Playlist: Sam Phillips Cast a Giant Shadow

Sam Phillips is one of the most important figures in American cultural history. He is a key to the development of rock and roll and was instrumental in the careers of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and many other important artists.

Phillips, who lived from 1923 to 2003, founded both Sun Studio and Sun Records in Memphis. He was in the first class of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and was the first non-performer inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.

Phillips was born in Alabama and, as a child, picked cotton alongside African-American tenant farmers. He learned their music and was inspired by them to enter the record industry. He became a record announcer – at a station that featured both black and white musicians. He became an engineer and, eventually opened a studio and started a record label.

Sun_Studio_MemphisIt is beyond the scope of this brief backgrounder to go deeply into the story of Sam Phillips. A nice readable bio is here. But the names that come up – everyone from Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats (who he recorded performing Ike Turner’s Delta 88, which is considered by many to be the first rock and roll record) to Howlin’ Wolf, BB King, James Cotton and scores of lesser knowns make it clear that Phillips is one of the original sources.

Wikipedia offers insight into Phillips’ approach:

Phillips had an open style and insightful guidance that seemed to allow musicians, especially Presley, to search and feel their way to a point to where they would perform beyond Phillips’s and their own expectations.He also seemed to have a sense for when the artist was about to reach the point of their best performance. Phillips recorded looking for a feel, not technical perfection. Phillips told Elvis that the worst thing he could go for was perfection. Phillips was always seeking what he called the perfect/imperfect cut. This meant that it was not technically perfect, but perfectly conveyed the feeling and emotion of the song to the listener and gave the song a living personality, partially due to it being technically imperfect.

The profile also describes a Phillips trick: He got an echo for Presley by using a tape delay and a second recording head. RCA couldn’t figure it out. Recording engineers had him sing in a big empty hallway to create the echo. It didn’t work. The bios note that Elvis paid close attention to what Phillips did and used it later. That suggests that he played dumb when RCA was trying to figure out how to get the echo.

(Photo: David Jones)

Six From Sam Phillips:

  1. Rocket 88 Jackie Brenston & His Delta Cats 2:54
  2. Mystery Train Elvis Presley 2:28
  3. Rockin' Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu Jerry Lee Lewis 2:01
  4. Love My Baby Little Junior Parker 2:37
  5. I Drove All Night Roy Orbison 3:46
  6. Big Boned Woman Little Milton 3:30

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