The Self-Made Man: Sam Phillips
Okay, so we all know who Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash are. We know their songs. We’ve seen the movies and TV specials made about their lives. We may have even visited their respective museums (seriously, go to Graceland. It’s worth the money). But for everything those three men did in their lives, they were not entrepreneurs. However, the man who discovered them, Sun Records founder Sam Phillips, was like Entrepreneur Concentrate, and absolutely worth profiling here.
Sam Phillips was born to tenant farmers in Florence, Alabamaand fell in love with music from picking cotton alongside black laborers and spending time on Beale Street, at that point one of the country’s most fertile musical petri dishes. He ended up going to Alabama Polytechnical Institute, where he learned enough about audio engineering to break into the radio business, getting a job with WLAY as an announcer and engineer.
As he hopped around radio stations in the area, Phillips learned about audio recording, and felt comfortable enough to start his own company, Memphis Recording Service, in early 1950. He kept a mixer and a portable tape recorder in the trunk of his car, which he essentially lived in as he drove from event to event, recording weddings, religious gatherings, and anything else that paid. When he decided to record musicians and sell or lease their master tapes to bigger record labels, he kept that same ethic of recording anyone with the cash, which drew then-amateur performers like B.B. King and Howlin’ Wolf (and later, Elvis) to record with him.
Music nerds in my readership will also know that Phillips allowed musicians to record multiple takes until they captured the right feeling, which is why the Jerry Lee Lewis box set is eight discs long.
Phillips remained faithful to the blues music he’d grown up with, and when he started his own proper record label – Sun Records – as an offshoot of his recording business, it was to introduce that music to a wider audience. Phillips had seen how music could unite people, no small feat in the heavily-segregated South, so his focus on blues and what would become rockabilly music was equal parts business savvy and social responsibility. Indeed, he was a pioneer in recording and developing black musicians, and recorded what is generally considered the first rock ‘n roll record, Jackie Brenston’s “Rocket 88.” That song is also notable for its guitarist, the now-infamous Ike Turner.
Sun Records ultimately floundered after Phillips sold Elvis Presley’s contract to RCA, but Phillips didn’t go broke. Thanks to a well-timed investment in the Holiday Inn hotel chain (one of several smart financial decisions on his part) he died a wealthy man, and was one of the first inductees in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
I’ll end with this interview of Sam Phillips, who was as colorful as he was productive, talking about the birth of Sun Records, his support of black musicians, and making it happen as a self-starting businessman.
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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.