Celebrating the centennial of Sun Records founder Sam Phillips
Phillips, who died in 2003, discovered Elvis and produced his first records, and was one of the leading catalysts in post-WWII American music. Originally broadcast in 1997.
Other segments from the episode on January 27, 2023
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. This month marks the centennial of the birth of legendary record producer Sam Phillips, who discovered Elvis and produced his first records, which many consider Elvis' best. Phillips also founded Sun Records and launched the careers of Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and Charlie Rich. Elvis' biographer, Peter Guralnick, said that Phillips left a remarkable legacy, both of Black blues and the white adaptation of it which became rock 'n' roll. Sam Phillips sold Sun Records in 1969. We're going to listen to Terry's 1997 interview with him. Let's begin with one of the first records Phillips produced in his Memphis studio, the 1951 recording many critics consider the first rock 'n' roll record, "Rocket 88," featuring singer Jackie Brenston with Ike Turner at the piano.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCKET 88")
JACKIE BRENSTON: (Singing) You women have heard of jalopies. You've heard the noise they make. But let me reintroduce my new Rocket '88. Yes, it's straight, just won't wait. Everybody likes my Rocket '88. Baby, we'll ride in style, moving all along.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
TERRY GROSS: Part of your genius has been finding musicians who brought together Black music and country music, creating rock 'n' roll and rockabilly. I'm wondering how you were exposed to Black music as a white man growing up in the segregated South.
SAM PHILLIPS: My interest in Black music started at a very early age. I worked with Black people in the fields. My daddy was a farmer, and he grew cotton, and, of course, cotton had to be picked and hoed. And my father, incidentally, did not own the farm. He was a tenant farmer. And he, in turn, would bring other people onto the farm to help him. So we were able to be together an awful lot with Black people because of the closeness of the type of work that we had to do on the farms.
GROSS: You started your producing career recording blues musicians and leasing the records to companies like RPM, Modern and Chess Records. You recorded Howlin' Wolf, Walter Horton, Bobby Bland, Little Junior Parker, B.B. King - the very start of their careers. I'm wondering what it was like for you as a white man in the South in the late '40s and early '50s to be recording Black musicians. Was it ever difficult to have rapport? I'm wondering if they saw you as the man because you were recording them and because you were white.
PHILLIPS: It was a type of thing that - I think most Black people had some doubt as to what, quote-unquote, "we were up to" early on because, in many instances, Black people were taken advantage of, and maybe when they thought something was for free or for a certain price, it didn't turn out that way. I knew that the Black people that I was going to record, most of which had never seen, even microphones, let alone a little studio, that the psychology that would be employed by me to have them feel comfortable and to do the thing that they felt they wanted to do in the way of music rather than to try to please or do the type of thing that a white man might want to do - have them do.
Because I was not looking for Duke Ellington or Count Basie or Nat King Cole or any of the outstanding Black jazz and pop musicians. I was looking to try to obtain from them a natural thing that they felt and wanted to do. The people that I was recording were people that had, to a great extent, the feel for the things they had experienced and they loved. And the way they spoke was - to the people - was through their music.
GROSS: What was your approach to making musicians comfortable so that they would be themselves in the studio and not try to be somebody else or not try to do something just to please the producer? How would you get them to be themselves?
PHILLIPS: It varied with each one, of course, because the minute you had tried to be noncondescending toward them, they would pick it up immediately. It would vary with the individual. Believe me. Black people never missed anything when they were dealing with you. You might think they were abstract and really did not care that much about hearing what you had to say, but they truly did. And so, it - psychology has always been - and I've never had one formal lesson in it, but I had a whole life of dealing with people, Black and white, that were of meager means. And some of them were not as fortunate as even I. But I really did not have a real difficult time in communicating what I believe the necessary ingredients for them to relax and to do what they really, truly wanted to do, that type of thing.
GROSS: One of the great blues musicians that you discovered and first recorded was Howlin' Wolf, and I want to play your - the recording that you produced of him doing "Moanin' At Midnight" in 1951. And this was something that you did for Chess Records. I think it made it to No. 10 on the R&B charts. Tell us about your first encounter with Howlin' Wolf.
PHILLIPS: The Wolf, as I've said so many times, is one of my favorite artists. He was so individual in the things that he did. He had, No. 1, a voice that was so distinctive that there is - nobody could mistake it for anybody else. That intrigued me. It was so absolutely untrained in so many ways, but at the same time, it was so honest that it was just - it brought about a certain passion just by listening to him to sing.
And there was one thing about the Wolf that you never had to worry about. When he opened his mouth in a recording studio - and he would talk real low when he was talking to you, and he was a big man, about 6'4" and weighed probably 225, 230 pounds and nothing but muscle, but when he talked to you, you could barely hear him. When he sang to you, you hardly needed a microphone or an amplifier.
But more than that, though, I think that his ability to get lost in a song for two or three minutes or ever how long the song was, was certainly as good as anybody I ever recorded. And when I say get lost in a song, I simply do mean that. And I think that is a good, unsophisticated term of saying that we all tried to get lost in what we were doing. And I think that was part of success.
GROSS: Well, let me play this 1951 Howlin' Wolf record that you produced, "Moanin'...
PHILLIPS: I'm anxious...
GROSS: ...At Midnight."
PHILLIPS: ...To hear that. One of my favorite records.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOANIN' AT MIDNIGHT")
HOWLIN' WOLF: (Singing) Well, somebody calling me, calling me on my telephone. Well, somebody calling over my telephone. Well, keep on calling. Tell them I'm not at home.
GROSS: That's Howlin' Wolf, a recording produced in 1951 by my guest, Sam Phillips. Sam Phillips, you started Sun Records, your studio in Memphis, after recording for independent companies - other people's independent companies, like Chess Records - why did you want to start your own studio? Did you have a vision of what you wanted to do in your own studio?
PHILLIPS: I actually never wanted to actually form a label as such, like Sun Records. I wanted to be strictly on the creative end of it because I believed so strongly in what I believed in. And I wanted to prove to myself one way or the other that what I had felt - apparently for an awfully long time - was either something that was worthwhile or that the public, if it had the chance, would tell us that, you know, you're on the wrong track.
But I guess that after dealing with RPM and Modern Records and Chess, I guess I was disappointed in the way that I thought business was done. And I don't like to speak disparagingly of people because they were - these people were my friends. But I had some difficulty and, you know, working with them from a standpoint of what I felt was fair and equitable in the things that we had agreed on.
GROSS: You started Sun Records after you had a nervous breakdown and even got electroshock therapy. I'm wondering if the two were related. If after the nervous breakdown, you decided you had to be in business for yourself and do your own thing?
PHILLIPS: Well, I had worked hard, as many people had, all my life. I really did not know what, you know, the hands on a clock were for, for sure. And I don't know that that was smart. But anyway, that's the way I felt about it. I was totally and completely consumed in a way that I thought - and still think - was healthy. It was just that I was asking too much of my body to look after my deaf, mute aunt and my older mother and two young children, Knox and Jerry, the two, and my wife Becky. You know, I just had taken upon myself just more than I could handle for many, many years. And so with the pressures of trying to keep the doors open to try to prove one way or the other about music and what could be done with it, I just overworked myself. And I had to go take electric shock treatments. And that is a horrifying experience, except, by golly, it did the thing for me. I came back stronger than ever.
I do say - and I really, truly believe this - that there's very few things that - and I think this is one of the reason that we had so much success in what we did in music is that so many people, although they may not have had electric shock, they went through some awfully hard times. And to have the opportunity to make a record and to participate in music and to be given that opportunity that they thought they'd never have, that had an awful lot to do with us being able to do what we ultimately wound up doing, which did affect the whole world.
DAVIES: Record producer Sam Phillips speaking with Terry Gross in 1997. We'll hear more of their conversation after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF ELVIS PRESLEY SONG, "I FORGOT TO REMEMBER TO FORGET")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're listening to the conversation Terry recorded in 1997 with record producer Sam Phillips, who discovered Elvis and many other accomplished artists. This month marks the centennial of Phillips' birth.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: When Elvis first auditioned for you, I know that he sang in styles of his favorite performers from, you know, white and Black, from Lonnie Johnson to Dean Martin. What did you do to try to get a sense from Elvis of who Elvis really was, of what his kind of own voice was?
PHILLIPS: Well, Elvis being as young as he was, and, of course, I'm - gosh, I'm 12 years and three days older than Elvis. When he was 19, I guess I was 31 or whatever. But I can tell you, the only time that we possibly had what you might say, a difference of opinion in what we were doing is that I really did not want to do some of the quote-unquote, "more pop-ish" (ph) things that Elvis truly did like because Elvis, let's face it, had an absolute beautiful voice from the beginning. Trained or not, it was beautiful.
But at the same time, he also had a certain intrigue about his voice. And I knew that. And I knew that we needed to feel our way around between great gut-bucket blues and country. I really, truly thought that. And so I think Elvis, if he'd had his way - and he absolutely gave us no problem at all on it - maybe he wouldn't have put a country-type thing on the back side of each R&B record that we put out on him or each, quote-unquote, "Black-oriented record." But I thought that was a thing to do at the time.
GROSS: Do you have a favorite of the Elvis "Sun Sessions" that people play now?
PHILLIPS: I really do.
PHILLIPS: And I - you know, I really do. And it - I've kidded about it a lot because I wrote the song. I really didn't. It was the song "Mystery Train" that Little Junior Parker really basically wrote it. And we did it by him on "Sun." And we did it in an entirely different tempo and approach. And he had the idea for the song and came in. And it wasn't quite like we thought it should be. And so I worked with him a little bit because I really did love the idea of this song.
And so when we decided to do it on Elvis, it is something that I think that we did so entirely different. Although, Little Junior Parker's record was Elvis's favorite of the two, I have to say that both of them were my favorites. And I - till this day, I'd have to say "Mystery Train" ranks way up there. But anyway, on the record that I did on Elvis, I mean, I really did like all the things I did on him. I really did. Now, you know, hey, I'm trying not to be partial and all.
GROSS: (Laughter) OK.
PHILLIPS: But, I mean, I really am because, I mean, I just liked what we did. Everything from "You're A Heartbreaker" - now, that is absolutely the most nothing record in the world except that it is something.
GROSS: Why don't we hear it? Since you produced Junior Parker's version of "Mystery Train," too, why don't we hear both the Junior Parker and the Elvis version back to back?
PHILLIPS: We're in for a treat.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MYSTERY TRAIN")
JUNIOR PARKER: All aboard. (Singing) Train I ride, 16 coaches long. Train I ride, 16 coaches long. Well, that long black train carries my baby from home.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MYSTERY TRAIN")
ELVIS PRESLEY: (Singing) Train, train, coming round, round the bend. Train, train, coming round the bend. Well, it took my baby, but it never will again. No, not again. Train, train...
GROSS: That's Junior Parker and Elvis Presley, both of their versions of "Mystery Train," both versions produced by my guest, Sam Phillips, the founder of Sun Records.
You know, I have to ask you this. People are always saying that you used to say - before you discovered Elvis - that you used to say, if I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, or if I could find a white man who could sing like a Black man, I could make a million dollars - or a billion dollars. Did you really say that?
GROSS: And if so, what did you mean?
PHILLIPS: In essence, I did. And I simply meant that there was no feel better than the feel of Black people and their rhythm. I still, till this day, feel that that is a true statement, regardless of the cultures that have changed to a great degree in many instances and just a slight degree in others. I just felt like that Black music at that time did not have - you have to keep in mind, radio was the big deal then before TV. And there was no way at that time - we got to go back, transpose ourselves 40-something years here and realize that to get Black artists played, it was very, very difficult because there wasn't that many stations on the air that were going to play Black records. And I thought if we got a white person and people knew that he was a white person, that there was a good possibility we could broaden the base for both Black and white people that had talent. And that was my main reason for wanting to do that and saying - making that statement.
DAVIES: Sam Phillips speaking with Terry Gross in 1997. We'll hear more of their interview after a break. This month marks the centennial of Phillips' birth. Later, we'll hear the story of how David Crosby and Graham Nash met and began working together. David Crosby died last week. And John Powers reviews the new HBO series "The Last Of Us." I'm Dave Davies. And this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLUE MOON OF KENTUCKY")
PRESLEY: (Singing) Blue moon. Blue moon. Blue moon, keep shining bright. Blue moon. Blue moon, keep on shining bright. You're going to bring me back my baby tonight. Blue moon, keep shining bright. I said blue moon of Kentucky...
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I am Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Let's get back to Terry's 1997 interview with record producer Sam Phillips, who discovered Elvis and produced his early records and founded the label Sun Records in Memphis. This month marks the centennial of Phillips' birth.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: A lot of listeners have spent a lot of time over the years wondering how would music history have been different, how would Elvis have been different, if you never sold his contract to RCA? I wonder if you lose a lot of sleep thinking about that, if you spend a lot of time thinking about that yourself.
PHILLIPS: I have not lost one wink of sleep about it. I did give Elvis advice that he really should produce his records when he left Sun because Elvis had an excellent ear. Corporate vice presidents of big major labels, I don't think at all, were into the idea of let's find something that truly is new and different. I just - I'm taking nothing away from them personally, but that was just a fact of life. I knew that there were a lot of things that RCA put out on Elvis due to a lot of the motion pictures and everything that he was making that really weren't the best material in the world for Elvis to do.
If I had had Elvis right on up until the day he died, I couldn't have kept Elvis, ultimately, from being a tremendous force in music and influence on people even if I ever tried. I do not regret whatsoever any of the things that took place between the time I sold Elvis and all of this that we have even today. And you say, well, you mean all of that money and that total effect that has been had around the world? I feel like I was absolutely a part of that. And I don't care anything about claiming any credit for it, but I was a part of it because I recognized that Elvis Presley was unique as I did so many, many other people that had no opportunity whatsoever.
GROSS: When artists like Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis were getting played on the radio - and it was just scandalous to a lot of people, you know, the kind of - the power and the sexuality of the music terrified a lot of adults, PTAs, church groups. What did you make of all of the fuss about early rock 'n' roll, a lot of which you were responsible for? I mean, did you think it was funny? Did you think it was scary? What did it mean to you?
PHILLIPS: No, I really did not think it was funny. I really seriously considered the fact that I knew that this was going to happen. People truly believed - a lot of people - you can call them hypocrites or whatever, but I can understand they thought that this was absolutely going to be the end of the world. And I saw it, and I felt it. But I - at the same time, I thought, this is just really one of the things that we will have to endure in order to find out whether or not what we feel about it is right. And if it's not right, then all they say is not going to kill it. If it is right, it will make it.
GROSS: Were you attacked personally in any way?
PHILLIPS: Not personally, no. I was - I mean, physically. But personally, oh, yeah. My name was called quite frequently across the country and especially in churches. And I'm a good old Southern Baptist and - whatever that is, but I - you know, that really - not that I wasn't cognizant of the people's real concern about that. But they had forgotten that the toughest time in a person's life - and I think any psychologist in this world will tell you this - is during the teenage years of anybody's existence. And teenagers did not have - before rock 'n' roll and rhythm and blues, they did not have any type of music they could call their own once they got over 4 or 5 years old until they were well into their 20s and were considered adults.
So I just felt that this was a vast field that had been overlooked by just about everybody, and that if we had a white person, that they could justify maybe a little bit to their parents that, well, you know, it's a white boy or whatever, maybe the actual feeling of resentment might not be quite as steeped in in the racial aspects of it.
GROSS: You gave up recording in about 1963. You gave it producing records. Why did you stop?
PHILLIPS: I think that the reason being is that I've always believed in younger people coming along and taking over. It became very difficult for independent labels to make it because at that time, the major labels found out that we weren't just going to fold our tent and go away. When we started out, they thought, well, this is a passing fancy, and the chances are they won't be around long, so we'll get back to our regular curricular activities.
I saw the handwriting on the wall. When you would do what you did - had to do and your distributors had to work with you, and then the major labels would come along and offer contracts that we couldn't even think about, guarantees, because we were still very, very limited on funds - and so it was no use. And me being a farm club, so to speak, for the major league club - and that's exactly what it came to be.
So I decided I was not going to work because I was offered a job with RCA by Steve Sholes to go to RCA at the time I sold Elvis' contract. And I did not go because, No. 1, I knew I would not be of any value to RCA because I had to do whatever I did. Be it right or wrong, I had to do it, quote-unquote, the way that I felt I had to do it and the way that I felt was necessary to prove what I had set out to prove. I knew that that wasn't necessarily going to work well with a big company. And it would be absolutely no percentage. It'd be only frustration. I would accomplish absolutely nothing.
GROSS: You must have - or I would imagine that you must have really missed recording people when you stopped and missed discovering people.
PHILLIPS: I'll always miss it. I sure will. Music is not an option, really, with people. We take it for granted - people that are in it professionally and people that just love it to listen to and people that can take it or leave it. But music is the single most important element outside of - I guess we need a little oxygen to breathe in order to be able to listen to music. But there is nothing on the face of God's Earth that gives us more solace in more different areas, in more different ways than music.
And you better believe that if I could stay around here another 74 years and I could start all over again and have my way with a major company or - I would be recording people because there is nothing in this world that is more rewarding, whether you got a dollar out of it or not...
PHILLIPS: ...Than working with, I mean, absolutely untried, unproven talent and seeing it come to the forefront and entertain, I mean, even the hardest-eared control man in the world behind that glass.
DAVIES: Sam Phillips speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 1997. He was born January 5, 1923. He died in 2003.
Coming up, David Crosby and Graham Nash tell the story of how they met and started making music together. We'll hear an excerpt of their 1990 interview. Crosby died last week.
And John Powers reviews the new HBO series based on the video game "The Last of Us." This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LONG TIME GONE")
CROSBY, STILLS AND NASH: (Singing) And it appears to be a long - yes, it is - appears to a long, appears to be a long time. Such a long, long, long, long time before the dawn.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.