There are many important players in Elvis Presley’s life story, but one of the most important is Sam Phillips.
At Sun Studio in Memphis, Sam discovered and helped launch the careers of not just Elvis, but Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Howlin’ Wolf and more. He is, according to Elvis biographer Peter Guralnick, “the man who invented rock ‘n’ roll.” And with Record Store Day coming up this weekend, on Saturday, April 22, we feel it's fitting to honor a man who brought so much great music to record stores across the world.
Here at Graceland, we recently opened a new exhibit in coordination with Sam’s family, called Mystery Train: Celebrating Sam Phillips. The exhibit tells the story of Sam’s life and career, and includes artifacts from Sam’s early life and his work at Sun Studio. But more on that later – for now, let’s meet Sam Phillips.
Sam Phillips was born in Florence, Alabama, on January 5, 1923. He was the youngest of eight, and he and his siblings would work on their parents’ farm, singing songs to pass the time. In 1939, he and his family traveled to Memphis, and it was then that he experienced Beale Street for the first time. He was thrilled, and it wouldn’t be long before he would return to the Bluff City to make a mark of his own.
Sam worked as a DJ and radio engineer at WLAY in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, during the ‘40s. The station had an “open format,” meaning it broadcasted music from both black and white musicians.
Sam eventually traveled back to Memphis, and in 1950, he opened Memphis Recording Service at 706 Union Avenue. The business recorded amateur performers (like a young B.B. King and Howlin’ Wolf), as well as special events like weddings. Sam launched his Sun Studio label at Memphis Recording Service in 1952.
It was at Memphis Recording Studio that Sam recorded what is often considered the first-ever rock ‘n’ roll song, Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats’ “Rocket 88.” That song was released on the Chess/Checker label, and Sam went on to record more artists like Bobby Blue Bland, Rufus Thomas, Little Milton and more at the studio. More rock ‘n’ roll music was made at Sun Studio than any other label at the time. During Sun’s 16-year run, 226 singles were produced there.
Many Elvis fans already know the story of how Elvis and Sam Phillips met. Elvis had recorded an acetate at Memphis Recording Service in 1953, and Marion Keisker, who worked at the studio, liked what she heard. She encouraged Sam to record him, and eventually, Sam agreed – and history was made. About a year after Elvis recorded the acetate, he and Bill Black and Scotty Moore recorded “That’s All Right” at the studio, and, well – you know the rest.
In 1955, Sam launched WHER, an “All-Girl Radio” format, and almost all of the positions at the station were held by women. It was the first all-girl station in America.
Sam recorded with artists such as Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, B.B. King, Jerry Lee Lewis and more (and don’t forget that legendary “Million Dollar Quartet” jam session) during Sun’s tenure. But by the mid-1960s, he wasn’t recording as much, but he was opening radio stations. He sold Sun Records to Shelby Singleton in 1969.
Sam is credited with teaching Elvis how to produce records, which became helpful to the young King of Rock ‘n’ Roll when he moved to RCA. Sam taught him to value real emotion in music over technical perfection.
Sam has been inducted into the Rock and Roll, Blues, Rockabilly and Country Halls of Fame, as well as the Alabama Music Hall of Fame. He was awarded the Grammy Trustees Award for lifetime achievement. He was inducted into the inaugural class of the Memphis Music Hall of Fame in 2012.
Sam Phillips died in Memphis on July 30, 2003, a day before the original Sun Studio was designated a National Historic Landmark. He is buried at Memorial Park Cemetery in Memphis. His legendary Sun Studio is open for tours.
Get to know the man himself at Elvis Presley’s Memphis at Graceland. Our new exhibit, Mystery Train: Celebrating Sam Phillips, includes artifacts from Sam’s early life and his Sun Studio days, including the equipment he used to record Elvis and many others. You can also see his stunning Sun Studio Cadillac, which he used to drive his artists around Memphis.
Make your plans to see Graceland today!