Of all the accolades the late Sam Phillips received during his long and illustrious career, his youngest son said the one he would likely appreciate the most is his upcoming induction into the National Radio Hall of Fame.
Sam Phillips is known worldwide as the “Father of Rock 'n' Roll” for discovering and recording legendary artists including Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, B.B. King, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and Howlin' Wolf.
But his start in the music business began in his hometown of Florence as a disc jockey for WLAY.
Sam Phillips died July 30, 2003, at the age of 80.
“Most people don't really know about his radio career because it was overshadowed by his success in the music business,” Jerry Phillips said.
Based in Chicago, the National Radio Hall of Fame and Museum was created to recognize persons living or dead who have made significant contributions to radio, said Bruce Dumont, the hall of fame's chairman.
“I personally think this award would probably mean more to him than all the ones he's got,” Jerry Phillips said. “He's a member of almost every hall of fame having to do with music that one can be in.”
Sam Phillips is a member of the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Blues Hall of Fame, the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. Phillips also is a 2000 inductee of the Technical Excellence and Creativity Hall of Fame, which was created to recognize people whose careers exemplified the spirit of technical and creative excellence in recording and sound.
Sam Phillips will be inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame on Nov. 6 during a ceremony at the WTTW studios in Chicago.
Jerry Phillips said his father worked at radio stations in Decatur and Nashville before moving to Memphis where he worked as a disc jockey and engineer at WREC.
“As soon as he made enough money, he bought radio stations,” Jerry Phillips said. “As soon as he was able to, he came back to his hometown and started Big River Broadcasting.”
Sam Phillips purchased WQLT in February 1973 and WXFL in 1995. Big River includes WXFL and WLVS in Clifton, Tenn.
The company is still operated by the Phillips family, with Jerry Phillips serving as president.
Jerry Phillips said his father continued to own and operate radio stations throughout his career as a record producer. Sam Phillips is widely known as the founder of Memphis Recording Service and Sun Studios in Memphis and the Sun Records label.
“I don't think anything would have thrilled him more or made him happier than being in the Radio Hall of Fame,” said music historian Terry Pace, who was personally acquainted with Sam Phillips. “Radio was his first and greatest love. He was a firm believer in the power of sound to transform people, to unify people, and that extended to his love of music.”
Pace said part of Sam Phillips' interest in sound was that he had an aunt who was deaf.
“The way she was cut off from the world of sound made him acutely aware of the power of sound,” Pace said.
Jerry Phillips said his father's expertise as a recording engineer was likely augmented by his experience in radio and running live broadcasts. Sam Phillips used to mix big band performances at the Peabody Hotel in downtown Memphis that were broadcast on WREC.
“The big band guys coming through Memphis said Sam made them sound so good,” Jerry Phillips said. “The bottom line was he had a unique way of mixing. He did that his entire life through all his records.”
Phillips was always willing to try something different. He started WHER in Memphis, the first all-female radio station.
Jerry Phillips said everyone who worked at the station was female except the engineer.
“He was first and foremost a radio station owner who got into music and promotion, and ultimately discovered and gave opportunities to some of the most significant recording artists of all time,” Dumont said.
Jack “Cowboy” Clement, Memphis singer/songwriter/music and film producer, will present the award to Jerry Phillips and his older brother, Knox Phillips, during the ceremony.
Clement was an engineer and producer at Sun Studios who worked with Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis.
“I just wish he was here to enjoy it,” Pace said. “Wherever he is, he's got a big ol' grin on his face, I'll tell you that.”