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
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
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
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.