30 July 2003
One more for the Mystery Train
Sam Phillips, somewhere around the 1950 opening of his Memphis Recording Service, mused:
If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.
Well, maybe not a billion he sold Elvis Presley's contract to RCA Victor for what now seems a piddling $35,000 but Sam's influence on early rock and its country cousin is incalculable. One candidate for "first rock and roll record", "Rocket 88" by Jackie Brenston and his Rhythm Kings (that is, with Ike Turner and his band), was recorded by Sam in 1951 and leased to the Chess label; Sun Records, Sam's own record company, was the first major stop, not just for Elvis, but for Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins as well. And Sam's original studio gear, from which he coaxed a sound still renowned for its liquidity, is now on exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland. Sam himself was inducted in 1986, and was admitted into Nashville's Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001.
The runout groove came for Sam Phillips today in Memphis. He was eighty years old. And while he didn't wind up with a billion dollars, he did earn many millions, and not just from his recordings either. Sam, as it happens, had taken some of his Sun receipts and invested early on in another Memphis institution that's going strong today: Holiday Inn.
A tribute? Play any Sun 45. Or let John Sebastian wax lyrical about some of those Nashville cats:
Well, I was just thirteen, you might say I was a musical proverbial knee-high
When I heard a couple new-soundin' tunes on the tubes and they blasted me sky-high
And the record man said every one was a yellow Sun record from Nashville
And up North here ain't nobody buys them, and I said "But I will"
And I did, and so did you. And that puts us in pretty good company, alongside those 1352 guitar pickers.