A Look Back at Phillips' Hall of Famers
In His Own Words By Robert Hilburn.
L.A. Times Pop Music Critic
What spark did record producer Sam Phillips see in a young Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis?
Here are the Sun Records founder's reflections on those and other Rock and Roll Hall of Fame members whose careers were largely launched in his Memphis studio--a legacy that earned Phillips his own induction into the Hall of Fame in 1986.
Elvis Presley: "Elvis loved ballads, and his voice was so beautiful that it would have been easy to record a ballad with him. In fact, the first thing we tried was a ballad called 'Without Love' that we got from a prisoner at the Tennessee State Penitentiary. But I knew right away that I shouldn't go down that route. We had enough pop singers in the world--Eddie Fisher, Tony Bennett, Dean Martin and on and on. I would have made a horrible mistake if I let Elvis be pop too. I knew he was the one who could get the attention of young people if he just did an upbeat tempo thing, and that's what happened. When he started singing 'That's All Right,' I knew we had something fantastic."
Johnny Cash: "His voice was very distinctive, but it didn't lend itself to rock 'n' roll as such. So one of the better decisions I ever made was to let Johnny Cash be Johnny Cash, a country artist, not a rock 'n' roll artist. When I first heard him, he was singing only hymns. I asked if we couldn't lend that talent to something that might have a little sin in it [laughs]."
Howlin' Wolf: "The Wolf probably impressed me more than anybody I know of on first listening. When you looked at him in the studio, he was totally hypnotized by every word he was singing. I am just sorry I didn't get to keep him. Leonard [Chess] made him an offer the Wolf couldn't refuse, and he went to Chess Records. So I didn't get to do with him what I would have done. I think he would have been a pop icon."
Jerry Lee Lewis: "I was out of town when Jerry Lee came in, but [Sun producer] Jack Clement put down a record on him and the first thing I noticed was the way he played piano. Jerry Lee knew how to carry the rhythm and the lead and not get in the way of his vocal. Then I started listening to the way he emphasized his words. It was almost like somebody preaching a sermon to you. I figured if I couldn't come up with a hit with Jerry Lee, I might ought to find another business."
Carl Perkins: "He would have been a sensational country singer, and I almost went that route with him. But his guitar afforded so much opportunity to do some real rock 'n' roll type of things. That showed me I could get the feel out of Carl to appeal to young people the way Elvis had."
Roy Orbison: "He had a fantastic voice, and he played an excellent guitar, which you didn't hear much of later when he went to Monument Records [and his string of hits]."
B.B. King: "He was as good a guitar player as there ever was, but the funny thing about B.B. was that he couldn't play the guitar and sing at the same time. When he told me that, I thought he was just holding out on me. I thought he wanted more money if he sang as well as played the guitar. But it was true. . . . He just couldn't do them both at the same time. B.B. was wonderful".
He Invented a Sound Machine
By Robert Hilburn, L.A. Times Pop Music Critic
An A&E documentary profiles producer Sam Phillips, discoverer of Elvis Presley and other music legends.
Sam Phillips, the legendary record producer who discovered Elvis Presley, wouldn't make a good courtroom witness. He speaks with an exaggerated, theatrical flair that is equal parts evangelist and carny, and which makes it easy to dismiss him as a blowhard when he talks about his mission in spreading the spirit of rock 'n' roll, as he does in a new A&E documentary.
But it would be a mistake to underestimate Phillips' importance in the evolution of the young, rebellious sound that redefined popular music half a century ago.
Scores of people contributed to the birth of rock 'n' roll, but Phillips gets my vote as the MVP--and you may agree after seeing "Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock 'n' Roll," a thoughtful and engaging documentary that debuts at 8 p.m. Sunday on A&E.
The two-hour show explores Phillips' crusade to bring Southern music--including blues, gospel and country--to the world, and it's filled with interviews with and/or rare footage of many of the artists with whom he worked in the '50s at Sun Records in Memphis. Among them: Rock and Roll Hall of Fame members Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison.
Phillips was certainly in the right place at the right time, but he was in no way just lucky. As we see in the documentary, he had a cocky, rock 'n' roll attitude himself.
In scenes from a home movie from the late '50s, we see Phillips driving a Cadillac convertible and tipping his hat at the camera--not unlike scenes we've seen over the years of a young Presley in his own Cadillac convertible.
As a record man, Phillips aimed not to copy the hit sounds of the day, the way most pop executives (then and now) do. He followed his own vision, encouraging singers to be themselves in the studio. He wanted a raw, defiant and youthful sound, not a polished and polite one.
"I don't think there would have been an Elvis without a Sam," veteran Memphis musician Jim Dickinson declares early in the program. It's an audacious comment, but it might well be true. Phillips didn't give Presley his remarkable talent, but he was one of the few people who recognized it.
In fact, even Phillips had reservations at first about Presley, who was just 18 when he walked into Phillips' studio in 1953 to make a record as a birthday gift for his mother. Phillips was intrigued by the voice, but he thought it might be too "beautiful" for the rough, bluesy style he preferred. It was a year before he invited Presley back to experiment on some recordings.
Phillips was born in Florence, Ala., in 1923 and fell in love as a child with the black gospel and blues of the region. He thought it was the most exciting sound he ever heard, and he wondered why the rest of the world wasn't listening to it. When he later visited Memphis and discovered the wealth of blues talent on Beale Street, he began dreaming of bringing that music to the world himself.
While working as an announcer and engineer at a Memphis radio station in 1950, Phillips opened his own studio and began recording black musicians, including B.B. King, Howlin' Wolf, Bobby Bland and Ike Turner. He then sold the tapes to R&B record labels in Chicago and Los Angeles.
Soon after one of those recordings, Jackie Brenston's "Rocket 88," also featuring Ike Turner, became a No. 1 R&B single for Chess Records in 1951, Phillips started his own label, Sun Records. The label had a Top 10 R&B hit in 1953 with Rufus Thomas' "Bear Cat," a novelty response to the Big Mama Thornton version of "Hound Dog."
But in those segregated times, Phillips was aware that it would be hard to reach a wider pop audience because mainstream radio stations resisted hard-core R&B recordings. Phillips felt the best way to break through that barrier was to find a white artist who could sing effectively in a soulful blues style.
He brought Presley into Sun Records in 1954 to try out some things with two local country musicians. During a rehearsal break, Presley began fooling around with an old blues number, Arthur Crudup's "That's All Right."
There's no footage of that historic moment, but Phillips knew instantly that he had found his man--and his sound. The record added a touch of country and a youthful sense of self-affirmation to Crudup's song. Though the record was a smash in Memphis, Phillips had a hard time convincing disc jockeys around the country that they should play it.