Sam Phillips, Who First Recorded Elvis For Sun Records Dies

Discussion in 'Music' started by Peter Kline, Jul 31, 2003.

  1. Peter Kline

    Peter Kline Cinematographer

    Feb 9, 1999
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    Rock 'n' roll pioneer Sam Phillips dies at 80

    By AP

    MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Sam Phillips, who discovered Elvis Presley and helped usher in the rock 'n' roll revolution, died Wednesday. He was 80.

    Phillips died of respiratory failure at St. Francis Hospital, his son Knox Phillips said. He said his father had been in declining health for a year.

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

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

    "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," he said.

    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."

    "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 said.

    Presley was good with ballads, Phillips recalled, but there was no need to challenge the established balladeers like Perry Como, 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.

    "It all came out of that infectious beat and those young people wanting to feel good by listening to some records," Phillips said.

    Presley died in 1977 at age 42.

    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, then called country and western or hillbilly singers.

    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.

    "We were starting from scratch together," Phillips said in 2000.

    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 still exists as a tourist attraction.

    In his later years, Phillips spent much of his time operating radio station WLVS in Memphis and others in Alabama. He stayed out of the limelight except for some appearances at Presley-related events after Presley's death.

    "I'll never retire. I'm just using up somebody else's oxygen if I retire," he said in an Associated Press interview in 2000.

    Born Samuel Cornelius Phillips in Florence, Ala., Phillips worked as an announcer at radio stations in Muscle Shoals, Ala., and Decatur, Ala., and Nashville, Tenn., before settling in Memphis in 1945. Before founding Sun Records, he was a talent scout who recommended artists and recordings to record labels such as Chess and Modern. He also worked as an announcer in Memphis.

    His sons Knox and Jerry also were record producers.
  2. John Watson

    John Watson Screenwriter

    Jul 14, 2002
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    We were just watching the excellent DVD The Legends of Sun Records the other night, and I told my wife that in spite of the full head of dark hair, Sam Phillips was at least 80 years old. Unfortunately seems I was right.

    What a hotbed of musical genius he was somewhat responsible for (there are many to say he made bad decisions for many of those people.)

    Hope he finds his place in the BIG GIG in the SKY. [​IMG]
  3. Henry Gale

    Henry Gale Producer

    Jul 10, 1999
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    Mr. Phillips importance in Blues, Rock and Country is beyond measuring. He angered more that a few of the Sun artists, but I can't imagine my record collection without him. The cat was a genius and I just loved to hear him talk.
    Fresh Air ran an interview from 1997 today. My favorite comment from Sam was, "Moosic, moosic is NOT an option."

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