Music producer and disc jockey (DJ) Samuel Cornelius Phillips (1923-2003) of Florence, Lauderdale County, is considered by many aficionados and historians of rock and roll music to be one of the founders of the genre, or at least present at its creation. On July 5, 1954, in Phillips's recording studio, a young Tennessee truck driver named Elvis Presley picked up a guitar between takes of a ballad he was recording, and played an up tempo version of Arthur Crudup's "That's Alright (Mama)." This recording greatly influenced music for succeeding generations and launched the career of one of the most successful and influential artists of the twentieth century.
The youngest of eight children, Sam Phillips was born in Florence on January 5, 1923, to Charles Tucker Phillips and Madge Ella Phillips. A middle-class farming family, the Phillips's fortunes were drastically altered when they lost their farm in the wake of the stock market crash in 1929. Music was the mainstay of Phillips's childhood. He grew up listening to the blues songs of African American workers in the fields and on Florence street corners, gospel music coming from the open windows of churches, and country music on the radio. While in high school, he was active in the band, playing sousaphone, trombone, and drums, and he eventually became the band's conductor.
After his father's death in 1941, he dropped out of Coffee High School shortly before graduation to help support his mother and his deaf aunt. In 1942, he married Rebecca Burns, from nearby Sheffield, Colbert County, and the couple had two sons, Knox and Jerry. Although he harbored dreams of becoming a lawyer and later took an extension course in audio engineering from Alabama Polytechnic Institute (present-day Auburn University), his passion for music overwhelmed his other ambitions.
Phillips's musical knowledge drew attention from a radio station owner in nearby Muscle Shoals, who enlisted his services as host of a religious music program. This early experience in broadcasting, assisted by his college training in audio engineering, led to a brief but successful career in radio. From 1942 to 1949, Phillips moved around, working as a radio engineer and host for such stations as WMSC in Decatur, Alabama; WLAY in Nashville, Tennessee, where he first gained renown as the host of "Afternoon Tea Dance;" and finally WREC in Memphis, Tennessee. During this period, Phillips learned a great deal about recording music, transferring vinyl recordings to acetate tapes and prerecording shows for various radio hosts.
While in Memphis, Phillips noticed that many local musicians had to travel either to Nashville, New Orleans, or Chicago to make records, while many others labored in obscurity, unable to record and distribute their music. Therefore, in 1950 he leased a storefront at 706 Union Avenue, installed some recording equipment in a small studio, and opened the Memphis Recording Service. In the early days of his recording career, Phillips earned most of his revenue by offering anyone who walked in off the street a chance to "cut" a record for a few dollars. He would also pack his recording gear into the trunk of his car and record private events, such as weddings, funerals, and other functions.
Phillips's real ambition, however, was to produce hit records. At first, he relied on established labels such as Chess Records based in Chicago. After several heated contract disputes with other labels and distributors, Phillips started his own record label, Phillips Records, and soon released his first record, "Boogie in the Park," by Joe Hill Louis. Although not commercially popular, it attracted the attention of artists such as B. B. King, Chester Arthur Burnett (Howlin' Wolf), and Ike Turner, all of whom later recorded their first records in Phillips's Memphis studio. In 1951, Phillips had his first hit, "Rocket 88," by Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats, which reached number one on the rythym and blues (R&B) charts.
Encouraged by his success, Phillips resigned from WREC and devoted all his energy to his studio. In 1952, he renamed his label Sun Records and that March released the first single on the label: Johnny London's "Drivin' Slow." Phillips and Rufus Thomas scored a big hit with "Bear Cat," but a jury later found that its melody bore too similar a resemblance to Big Mama Thornton's "Hound Dog," and they had to forfeit a large part of their royalties. Just over a year later, Elvis Presley showed up at Sun Records to record two songs, purportedly as a birthday gift to his mother, and was invited back in July 1954 to make a record. When Presley sang "That's Alright (Mama)," Phillips urged two of the session musicians, guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black, to play along. He believed the unique sound created by the artists was the one for which he had been looking and devoted considerable energy to bringing it to a wider audience. He pressed five singles by Elvis, 10 songs in all, and personally delivered them to prominent radio stations throughout the South. He signed Presley to a contract and booked him to play at traveling shows, many of which were broadcast live over radio stations all over the country.
Soon, major labels were urging Phillips to sell Elvis's contract; RCA paid Phillips $35,000 for it in 1954. Phillips would later lament that decision, remarking that it was the worst business decision of his life, but he needed the money. The sum he received, however, was substantial and enabled Phillips to expand Sun Records and offer recording deals to other young talent now flocking to his studio, including Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Roy Orbison. During this busy period of his career, Phillips separated from his wife, Rebecca, and began sharing his home with Sally Wilbourn, his personal assistant at Sun Records. Wilbourn would remain his companion until his death in 2003.
In addition to his ear for talent and his recording expertise, Phillips was a savvy businessman. In 1961, he moved to a larger, twin-studio venue on Madison Avenue in Memphis, increased the label's output, and revived the Phillips record label in order to release more diverse material, as Sun Records had by this time become known for rockabilly. He also bought a number of radio stations and substantial real estate properties and invested in the Memphis-based hotel chain, Holiday Inn. He eventually sold Sun Records in 1969, but stayed active in the radio business and attended numerous inductee ceremonies and rock and roll related events. He died of respiratory failure on August 1, 2003, and was buried at Memorial Park in Memphis.
According to his critics, Phillips often put business ahead of ethics and ignored African Americans in favor of more profitable white artists; a few Sun Records artists questioned, and occasionally challenged, his royalty payments. His defenders have argued that the mix of music he recorded helped improve race relations and advanced the cause of racial equality and have noted that Phillips was among the first radio station owners to employ women DJs in the 1950s.
Phillips is so far the only person to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1986), the Alabama Music Hall of Fame (1987), the Country Music Hall of Fame (2001), and the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. Today, the original site of Sun Records on Union Avenue in Memphis is recognized as a National
Historic Landmark, and the city of Florence hosts a Sam Phillips Music Celebration each January.
Crouch, Kevin. Sun King: The Life and Times of Sam Phillips, the Man Behind Sun Records. London: Piatkus Books, 2010.
Escott, Colin, and Martin Hawkins. Good Rocking Tonight: Sun Records and the Birth of Rock 'N' Roll. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992.
Nager, Larry. Memphis Beat: The Lives and Times of America's Musical Crossroads. New York: St Martin's Press, 1998.
Jonathan W. Bolton
Published December 3, 2010
Last updated August 15, 2013