think he has a great future ahead of him."
Elvis Presley on Jerry Lee Lewis in 1956
“It was a great era, it was a great time. There was no jealousy at Sun record company between say Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Charlie Rich and myself. We were all poor boys. By poor I mean, poor! We didn’t have nothin’ you know and everybody was really wantin’ everybody else to do good and there was no jealousy. When one recorded it was nothin’ to look around and see Johnny Cash or Charlie Rich sittin’ in the studio wishin’ you well. It was that type of thing. It was one of the greatest labels, greatest atmosphere at 706 Union Avenue . It was a very small place, but there was a lot of devotion to what we were doing, individually plus collectively. Everybody was for Sun Record Company. It was kind a little tight package down there for a couple of years.”
Carl Perkins commenting on the “million dollar quartet” picture on display inside Sun Studio.
"It was what you might call a barrelhouse of fun. Carl Perkins was in a recording session and he had one that's going to hit as hard as Blue Suede Shoes. Johnny Cash dropped in. Jerry Lee Lewis was there too, and then I stopped by..."
Elvis Presley remembers the million dollar quartet jam session at Sun Studio, where he played piano and did a Fats Domino impersonation of Blueberry Hill.
"I was there - I was the first to arrive and the last to leave, contrary to what has been written - but I was just there to watch Carl record, which he did until mid-afternoon, when Elvis came in with his girlfriend. At that point the session stopped and we all started laughing and cutting up together. Then Elvis sat down at the piano, and we started singing gospel songs we all knew, then some Bill Monroe songs. Elvis wanted to hear songs Bill had written besides Blue Moon of Kentucky, and I knew the whole repertoire. So, again contrary to what some people have written, my voice is on the tape. It's not obvious, because I was farthest away from the mic and I was singing a lot higher than I usually did in order to stay in key with Elvis, but I guarantee you, I'm there."
Johnny Cash writes about the Million Dollar Quartet jam session at Sun Studio in his 1997 book ”Cash: The Autobiography”.
“One time, Sam accidentally put a Carl Perkins album on the echo machine that we would leave running every time we’d record. Well, I came in there to record something, turned the machine on and erased the entire album! Sam didn’t complain, because he knew it was his fault — that album, consisting of singles and B-sides, had taken several months to produce and we didn’t have any safety copies, but I don’t think it was that good anyway...”
Recording assistant Jack Clement accidentally erases a Carl Perkins album in the 1950s
“I think one of the main reasons that the Memphis boys left the Sun stable was because of better contracts, better deals. We started there, we loved it and it was the first place we recorded, but bigger labels paid better money. So, all of the big labels recorded in Nashville, Tennessee and that’s why everybody wound up recording there.”
Carl Perkins on why many of the Sun artists ended up recording in Nashville.
"I absolutely think that the technical limitations of the time contributed towards making more successful, heartfelt records. It made us mic things more carefully, and it made sure I didn't convey to the artists, 'Well, Lord, you do it, and if you miss, then that's the only chance you're gonna have!' No, I think that having the sparseness and the lack of ability to overdub absolutely contributed to how well things turned out. Of course, we didn't know it at the time; it just made things a little more difficult to set up and that sort of thing, but I was always a mic nut anyway — I would experiment with positioning, and I knew which microphone worked best with each instrument — and I really think it was a blessing in disguise. It had the duality of getting more of a natural sound as well as the fact that nobody laid back and said, 'Gosh, I can come in tomorrow and overdub.”
Sam Phillips argues that better recording technology do not automatically result in better music.
“You have to keep in mind that I was working with novices, and I didn't want to undermine the potential or the confidence that they had or that I could develop in them. So, when I made suggestions, I had to be very careful about that. I don't mean I had to go in and soft-soap; I was pretty plainspoken, but they could tell by the way I worked that I was more interested in getting the potential out of them. I never played the big-shot producer who'd had this hit or whatever. They equated with me that I knew where they were coming from because I had been there myself.”
Sam Phillips on producing artists in Memphis during the 1950s.
“The artists who I worked with all had a certain basic honesty in their music, and after assuring and working with them, and gaining their confidence and their trust in me, I think they then really knew that they had somebody who was working with them in the common interest of seeing what they had.”
More of Sam Phillips’ production philosophy.
"I've never liked the term 'rockabilly'. I've always thought 'rock & roll' was the best term, because it became all-inclusive of white, black, and the whole thing, whereas 'rockabilly' tended to just want to lend itself so specifically to white. It also promoted the feeling that maybe we were stealing something from the blacks and wanted to put it in a white form, so I never did like 'rockabilly'. However, I really think that what we came up with, between Elvis, 'Rocket 88' and Carl Perkins' 'Blue Suede Shoes', was the basis for rock & roll."
Sam Phillips explains terminology.
Post note: Sam Phillips
Sam Phillips passed away in 2003, incidentally just before Johnny Cash. He was inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at the first induction ceremony 1988 along with Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley. Many of the musicians who recorded with Sam Phillips at Sun Studio during the 1950s have since been inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, including in no particular order: BB King, Carl Perkins, Ike Turner (inducted with Tina Turner), Howling Wolf, Johnny Cash, Scotty Moore and Bill Black.
Sam Phillips - Contributions to music:
Recorded Jackie Brenston's "Rocket 88" and Elvis Presley's "That's All Right, Mama," two records often cited as the first rock and roll records
Created the pioneering Memphis label that helped birth rockabilly, almost by itself
Discovered at least a half-dozen of rock's first big stars and important artists
Created Sun Studio - one of the first non-segregated recording studios
Phillips was a visionary leader who often brought the best out in his artists
The History of the Building at 706 Union Avenue in Memphis, Tennessee.
• "Memphis Recording Service"= a business that Sam Phillips started and located at 706 Union Ave in Memphis, TN.
• "Sun Record Company" = a label that he founded a couple of years after to produce the product recorded by the Memphis Recording Service and then later at the Sam PhillipsRecording Service.
• "Sun Studio" = the name of the business that was started in the '80s at the former home of the Memphis Recording Service but is quite often used to refer to the studio of Sun Records.
Recording artists at Sun Studio
Howling Wolf, BB King, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Rufus Thomas, Charlie Rich, Jackie Brenston, Bill Justis, Little Milton, Charlie Feathers, The Prisonaires, Little Junior, James Cotton, Rosco Gordon, Billy "The Kid" Emerson, Billy Riley, Sonny Burgess, Warren Smith and many more.
Sun Studio – Biggest Hits:
• Elvis Presley; "That's All Right," "Blue Moon Of Kentucky," "Good Rockin' Tonight," "Baby, Let's Play House," "Mystery Train,"
• Jerry Lee Lewis; "Crazy Arms," "Great Balls Of Fire," "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On," "High School Confidential," "It'll Be Me," "You Win Again,"
• Johnny Cash; "I Walk The Line," "Folsom Prison Blues," "Hey Porter," "Get Rhythm," "Ballad Of A Teenage Queen," "Guess Things Happen That Way," "Big River,"
• Carl Perkins; "Blue Suede Shoes," "Honey Don't!" "Matchbox," "Boppin' The Blues," "Dixie Fried,"
• Roy Orbison; "Ooby Dooby,"
• Rufus Thomas; "Just Walkin' In The Rain," The Prisonaires; "Tiger Man,"
• James Cotton; "My Baby,"
• Warren Smith, "Ubangi Stomp,"
• Rosco Gordon, "Cheese And Crackers,"
• Billy Lee Riley; "Flyin' Saucers Rock & Roll," "Red Hot,"
Elvis Presley's Five Sun Singles
1.That's All Right/Blue Moon of Kentucky
2.Baby Let's Play House/I'm Left, Your Right, She's Gone
3.Good Rockin' Tonight/I Don't care If The Sun Don't Shine
4.Milkcow Blues Boogie / You're A Heartbreaker
5.Mystery Train/ I Forgot To Remember To Forget
Relevant movies – for more information:
•"Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock'n'Roll" (2000),
•"Good Rockin' Tonight" (2001)
References and Links: