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  xThursday, July 31, 2003

sam phillips r.i.p.


Sam Phillips, the Memphis record store and Sun Records owner who discovered Elvis, has died at the age of 80.

From the AP story:
"When I first heard Elvis, the essence of what I heard in his voice was such that I knew there might be a number of areas that we could go into," Phillips once said.

Phillips, the record producer who helped usher in the rock 'n' roll revolution, died Wednesday of respiratory failure at St. Francis Hospital, his son Knox Phillips said. He said his father had been in declining health for a year.

The elder Phillips founded Sun Records in 1952 and helped launch the career of Presley, then a young singer who had moved from Tupelo, Miss.

In the summer of 1953, Presley went to the Sun studio to record two songs for his mother's birthday. Phillips noticed him and offered Presley a recording contract.

Phillips produced Presley's first record, the 1954 single that featured "That's All Right, Mama" and "Blue Moon of Kentucky," and nine more.

"God only knows that we didn't know it would have the response that it would have," Phillips said in an interview in 1997. "But I always knew that the rebellion of young people, which is as natural as breathing, would be a part of that breakthrough."

Presley was good with ballads, Phillips recalled, but there was no need to challenge the established balladeers like Perry Como (news), Frankie Laine and Bing Crosby.

"What there was a need for was a rhythm that had a very pronounced beat, a joyous sound and a quality that young people in particular could identify with," he said.

By 1956, when Phillips sold Presley's contract to RCA for $35,000, the rock 'n' roll craze had become a cultural phenomenon and a multimillion-dollar industry.

Phillips was elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. In 2000, the A&E cable network ran a two-hour biography called "Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock and Roll."

Phillips began in music as a radio station engineer and later as a disc jockey. He started Sun Records so he could record both rhythm & blues singers and country performers.

His plan was to let artists who had no formal training play their music as they felt it, raw and full of life. The Sun motto was "We Record Anything, Anywhere, Anytime."

In the early days, before Presley, Phillips worked mostly with black musicians, including B.B. King and Rufus Thomas.

After the success of Presley on Sun, others who recorded for the label under Phillips included Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Conway Twitty and Charlie Rich.

He got out of the recording business in 1962 and sold Sun Records in 1969 to producer Shelby Singleton of Nashville. The Sun studio on Union Avenue in Memphis is now a tourist attraction.

From Reuters' obituary:
Widely regarded as one of the most important figures in 20th century popular music, Phillips played a major role in bringing the electric blues of black artists to a wider audience and in pioneering the development of rock 'n' roll.

With performers such as Presley and Perkins, Phillips fused the best of rhythm and blues with country and western, creating a style known as "rockabilly" and giving birth to a raucous new musical genre that transformed America's recording scene in the 1950s.

In an era when the Deep South remained racially segregated, Phillips, who was white, crossed the color barrier by opening his studio to black and white musicians alike.

Born January 5, 1923, in Florence, Alabama, Phillips became involved in radio, and by 1945 he was working as a disc jockey for a Memphis station. Five years later he opened his first studio business, the Memphis Recording Service, where he recorded weddings and other private events to make ends meet.

He soon became immersed in the Memphis blues scene, recording local R&B artists in a venture that would help change the course of American music. Working with fresh, as-yet little-known talent, Phillips often discouraged the musicians from polishing their sounds and captured the raw energy of their performances.

Among the artists he produced early recordings for and leased to independently owned labels of others were bluesmen B.B. King and Howlin' Wolf. He also recorded Jackie Brenston's landmark single "Rocket 88," often cited as the prototypic rock 'n' roll record.

Phillips launched his own eponymous label in 1950 that folded after just one release. But he started a new label two years later called Sun Records, which achieved its first national R&B hit in 1953 with Rufus Thomas' "Bear Cat."

The following year, reportedly seeking a white singer with a black feel, Phillips struck pay dirt when he recorded Presley's first single, a cover of the blues tune "That's All Right Mama."

The young native of Tupelo, Mississippi, went on to record four more classic singles at Sun Records before Phillips, in need of capital to expand his label, sold Presley's contract to RCA for $35,000 in 1955. It was at RCA that Elvis later built his career as a superstar.

Back at Sun, Phillips soon scored his first national pop hit, and million-selling single, with Carl Perkins' "Blue Suede Shoes." For the rest of the decade, Phillips focused on developing his roster of rockabilly talent, though it was at Sun that Cash, who hewed closer to country, developed his distinctive "boom chicka boom" sound. Country singer Charlie Rich also began his career there.

As a big fan of Elvis and early '50s rock and roll and country music, I'm deeply saddened at the loss of this important musical icon.





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