Tag Archives: I Walk the Line

Million Dollar Quartet

Sun Records

7 Aug , 2012,
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Sun Records

Sun logo

Sun Records

Sun Records—I was about five years old in the early 1970s, when my grandmother first played a Johnny Cash record for me. I think it was “I Walk the Line”, or maybe “Ring of Fire”. I liked the way the rhythm reminded me of a train. I liked Johnny’s voice, and I liked the guitars of Cash and Luther Perkins. My dad had already played some old Elvis records for me, which I also liked. I had rockabilly in my ear from an early age. What I didn’t know at the time was, this sound that I liked was known as the “Sun Sound”. Both Elvis and Johnny Cash started their long careers at the Sun Studios in Memphis, Tennessee, with Sun founder, Sam Phillips acting as music producer, guiding and directing their sound.

Sun Records–Sam Phillips and a Good Idea

Sam Phillips at Sun Records

The Sun Sound began when Phillips launched his record company in early 1952. He named it Sun Records as a sign of his perpetual optimism: it was a new day and a new beginning for Phillips and for music in general. Phillips rented a small space at 706 Union Avenue, in Memphis, for his own all-purpose studio. Sun Records was launched amid a growing number of independent labels, and in only a short time Sun gained the reputation throughout Memphis as a label that treated local musicians with respect and honesty. Phillips provided a non-critical, spontaneous environment that invited and encouraged creativity and vision.

Sam Phillips had a good ear for music. He could tell when something was “good” or merely “good enough”. Phillips was patient and willing to listen to almost anyone who came in off the street to record. In the early 1950s, Memphis was home to a diverse musical landscape–gospel, blues, hillbilly, country, boogie, and western swing were all popular in the South, and were gaining popularity in the rest of the country. Phillips was a businessman who was able to take advantage of this range of talent–and to eventually become wealthy in the process. In one form or another, Sam Phillips found a way for Sun to record all styles and genres of music. Because of the vast pool of talent to draw from locally, there seemed to be no limitations at Sun. Sun Records was already doing well, but the label hadn’t yet found the One to put it on the map

Sun Records–Elvis and the Million Dollar Quartet

Million Dollar Quartet

Then, in 1954, by chance, a young truck driver from Mississippi, named Elvis Presley, came into Sun studios to record a song for his mother. In Elvis, Phillips found an artist who could perform with the excitement, unpredictability and energy of a blues artist but could reach across regional, musical and racial barriers. Elvis helped form the beginnings of the Sun Sound by infusing Country music with R&B. Elvis’s bright star attracted even more ground-breaking talent to the Sun galaxy. Among his Sun contemporaries were Johnny Cash, the “killer” Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins. These four soon became known as the Million Dollar Quartet, because of an accidental, impromptu recording session, one Tuesday afternoon in December 1956.

Shortly after those stars were signed at Sun, came Roy Orbison, Charlie Rich, Bill Justis, Harold Jenkins—later to be known as Conway Twitty–and other equally memorable musical talents. All these artists eventually sold on Pop, R&B, and Country charts and grew to international fame.

Sun Records–Rockabilly to the Masses

Sun Studios2

Rockabilly became the major evolution in the Sun Sound. Lyrically the music was bold; these kids sang about things that the generations of young people before had only thought about, but dared not mention out loud. The music itself was sparse and exciting; and it certainly moved in ways that popular music hadn’t moved before.

In the 1950s, Country music rarely used the drums that were so vital to jazz, blues, and jump bands. In fact, at the time, drums were prohibited on stage at the Grand Ole Opry. But in Rockabilly, drums played a vital role in driving teens across the nation to get behind the Rockabilly movement and the revolutionary Sun Sound. Once again, Sun was able to break new ground, recording music of unparalleled diversity and creativity.  The lasting quality of Sam Phillips’ Sun label is vibrancy that survives to this day. Sun produced sincere, passionate music that has stood for almost 60 years. Sun’s music takes us back to our roots, while it moves us forward. It is music that has reached across race, age and gender boundaries. It reflects the diversity and vision of the talent that recorded on the Sun label, and indeed, American popular culture itself. Sam Phillips didn’t set out to change American music forever, it just happened. Sun Records was a place for locals to make some music, and for Phillips to make some money without having to get a real job. Phillips only wanted to pay his rent, and have fun while doing it.


Sun Records.


More About Johnny Cash…

24 May , 2011,
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How much more can I say about Johnny Cash?

I was introduced to Johnny Cash’s music when I was a little kid in the 1970s. My Oklahoma-raised grandmother listened to Johnny Cash since I can remember.

The first Cash record I can recall from before I could read, must have been Ring of Fire. Seems like I remember a 35 or 40 year old Johnny Cash standing cross-armed, like a tough guy against a purple background with concentric red rings like a bulls-eye, centering on Cash himself.

I’m reasonably sure that Ring of Fire had to have been a compilation record. It was my favorite at four years old. I loved hearing Cash’s guitar, sounding like a train leaving the station–Donk!-Chick’a, Donk!-Chick’a!

I Walk the Line, Ring of Fire, Rock Island Line, so many good songs on one record.


Introduction to Cash’s music

At home, my cash2folks were all over the music spectrum. My brother and I would hear everything from the Beatles and Stones to Miles Davis and John Coltrane to Bob Dylan and Paul Simon to Joni Mitchell and Judy Collins. One of the many things I liked about going to Grandma’s for the weekend, was getting to hear Johnny Cash.

In some ways it was a little weird, as I look back. I wonder how many of Cash’s lyrics Grandma actually listened to. There was a whole lot of drinking and cussing, fighting and killing, adulterous activity and general naughtiness that Grandma would not have approved of in real life.

Grandma read trashy Harlequin romance novels, too. After I learned what those were all about, I was shocked when I realized that Grandma had dozens of trashy romance novels, which as far as I know, she read her entire life. So, my grandmother was tough. She was an Oklahoma, Dust Bowl, depression-era, farm-girl. She could handle Johnny Cash.

One of the cool things is Grandma introduced me to Johnny Cash’s music. I don’t think I would have been exposed to Cash if it were not for her. Toward the end of her life, when she could still play in the kitchen, I was visiting and we were making


pumpkin bread or something. I brought my copy of the first record Johnny Cash recorded with producer, Rick Rubin, American Recordings, which we both enjoyed.

Cash in Oakdale, CA 1996

In 1996, my buddy, George and I saw Johnny Cash at the rodeo grounds in Oakdale, CA. Oakdale boasts of being the Cowboy Capital of California. Oakdale, Smokedale, ain’t no Jokedale. Seemed like the perfect place to see Johnny Cash in concert.

We couldn’t find tickets at TicketMaster. We had to go to the local feed and farm supply store to get our Johnny Cash tickets for $14.

There was a time when Johnny Cash could fill arenas in California. Now her was playing the country fair-like atmosphere of the Oakdale Rodeo Grounds. Nice. I don’t know how Johnny Cash felt about it, but it seemed to me like he was coming home.

The show was great! In many ways, it was like the culmination of a dream. I saw McCartney in 1990, and Johnny Cash

million dollar quartet in 1996. Cross those off the list.

Johnny Cash. Damn! There was some authenticity in American music for you. When I was in high school I would record Grandma’s Cash albums from the 1970s onto a 90 minute TDK cassette. I didn’t tell anybody that I liked Johnny Cash. But sandwiched between the New Wave, Classic Rock and everything else I was listening to, Johnny Cash was always in there somewhere.

My grandmother and I didn’t share a lot of the same tastes in music.  We could always find common ground in Johnny Cash.