Sam Phillips Biography

Born Samuel Cornelius Phillips, January 5, 1923, in Florence, AL; died of respiratory failure, July 30, 2003, in Memphis, TN. Record label executive. Recording studio owner Sam Phillips founded Sun Records in 1952 and is credited with discovering Elvis Presley and with being an instrumental part of the launch of the rock 'n' roll genre. He brought wide attention to the then–neglected rhythm and blues and African–American country music, helping to bring these musical styles and traditions to white Americans. He helped launch the careers of Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, and Charlie Rich, among many others.

Phillips grew up in Florence, Alabama, where he was the youngest of eight children; his parents were poor tenant farmers. According to Claudia Luther in the Los Angeles Times, Phillips said that he felt "an awakening of my spirit" when he heard the singing of African Americans who worked alongside him and his parents, picking cotton in the fields. He wondered what it would have been like for him if he had been born African American, and experienced the same hardships. As he grew older, he decided that the music of poor people—both black and white—"was absolutely the greatest thing we had in the South," according to Luther. However, at the time, this music was not recorded, and few people considered it valuable or interesting.

Phillips originally hoped to become a criminal defense lawyer, but poverty and his father's death prevented him from pursuing the education needed for such a career. He got a job at a radio station in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and in 1945 moved to station WREC in Memphis, Tennessee. Witnessing that city's vibrant musical scene, he became determined to have this music get national—and eventually international—recognition. In 1949 he started a business, Memphis Recording Service, working there at night after his shift at the radio station. He recorded anything he could make a little money from, mostly weddings and $2–a–side personal recordings; he also recorded political speeches, and once he even recorded a car muffler and testified in court about its loudness in decibels. His motto was "We Record Anything, Anywhere, Anytime." However, he also began recording local musicians performing black gospel, white gospel, blues, and what was known at the time as "hillbilly music." These artists included B.B. King, Roscoe Gordon, Howlin' Wolf, and Ike Turner's band. According to Douglas Martin in the New York Times, his ambition was to record "the real gutbucket stuff that other labels weren't putting out." Phillips renamed his company Sun Records in 1952.

However, Phillips soon found that the potential of his recordings of "race" music—blues and R&B—were limited because of the prevalent racism of the time. Although many white fans liked the music, they were reluctant to buy it because it was performed by African Americans. Phillips decided that if he could find white artists who could perform the music, he could break down this barrier. When Elvis Presley, then a shy 18–year–old who wanted to make a record for his mother's birthday, showed up in 1953, Phillips did not think he would be the one to do it, despite the fact that he had a very unusual voice. Presley worked with Phillips during the next year without much success, until he recorded "That's All Right" in July of 1954. Phillips took the record to radio station WHBQ, where it received such enthusiastic calls from listeners that the DJ ended up playing it many times in a row. In 1956, because of mounting debts, Phillips sold Presley's contract to RCA Records for $35,000, a tiny fraction of what it would eventually be worth.

After recording Presley, Phillips recorded Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Charlie Rich. He also recorded rockabilly artists Billy Lee Riley and Sonny Burgess. Because of his work with these artists, Phillips was in the first group of ten people to be inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, and was the only person also to be a member of the country, blues, and rockabilly Halls of Fame.

Phillips was forced to close his studio after bigger labels began siphoning off his performers by offering them much bigger contracts than he could afford; he sold it to producer Shelby Singleton of Nashville in 1969. Today, the studio is a tourist site for those interested in the history of rock 'n' roll. Phillips went on to other business ventures, and spent many of his later years operating a radio station in Memphis. He lived quietly, although he occasionally appeared at events honoring Presley after Presley's death in 1977.

According to the Los Angeles Times ' Luther, Phillips did not purposely set out to create a new kind of music. "I think I was conscious of letting out the insides, emotional insides, of people, and that was a challenge to a great extent. Oh, man, I loved the music. I loved it. I dearly loved it. So this was a beautiful experience. It still is, to see the influence it's had around the world." On July 30, 2003, at the age of 80, Phillips died of respiratory failure in Memphis, Tennessee. He is survived by his wife, Rebecca; sons Knox and Jerry, two granddaughters, and a great–grandson.


Los Angeles Times, July 31, 2003, p. A1, p. A20; New York Times, August 1, 2003, p. A19; Times (London), August 1, 2003, p. 35; Washington Post, August 1, 2003, p. B4.

Kelly Winters

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