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Sam Phillips

Sun Records founder Sam Phillips has a guaranteed place in rock history: Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Howlin' Wolf, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, B.B. King, and Charlie Rich were among the many early rock heroes he recorded, and in some cases discovered. Born poor in Depression-era Alabama, Phillips slowly worked his way into the Southern music business until he could produce his own tracks, which he began leasing to other labels in 1950. Those recordings included some of B.B. King's earliest important work and Jackie Brenston's "Rocket 88," which was widely regarded as the first true rock 'n' roll record. After a couple of false starts, Phillips launched Sun in 1952; two years later, he recorded Presley's first singles. After selling Presley's contract for $35,000 to make ends meet, Phillips turned out one classic rock 'n' roll single after another. As the '50s ended, so did Sun's remarkable run, but in some respects, popular music is still trying to catch up with the energy and invention of that first rock era. Phillips is the first to point out that he never got rich from music–his investments, including a fledgling motel chain called Holiday Inn, would do that later–and he's done little production work in recent years. Still, Phillips remains an unwavering, vocal enthusiast for the form he helped create. Sun released hundreds of singles, and the new two-disc Sun Records: The 50th Anniversary Collection provides a more diverse introduction than most compilations can muster. On the occasion of that anniversary, the 79-year-old Phillips spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about his beginnings, his musical philosophy, and his hopes for the future of rock 'n' roll.

The Onion: Did you come from a musical family?

Sam Phillips: Not necessarily. I was from poor white people in the Depression days. I was born in '23 and went through the major Depression from '29, with the crash, until the war started in '41. I lived on a farm. My daddy lost everything that he'd lived for and worked for. I was right in the middle of people that worked hard, black and white. And even though I lived in the South, we didn't see the color line like a lot of people. We weren't better than anybody. I was a very sickly child, and I was very observant of the cotton patches, and the people who worked around the house, and just about anything they had to do, like us, to make a living. I learned so much from those days, because it was one of those times when people... The only hope they had was to sing the blues and to sing religious songs, and to hope and pray that times would be better. I picked up on it, and it made a great impression on me. I followed music. I was in the band in high school and junior high, and played the sousaphone and a little trombone and drums, and was the leader of the 72-piece marching band that we had. So my music was always there, but more so, it was what humans were all about, and what they had to say. Most of us can't talk and tell it, but I found out during my lifetime that a lot of people can tell you an awful lot about themselves and their experiences, good and bad, if they can just have a guitar or pat their foot and sing it to you.

O: Your first job in the music business was as a disc jockey. Were you good?

SP: I was just a Southern boy that never thought anyone would listen, or even hire me. It was a part-time thing. I was still in high school when I started at a little 250-watt station, the only one in the Muscle Shoals area. I was born and raised in Florence, just across the river. I thought I was good. They put me on a program of religious songs, like with The Chuck Wagon Gang. And I loved that, because I enjoyed quartet music. White quartet music, and I enjoyed black quartets and trios and black choirs. They had a little church down from our church, Howard Baptist, a Methodist church on the corner just half a block away. When we would get out of church on Sunday—nobody had air conditioning in those days—their windows were open and their choir was just getting going good after we'd been through the choir bit and the sermon and everything. So many things influenced me to love music and know that it was a great potential form for communication, way beyond the idea of black or white or rich or poor. I was raised on the Grand Ole Opry, because I could get it just like the local station, although I was 119 miles away from their transmitter site in Nashville. Music was a form of expression, although I don't classify myself as a great musician. I classify myself as a person that knows how to get whatever you've got in you in the way of music and something to say... If I can't get it out of you, by God, I will take off my hat and bow down and kiss the feet of the one that can do it better.

O: You were lucky to be in the right place at the right time, near Memphis.

SP: You're absolutely right. When I came through here in 1939, going to hear a great Baptist preacher in Dallas, I came through Memphis and saw Beale Street for the first time. I had wanted to all my life, because W.C. Handy was born in the same town that I was born and raised in—Florence, Alabama—but, man, we never had enough money to do anything. We finally got enough money to go all the way to Dallas, and as we came through Memphis, Beale Street was the first thing I wanted to see. And the next thing was the Mississippi River. I was born on the most beautiful river you'll ever see, and that's the Tennessee River, but the Mighty Old Muddy could not be tamed, and I liked that. So Beale Street, it just blew me away. We got there at 4 o'clock on a Saturday morning. It was pouring down rain. We were in a little coupe with five of us boys, and the top was down and it was raining, and at 4, 5 o'clock in the morning, the street was full of people, because they'd saved their money for two years to get to spend the weekend in Memphis on Beale Street. Black folks, mainly.

O: There was a lot of music coming out of Memphis at that time, and a lot of different styles of music. How would you account for that diversity?

SP: I can tell you that the opportunity to do music from Memphis wasn't really here until I opened my studio. On the local basis, the little bands, jug bands and everything else, that was very conducive to an interesting facet of people, and how badly they wanted to make music and make contact. I didn't know the reaction I was going to have... It's hard, unless you lived back then... The racial situation across the nation, especially in the South, wasn't good. And so here I am, putting on big bands from the Peabody Skyway every night, and doing the control work, and feeding it to the CBS Network. The Peabody Skyway at that time was the greatest hotel and clubroom in the South. And for a long time, people didn't understand what I was doing out there with the "niggers." It was really kind of a tough thing. I didn't dare try and borrow a hundred dollars on a little rent payment. I didn't want to make a damn fool of myself, because no one would invest in this wild idea that I had. Not that I was smart, but they damned sure didn't think I was smart. It was the belief and the experimentation and things that I looked forward to in the hopes that I could... I knew that if it could be found, it could come from this area more abundantly than anywhere else. The only thing I wanted to do is to see if I was right or wrong. I wanted to record it, get it on the market, and see if the people would accept it or reject it. And they accepted the very first record that I put out, which was on the Chess label, and that's "Rocket 88." No, I take that back. I put out B.B. King on RPM with a number of releases that I had recorded and leased to RPM.

O: You did have a hard time pushing the music through, though, didn't you?

SP: There wasn't any such name as "rock 'n' roll" then. You should have gone with me and tried to talk to the country disc jockeys and to the few black disc jockeys that were available in the country. Just like in Shreveport with Fats Washington, who was a paraplegic black person, and he worked at KTNT with a night show from about 6 to 12 or 1 o'clock every night. A fantastic guy. He had played Little Junior Parker and the B.B. stuff that I had cut, and "Rocket 88," but when I got down there with Elvis, he said, "I just can't play 'That's All Right Mama.' I know it's a big hit by Arthur Crudup about six or seven years before, but I just can't do it, Mr. Phillips. I just can't categorize it." The same thing happened with a country jock down there that I knew very well, like I did Fats Washington. His name was Tommy Cutrer. And he was a wonderful, wonderful guy that I'd worked with at WRAC here, and at that time he was at KCHA in Shreveport. And he said the same thing about "Blue Moon Of Kentucky." He said, "I just can't play that." It was one of those things where what we did, in my opinion, started the vibration of people out of certain categories into a cross-section of different genres of music that started rock 'n' roll. And I truly believe that. I don't give a damn about the credit, myself. I was out there traveling 60 or 70,000 miles a year, in addition to working until I had a damn nervous breakdown and everything else. I mean, that was no cost to pay to do something I really think has formed a base for some of the best damn opportunities for people to get to know each other around this world. I'm glad I was a little part of it, and I give credit to every person I've ever worked with, whether I had a hit on them or not.

O: Do you think rock 'n' roll would have happened without Sun?

SP: I think that there might have been, but it would've been a long time coming. You keep in mind now, there were some great... Well, you take Specialty Records. That was a great R&B label. They had some great artists on it, and some great cuts. Gosh, Atlantic was in business. I think they went in business around 1948, and I didn't open my doors until 1950, and I didn't start Sun until the end of '52. And, boy, I wasn't interested in having music as great as all those labels like Atlantic and Specialty and Imperial. I wanted gutbucket white and black, but I didn't want country, as such, because the Grand Ole Opry was doing great. Of course, it would have been a hell of a lot easier, as I look back upon it, because I knew I could make some damn good country records. And I could have made some R&B records in the tradition of some of these labels that were making fantastic music. I just had to do it different. I had no idea. The only thing I knew was that if I could get the opportunity to expose it to the people, and if I could just hang on long enough... Because I know ain't nobody going to invest in what I'm doing. There ain't nobody that stupid. If I could hang on long enough, the people would tell us whether I was right or wrong in giving these people something that we could enjoy.

O: History has given you your answer, hasn't it?

SP: And it really is [history]. If you just knew how deficient we were in funds. And I was never a part of any damn payola or that bullshit. In fact, I testified against it. People got tarred on that. Whatever we did was from hard work and giving people the opportunity and showing them that they could deliver, quote unquote, the sermon they had in mind. They couldn't do it any other way.

O: Elvis was famously polite to you, but you worked with a lot of other, more volatile personalities. What was your managerial style?

SP: Number one: They knew I was boss. But they knew I was boss because I knew what I was doing, and I never, not one time, went in and said, "Oh my God, this ain't the way to do it." I said, "The one damn thing you can't do in here if you're going to work with me: You can't hold anything back. And don't look at me and say, 'This white man ain't going to want to hear this. He's going to want to hear something that Count Basie would do, or that Ella Fitzgerald would sing.'" All those fabulous people. I said, "That's not what I'm looking for. If that's what you do, I want to hear it, but I'm going to send you somewhere where they'll record you, because I ain't interested in that." And, boy, it really did loosen people up a lot that might've thought, "Oh, he might be ashamed of what my indigenous field is, or the songs that I know and played at little clubs." We were poor folks. Black and white poor folks, including myself. Sometimes we learn more from the extreme circumstances that we find ourselves in. And I have found that so many ways, in country music, and black music, and gospel music, both black and white gospel music... I have said it so often, but there has never been an elixir that is so freeing, to the people that need freedom the most, as music. And I'm not just talking about the color of skin. I'm talking about people that never thought they'd have a damn opportunity for anybody to listen to them. They didn't know how, or couldn't get to New York or Chicago or Nashville. And they were loaded down with so many people that they couldn't take them all. I'm not saying anything against these people. I'm just saying that, godawmighty, I came in to help myself, but I came in to help them, too.

O: When you recorded "Rocket 88," did you know you were on to something?

SP: Yes, I did. Well, I mean, there ain't nobody going to say, "You know you got a hit." You can say one thing and never know a damn thing about music, and you can look back down, especially at this time, and say this was a hit, or that was a hit. But I never looked like that. I told someone, "If I hear anybody trying to copy somebody else's record that's been a hit or something, I'm coming out of that control room and I'm going to lock the damn toilet door so you can't get into there to pee." Ha. We had a great time. I don't mean we didn't work our ass off, but we had an awful lot of what I call absolute confidence in each other, once we got to know each other. I said, "If I don't get to know you and you don't get to know me, chances are we're not going to do a whole hell of a lot together." After a while, you'd be surprised at the psychological effect it had on people being able to deliver what they felt. Not trying to please some dude behind the glass that they thought might have some money. The thing I let 'em know in a white vein: "You try to please me with the thing you feel the utmost feeling for."

O: Sun's best run was from 1951 to 1960. Looking back at that time, is there anything you would have done differently?

SP: I'm sure there's things, but I can't think of anything, including selling Elvis. Although I really didn't want to sell him. I had made money, but I had to pay pressing plants here and in Philadelphia and L.A. Nobody was going to gamble on me. I don't really know... God knows, as imperfect as I was then and I am now, I don't know that I need to criticize myself, and I can't think of too many damn things that I would have done differently. And I don't mean that I did everything right: I made more mistakes, I guarantee you, than I didn't. But if I bat .300 or .400, and by that I don't mean the number of hit records we put out, but the style, the feel, bringing something different to the table... Hey, I don't believe I'd change a whole hell of a lot.

O: Do you regret not recording more black artists after Elvis hit?

SP: No, I don't, because by that time, Joe Cuoghi, a good friend of mine, started Hi Records, and it wasn't long after that until Jim Stewart started Stax. They devoted themselves almost exclusively to black music, and that was fantastic, because that's what I wanted. At the same time, I would have loved to have recorded more blacks. But you take a guy with no money and a limited amount of help in every way, and he just has to do the best he can. It was just more than I could do, and by that time, Stax and Hi were doing fantastic. It brought the attention of people to record more and more Southern black artists, and it worked out fine.

O: Who was the easiest musician to work with?

SP: I hate to dodge... Well, I won't dodge that. They were all so different in so many different ways, but all so alike in so many others. I'd say the easiest person, probably, was one of the sweetest, most talented human beings on the face of God's earth, and I feel that I did not do with him what I should have, because of constraints of time. And that's Charlie Rich. Charlie Rich's talent, his writing ability, his piano style... of course, Billy Sherrill, who worked at my Nashville studio, he recorded some fabulous country stuff on him. But I wouldn't have cut country on him. His heart was in the blues field. But he could do anything. He was the most unassuming human being, but so dedicated and so damn talented. I wish he was alive today.

O: You might want to dodge this one: Who was the most difficult person to work with?

SP: I didn't have any difficult people. And that's not dodging the question. I really did not. I had people... Hell, Jerry Lee and I got in the damnedest religious argument in the middle of a session. A lot of things like that came up. Hey, everybody's got their own damn personality, and they should have their individuality. Any time anyone tries to destroy that in you, you better watch out.

O: Today, it would be hard for a small label to do what you did. Do you think a lot of talent is getting overlooked?

SP: It's unfortunate. I'm not against big companies, except I think they ought to forget the damn dollars... And I don't mean that to the extent that they shouldn't do right by their shareholders, and themselves, even. But music is too fine a thing, and too absolutely, emotionally helpful to so many different people. The greatest diplomat in the world is that thing you call music. That's the name: Ambassador Music. It's going to be tougher. But it may be around the corner, and I'm too old to do it, but online and stuff, that thing may be worked out to where some of these people that are doing some of these amazing things, it may come back where people with nothing can do something. I sure hope so. I really do. I really hope so.