Sam Phillips: ‘The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll’

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.

See Sam Phillips' equipment, awards and more at the new Sam Phillips exhibit at Graceland.

See Sam Phillips’ equipment, awards and more at the new Sam Phillips exhibit at Graceland.

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.

Elvis and the "Blue Moon Boys," Bill Black and Scotty Moore, made history with Sam Phillips at Sun Studio.

Elvis and the “Blue Moon Boys,” Bill Black and Scotty Moore, made history with Sam Phillips at Sun Studio.

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.

The songs that Elvis and Sam created together changed history forever.

The songs that Elvis and Sam created together changed history forever.

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, Elvis and Marion pose for a photo outside Sun Studio in the 1950s.

Sam, Elvis and Marion pose for a photo outside Sun Studio in the 1950s.

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!


16 Comments

  1. Kaye Marsh

    All across the World there are people who have a lot to thank Sam Phillips for. Imagine being the man who helped get Elvis Presley started in Rock and Roll?

  2. Kathy Louviere

    This was a welcomed piece about Sam Phillips. Not portraying the lying cheating Sam in “Sun Records” series on television.

  3. Ev Dorn

    I’ve been watching “Sun Records” and have wondered how much truth there is in the way Sam is portrayed. Also, Vernon always seems crabby around Elvis and that’s not how I thought it was…

    • Dixie Watford

      I was wondering the same thing!

    • Anitta

      I also have wondered the same thing. I recently checked out a Sam Phillips biography to see how much of the show is ‘real’ and how much is added for TV’s sake. It’s a good read so far.

  4. Barbara B

    TG for Sam and Marion !!!!!

  5. Paul LeFort

    On Million Dollar quartet night whose kids do I hear on the recording – Cash’s?
    Also is the woman voice in background the showgirl or Cash’s wife?

  6. gail fabbri

    The new tv serial show, “Sun Records” is doing a great job replicating Sam Phillips!! Also the person acting as Sam looks so much like him and doing a wonderful job. I recommend this show to any Elvis fan. Waiting anxiously for next seasons episodes.

  7. Marge McGill

    My husband and I will be in Memphis next Monday May 1st…staying at the new Graceland Hotel for 8days. We plan on seeing all the sights while we are there…ps I am an Elvis Insider

  8. EttaMae. Svider

    Very interesting. Never heard much about him until this article. Thank you for sharing this story. Love all of Elvis’s songs

  9. Tony Ziino

    Sam was a true visionary who had a dream and lived it joined by stars who also wher visionary and had dreams to live such as ELVIS, Johnny Cash,Carl Perkins, Roy bOrbison and JerryLee Lewis Etc Etc.

    Thank you to all those Talented Stars for living their Dreams forever in our dreams.

    Tony Ziino Melbourne Australia

  10. stephen stathis

    Music does change lives: individual ones and in Sam’s case a nation’s: Just as Elvis brought the black culture into white homes in 1956, Sam brought it to the South in the early Fifties. Individuals often can have a much greater impact on society than politicians or leaders of a movement. Rock is about the working class, about the ones who are left out because of bigotry. Sam helped change that segregated world.

  11. John Stone Sr

    I had the privilege of meeting Mr Sam Phillips about a year before he passed. My wife and I were eating at Buntyn Restaurant in Memphis in Park Ave. He and his wife were there. But I didn’t want to bother them while they were eating. When Sam walked out of Buntyn I asked him for his autograph. I have it on a cigarette package. That’s the only thing I had to write on. He was nice. And he asked me my wife’s name ? Thought that a little strange.

  12. Mary Alice Pena-Lopez

    I met Sam Phillips in Memphis in 1987, during Elvis week, I feel very blessed that I did, a German girl named Tanya, got to meet him along with me also. He bought us dinner at Dad’s which was on Brooks Rd. back then, and talked to us for a long time. We heard some wonderful Elvis stories, I will always treasure. Mr. Phillips gave us a ride back to where we were staying in his baby blue Cadillac later.

  13. Carlos R. Ares

    Can’t wait to see Sam Phillips’ equipment at the new exhibit at Graceland. 2001 EPFC ARGENTINA will be there in Elvis Week!

  14. Chirleni soares

    Olá sou Brasileira e já estou me programando para visitar Graceland em abril de 2018 ,que é o meu maior sonho ,sou fã de Elvis desde os 13 anos hoje com 59 , vi a primeira foto de San e Mariom onde tudo se iniciou , que maravilha , um abraço .

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