Tag Archives: Memphis

Million Dollar Quartet

Sun Records

7 Aug , 2012,
Miles
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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.

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Rufus Thomas Blvd and Beale street

Rufus Thomas

19 Jul , 2012,
Miles
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Rufus Thomas Jr.

Rufus Thomas Blvd and Beale streetRufus Thomas Jr.

Rufus Thomas was a friendly, likable guy. In fact, very few of rock & roll’s founding figures were as well-liked as Rufus Thomas. Pretty much everyone who met him had nothing but good things to say about him. From the 1940s onward, Thomas has personified Memphis music. As a recording artist, he wasn’t a major innovator, but he could always be depended upon for some good, silly, and/or outrageous fun with his soul dance tunes. He was one of the few rock or soul stars to reach his commercial and artistic peak in middle age, and was a crucial mentor to many important Memphis blues, rock, and soul musicians.

Rufus Thomas 2Thomas was already a professional entertainer in the mid-’30s, when he was a comedian with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels. He recorded music as early as 1941, but really made his mark on the Memphis music scene as a deejay on WDIA, one of the few black-owned stations of the era. He also ran talent shows on Memphis’ famous Beale Street that helped showcase the emerging skills of such influential figures as Riley “B.B.” King,  Bobby “Blue” Bland, Junior Parker, Ike Turner and Roscoe Gordon.

 

Rufus Thomas–Bear Cat

Thomas had his first success as a recording artist in 1953 with the tune “Bear Cat,” which was a humorous answer record to Big Mama Thornton’s recording ofRufus_Thomas3 “Hound Dog”, which was later recorded by Elvis Presley. “Bear Cat” reached number three on the R&B charts, giving Sun Records its first national hit, though some didn’t have a sense of humor about the song. Sun owner, Sam Phillips was sued and subsequently lost the lawsuit for plagiarism, brought by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who wrote “Hound Dog”. Rufus Thomas would make only one other record for Sun, but he still recorded sporadically throughout the rest of the 1950s.

Rufus Thomas–Carla’s Dad

Thomas and his daughter,  Carla Thomas would become the first stars for the Stax label, for whom they recorded a duet in 1959, “‘Cause I Love You” when Stax records was still known as Satellite. In the ’60s,  Carla would become one of Stax’s biggest stars. On his own, Rufus wasn’t as successful as his daughter, but recorded and released a steady stream of vaguely popular dance and novelty singles.

Rufus Thomas–Nothing Deep and Meaningful, just Good Fun

Rufus Thomas 1There not deep or emotional statements in Thomas’ songs, nor did he try to pretend that there were. The music itself was silly yet fun. Some elements of Thomas’ music would later be incorporated into American funk. The accent was on the stripped-down groove, and Rufus’ good-time vocals proved that he didn’t take himself or anything too seriously. Rufus Thomas’ most successful song at the time was “Walking the Dog,” which made the Top Ten in 1963, and was covered by the Rolling Stones on their first album.

 

Rufus Thomas–1970s Funk Pioneer

Rufus Grave

Thomas hit his commercial peak in the early ’70s, when “Do the Funky Chicken,” “(Do The) Push and Pull,” and “the Breakdown” all made the R&B Top Five. As the song titles themselves make clear, funk was now driving his sound rather than the blues or soul of earlier years. Thomas drew upon his vaudeville background to put them over on-stage with fancy footwork that displayed remarkable agility for a man well into his 50s. The collapse of the Stax label in the mid-’70s meant the end of Thomas’ career, basically, as it did for many other artists with the company. In 2001, the same year as Rufus Thomas was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame, he died on December 15, at St. Francis hospital in Memphis, TN, at the age of 84. Rufus Thomas isn’t really a name that a lot of people immediately recognize, but when we hear some of his rhythms, we can all say “oh yeah, I’ve heard that.”

Rufus Thomas

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