Tag Archives: Sun Records

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.


B. B. King

15 May , 2012,
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B. B. King

B. B. King. One of the cooler things about B. B. King is that he generally onlyBB King1 plays five notes, and is considered by many to be one of the greatest living blues guitarists, indeed, one of the greatest guitarists ever. Rolling Stone magazine ranked B. B. King at Number 6 on its list of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time.

According to Edward M. Komara, King “introduced a sophisticated style of soloing based on fluid string bending and shimmering vibrato that would influence virtually every electric blues guitarist that followed.” Those are some fancy words, and what they mean is “listen to what he does with only five notes”.

B. B. King was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.

B. B. King the early years

According to one legend, at age 12, B. B. King bought his first guitar for $15. Another reference says that he was given his first guitar by his cousin, Bukka White.BB King4 In 1943, King left home to work as a tractor driver and play guitar with the Famous St. John’s Quartet of Inverness, Mississippi, performing at area churches and on WGRM in Greenwood, Mississippi.

In 1946, B. B. King went to Memphis, but shortly returned home. After saving some money, King went to West Memphis, Arkansas, two years later in 1948. He performed on Sonny Boy Williamson’s radio program on KWEM where he began to develop a local audience. King’s appearances led to steady engagements at the Sixteenth Avenue Grill in West Memphis and later to a ten-minute spot on the legendary Memphis radio station WDIA. Initially he worked at the local R&B radio station WDIA as a singer and disc jockey, where he gained the nickname Beale Street Blues Boy, later shortened to Blues Boy and finally to B.B. It was there that he first met T-Bone Walker.

In 1949, King began recording songs under contract with Los Angeles-based RPM Records. Many of King’s early recordings were produced by Sam Phillips, who later founded Sun Records. Before his RPM contract, King had debuted on Bullet Records by issuing the single “Miss Martha King” in 1949. But, those first few recordings did not chart well.

B. B. King Performing with his famous guitar, Lucille

In the winter of 1949, King played at a dance hall in Twist, Arkansas. InBB King3 order to heat the hall, a barrel half-filled with kerosene was lit, a fairly common practice at the time. During a performance, two men began to fight, knocking over the burning barrel and sending burning fuel across the floor. The hall burst into flames, which triggered an evacuation. Once outside, King realized that he had left his guitar inside the burning building. He entered the blaze to retrieve his beloved guitar, a Gibson semi-hollow electric. Two people died in the fire. The next day, King learned that the two men were fighting over a woman named Lucille. King named that first guitar Lucille, as well as every one he owned since that near-fatal experience, as a reminder never again to do something as stupid as run into a burning building or fight over women.

King meanwhile toured the entire “Chitlin’ circuit” and 1956 became a record-breaking year, with 342 concerts booked. The same year he founded his own record label, Blues Boys Kingdom, with headquarters at Beale Street in Memphis. There, among other projects, he produced artists such as Millard Lee and Levi Seabury.

In the 1950s, B.B. King became one of the most important names in R&B music, amassing an impressive list of hits including “3 O’Clock Blues”, “You Know I Love You,” “Woke Up This Morning,” “Please Love Me,” “When My Heart Beats like a Hammer,” “Whole Lotta Love,” “You Upset Me Baby,” “Every Day I Have the Blues”, “Sneakin’ Around,” “Ten Long Years,” “Bad Luck,” “Sweet Little Angel”, “On My Word of Honor,” and “Please Accept My Love.” In 1962, King signed to ABC-Paramount Records, which was later absorbed into MCA Records, and then his current label, Geffen Records. In November 1964, King recorded the Live at the Regal album at the Regal Theater in Chicago, Illinois.

King won a Grammy Award for “the Thrill is Gone”; his version became a hit on both the pop and R&B charts, which was rare during that time for an R&B artist. It also gained the number 183 spot in Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. He gained further visibility among rock audiences as an opening act on The Rolling Stones’ 1969 American Tour. King’s mainstream success continued throughout the 1970s with songs like “To Know You is to Love You” and “I Like to Live the Love”.

Clapton and BB KingKing was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1980. In 2004 he was awarded the international Polar Music Prize, given to artists “in recognition of exceptional achievements in the creation and advancement of music.”

From the 1980s onward he has continued to maintain a highly visible and active career, appearing on numerous television shows and performing 300 nights a year. In 1988, King reached a new generation of fans with the single”When Love Comes to Town”, a collaborative effort between King and the Irish band U2 on their Rattle and Hum album. In 2000, King teamed up with guitarist Eric Clapton to record Riding With the King. In 1998, King appeared in The Blues Brothers 2000, playing the part of the lead singer of the Louisiana Gator Boys, along with Clapton, Dr. John, Koko Taylor and Bo Diddley.

After 63 years on the road, B. B. King is still performing…

BB King2



19 Jan , 2012,
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I was just turning nine years old in July of 1977. but, I remember well August 16, 1977 when Elvis Presley died. Of course, I knew his name, and even at that young age, I knew songs like Hound Dog and Heartbreak Hotel. Being nine, I didn’t quite get it yet.


I remember Dad getting home from work that day in shock and disbelief. Dad kept saying that he couldn’t believe he was gone. I didn’t know what was going on. I had been outside playing Star Wars all day. I don’t think I had even turned on the TV yet. Okay, so Elvis was dead, but it didn’t really mean anything to me then. I was already a fan of the TV show Happy Days. I thought Fonzie was still the coolest thing around. Young Elvis reminded me of Fonzie, and I was cool with that.

It was years later, after I got into high school, that I developed a true appreciation for Elvis. I was starting to discover rockabilly in the early ’80s. It was the Stray Cats who reminded me that I had heard these sounds before. In my mind, even though Elvis had become the punch-line to a bad joke among my circle of friends, there was still something that I liked about him. I chose to ignore the cheesy, Las Vegas Elvis, preferring to listen to the younger, ‘dangerous’ version of Elvis.

Elvis–Sun Records

Elvis5Anyone who cares to know, has already heard that in the early 1950s, a young Elvis Presley went into Sam Phillips’ Sun recording studio, to make a record for his mother,and how Phillips later nearly shat himself when he realized that he had found exactly what he was looking for with a young white boy who had the look and sound that would turn the music industry upside-down. Phillips had been looking for a white kid who could match the intensity of what the young black artists were doing at the time. The term Rock and Roll hadn’t even been coined yet, and Phillips was hoping that he could find a way to break into the white audience market with an artist that wouldn’t frighten the money–or the audience–away.

Elvis–the Million Dollar Quartet

Between 1953 and 1955, Elvis Presley’s Sun recordings were cut at Sun Studio in Memphis, Tennessee. Memphis is a melting pot of many types of music: both black music–blues, rhythm & blues and gospel–and white music–country & western and hillbilly. The records that Elvis made reflect these influences.

Million Dollar Quartet

Elvis recorded more than 20 songs at Sun, 18 of them have survived and two tapes are lost. Ten were released by Sun as Elvis’ first five singles between 1954 and 1955,  A year or so after he left Sun Records–although Elvis would never officially record with Sun again–Elvis was caught on tape during an impromptu jamming session on December 4, 1956. Presley had arrived during a Carl Perkins recording session, which also featured a young Jerry Lee Lewis on piano, with Johnny Cash watching on. During a break in recording Elvis sat at the piano and began to sing along with Perkins, Lewis and Cash. Phillips kept his tape recorder running and, seeing an opportunity to promote another of his new acts, he arranged for a reporter to cover the event. The recordings would eventually be known as “The Million Dollar Quartet”.

Las Vegas would come later…


Warren Smith1

Warren Smith

10 Dec , 2011,
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Warren SmithWArren Smith 4

Warren Smith isn’t a name people just know off of the top of their heads. Most everyone it seems, knows Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis. Even if they aren’t great fans of the music, people generally know these guys’ names. Warren Smith is a name that gets by most of us.

Warren Smith–Auditions for Sun Records

Smith was born in Mississippi and started playing guitar to ward off boredom while stationed in Texas, in the United States Air Force. When he was discharged from the service, Smith moved to West Memphis, Arkansas to pursue a career in music. After a successful audition at the Cotton Club–not THE Cotton Club in Harlem–this Cotton Club was a local, Arkansas night spot–Steel guitarist Stan Kessler, who was playing at the nightclub with the Snearly Ranch Boys, took Smith to Sun Records to audition for Sam Phillips, with the Snearly Ranch Boys as his band.

Warren Smith 3

Phillips liked Smith’s sound. “Rock & Roll Ruby”–a song credited to Johnny Cash–would be Smith’s first Sun recording. Smith later claimed that George Jones actually wrote “Rock & Roll Ruby” and sold to Cash for $40, but that is a story for a different time.

Warren Smith–Rock & Roll Ruby Out-Debuts Some of the Greats

Smith recorded “Rock & Roll Ruby” on February 5, 1956. “Rock & Roll Ruby” hit No. 1on the local pop charts. Smith’s first Sun Records recording went on to outsell the first Sun releases by Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins.

Warren Smith–Ubangi Stomp

In August 1956, Smith went back to the Sun Records studio to record his second release, “Ubangi Stomp”. This catchy, rollicking song had a politically-incorrect lyric including an African chief with the the grammar syntax of a bad movie Indian. “Ubangi Stomp” would almost certainly not be well-received today, and in fact, could be condemned racist by the more sensitive listener, but in the ’50s, people weren’t paying attention to that sort of thing. Besides, it is still a fun song.

Warren Smith Sun1

For the B side, Smith recorded the classic 18th century British ballad, “Black JackDavid”. This English folk song had survived for generations in various forms in the mountain communities of the American south, and may be the oldest song ever recorded by a rock and roll performer. Although it was a great artistic success, “Black Jack David” did not sell anywhere near as well as “Rock & Roll Ruby”.

In 1957, Smith recorded “So Long, I’m Gone”, a song written by Roy Orbison. It did become Smith’s biggest hit at Sun, peaking at No. 74 nationally on the Billboard charts, but Sun had no cash to promote it at the time. Sam Phillips was putting every dollar Sun had behind Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On”.

Warren Smith1

Although Smith continued to make rockabilly records for Sun, including a cover version of Slim Harpo’s “Got Love if You Want It”, which was recorded in October 1957, none of these records did well commercially. Toward the end of 1958, Smith, seeing his future in country music, cut a cover version of Don Gibson’s “Sweet Sweet Girl”. It was Smith’s final record for Sun. In spite of a review in Billboard calling it “ultra commercial”, this record also failed to sell. Like other artists such as Sonny Burgess, Hayden Thompson, Billy Lee Riley and Ray Harris, chart success largely eluded him. Smith then decided to leave Sun Records.

In 1959, Smith and his wife and son moved from Mississippi to California, settling in Sherman Oaks, not far from Johnny and Vivian Cash. Cash offered Smith a spot on his show, but Smith turned it down, seeing himself as a headliner, not a supporting player. In early 1960, Smith signed with Liberty Records, and immediately scored a hit with “I Don’t Believe I’ll Fall in Love Today”, which went to Number 5 on Billboard’s Country & Western chart. This record, and Smith’s subsequent records, were produced by Joe Allison, and featured one of California’s best country session musicians, Ralph Mooney, on pedal steel guitar. Smith scored again with his next record for Liberty, “Odds and Ends, Bits and Pieces”, written by Harlan Howard. Liberty had Smith record several more tracks, mostly cover versions of recent country hits, to flesh out an album called The First Country Collection of Warren Smith.

Smith continued to record with some success for Liberty, and to tour with his band,Warren Smith 5 from 1960–1965. On August 17, 1965, Smith was involved in a serious car accident in LaGrange, Texas, and suffered serious back injuries from which it took him nearly a year to recover. By this time, his contract with Liberty had lapsed. Smith made several attempts to restart his career, first with a small, virtually amateur label called Skill Records, then for Mercury Records; but addictions to pills and alcohol held him back. Eventually, Smith’s drug problems led to an 18-month term in an Alabama prison for robbing a pharmacy.

After his release from prison, Smith continued to struggle to restart his career. In the late 1970s, he got a bit of a boost from the rockabilly revival then occurring. In 1977, he was invited to appear at London’s Rainbow Theatre, on a bill featuring Charlie Feathers, Buddy Knox and Jack Scott. To his shock, Smith was received in London with standing ovations. His reception in England boosted his spirits and, upon his return to the U.S., he began to perform with new-found vigor. In November 1978, Smith and fellow Sun alumnus Ray Smith toured Europe, again to great success.

In 1980, while preparing for another European tour, Smith died of a heart attack at 47 years of age.

Smith’s contribution to rockabilly music has been recognized by the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. Bob Dylan has repeatedly featured Smith on his XM Satellite Radio show, Theme Time Radio Hour, playing Smith’s records “Red Cadillac & A Black Moustache”, “Uranium Rock”, “Ubangi Stomp” and “So Long, I’m Gone”. Dylan recorded a studio version of “Red Cadillac & A Black Moustache” in 2001 and also played that song and “Uranium Rock” in concert in 1986.

Warren Smith still isn’t a name a lot of people are familiar with. To the rockabilly enthusiast, however, Warren Smith isn’t someone to let slip from your attention too long. Virtually unknown or not, Warren Smith has earned his place at the table.


X–I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts

4 Jun , 2011,
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X–I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts.

I awoke this morning at my mountain top, the smell of coffee and bachelor chow ala campfire caught my attention. My sister’s

EXENE and JOHN DOEbirthday would be coming soon. It’s almost June. June is No Negativity Month. I like it.

After my first coffee and choker, I was thinking of the band X. more specifically, I was thinking of the bass part from I Must not Think Bad Thoughts, from X’s 1983 Electra/Asylum release, More Fun in the New World.

When we were in high school, our youth minister, JD had the greatest vinyl collection–indeed, one of the greatest music collections–I had ever seen.  JD was a divorced guy in his mid 30s.  JD was the guy who could make a twenty minute drive in ten minutes when he had to.    He was pastor of the Methodist Church.  His favorite band is probably still the Rolling Stones.  JD introduced us high school kids, living in the hills, to lots of punk rock and new wave…and the band X.




X–Will the last American band to get played on the radio, please bring the flag?

x los angeles coverIt’s funny that although I liked the way the Americans played rock and roll–we invented it, for cryin’ out loud!–I was still neck-deep in both British Invasions–Beatles, Stones, Sex Pistols, the Clash,  I already knew who Sioiuxsie and the Banshees were, and my friends and I were starting to get into more American rockabilly.  Some–okay, a lot of–the early Sun Records material still sounded kinda hokey to us at first.  This would take some getting used to, but we would manage.

I already knew a little about Johnny Cash and Marty Robbins from my grandmother.  Dad taught me about Elvis and Bill Haley and the Comets when I was younger–wasn’t rock Around the Clock  used as the opening for the first season of Happy Days?

Anyway, I wasn’t just being plunged into ice cold 1950s rockabilly without any preparation. I was already a Stray Cats fan.  I knew a little about rockabilly, I just preferred to work my way back to the original artists slowly.

One day after school, my friends and I went to see what JD was up to.  When we got to his place,  JD was watching a beta–anyone old enough to remember Betamax?–copy of an X concert  that we watched.  I was about 16 at the time.

X–Talk about presence…john doe

I was drawn to X.  I remember not being able to take my eyes off of Exene Cervenka.  Billy Zoom, standing like a damned statue,playing all the right guitar notes.  And to me, X has always been about John Doe and his amazing, perfectly-timed and phrased bass parts and vocals.

X wasn’t even really rockabilly, exactly.  I heard the term “Cowpunk” a few times to describe X’s sound.  I like it.  I think it fits.

Discovering what other American bands were doing in the early 1980s

I had pretty much been a Clash guy for a few months at that point–with other music drifting in and out–but when I heard I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts, and the long list of perhaps unjustly over-looked American bands, I knew I was on a mission.  I had to find out about some of this music.  I had heard of many of the American artists they mentioned in the song, but I had really yet to discover “…the Minutemen, Flesh Eaters, D.O.A., Big Boys and Black Flag…”

I was looking forward to the journey.  I still enjoy the journey.

Yeah, don’t get me started on the band, Journey.  June is coming soon.  June is “I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts” month.  I’llbilly zoom rant against the band Journey again soon enough, I suspect.

In the Beatles’ song, Let it Be, Paul McCartney tells us that in his times of trouble, he is comforted by Mother Mary and her words of wisdom.  That’s cool.  I’m glad.  I often like to listen to X and remind myself that I must not think bad thoughts.  In many ways, it’s the same thing.

From the top of my mountain, morning chores and devotions over, I listen to the band X, and I don’t have to remind myself not to think bad thoughts.    X.