Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



Label formed in 1952 in Memphis TN by former disc jockey Sam Phillips (b 5 January 1923, Florence AL; d 30 July 2003, Memphis), who bought a studio at 706 Union Avenue in 1950 for a Memphis Recording Service, for weddings etc, noticed that he had the only convenient studio for many local black artists and began producing hits for Chess, RPM, Duke and others with B.B. King, Bobby 'Blue' Bland, Howlin' Wolf, Earl Hooker, Walter Horton, Rosco Gordon (d 11 July 2002 aged 74; local musician who helped launch King, Bland, Johnny Ace; had R&B hits '52, came back '60 with 'Just A Little Bit'). 'Rocket 88' by Jackie Brenston (with the Ike Turner band) was an R&B no. 1 '51 and Phillips formed his own label. The first hit on Sun was the raw, rowdy 'Bear Cat' by Rufus Thomas '53; others included sides by Junior Parker, Billy 'The Kid' Emerson (b 21 December 1929, Tarpon Springs FL) whose 'Crazy 'Bout An Automobile' was covered by Ry Cooder, and the Prisonaires (guests at the Tennessee State Pen).

Phillips's greatest success was Elvis Presley, a white kid who sang like a black: his first record was made in July '54; Phillips sold his masters and contract to RCA late '55 and always maintained he'd done the right thing: trying to hold on to Presley would have meant dealing with his manager, the odious Col. Tom Parker, and Phillips used the money to develop his other white kids. Carl Perkins's rockabilly classic 'Blue Suede Shoes' was Sun's first national pop hit (no. 2 '56 in Billboard's country, R&B, pop charts; no. 1 in Cashbox); Johnny Cash's 'I Walk The Line' '55 pared down the Sun sound to a country edge (no. 2 country, top 20 pop '55); Roy Orbison cut 'Ooby Dooby' at Sun, went on to greater success elsewhere; Jerry Lee Lewis merged rockabilly with his inimitable piano pounding on 'Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On', first of three top ten hits '57-8. There were other legendary rockabillies, less successful at the time: Mack Self, Malcolm Yelvington, Warren Smith, Billy Lee Riley, Sonny Burgess (there are Smith and Riley collections on Bear Family now; Burgess turned up with an eponymous album on Rounder '96, with Scotty Moore on guitar).

Some of the original Sun singles are valuable collectors' items, though almost everything has been reissued. Charlie Rich and Bill Justis were among studio talents at Sun who also had solo careers. The '50s was Sun's golden decade: with the phenomenon of rockabilly itself and Sun's raw sound, untreated except for a tape delay echo, a new era had been introduced. Recording continued through the '60s, but Phillips (by now a millionaire) followed other interests in hotels, mining, radio; he sold Sun '69 to Shelby Singleton. Sun reissues were marketed by Singleton's SSS in USA, on Charly in UK (including superb boxed sets and anthologies); later on Smash, Rhino, Ace etc. The old studio had been sold to Monument Records, and was leased early '87 by local musician Gary Hardy for recording and public tours: no changes except for a 14-track console in the control room.

Peter Guralnick's Sam Phillips: The man who invented rock'n'roll (2016) is one of the best books of its kind, not just a very good biography but a picture of the times and the story of what we all heard on the radio.