Sam Phillips was born on a farm near Florence, Alabama, on January 5, 1923. His parents were poor tenant farmers and he worked with them as a child, picking cotton from the fields. Alongside him were black laborers who sang as they worked, inspiring Phillips to enter the music industry. Phillips went on to become a radio announcer and engineer and eventually opened his own recording studio and record label. He discovered many blues, country and rock and roll musicians like Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Howlin' Wolf, who would go on to become famous stars. Phillips was inducted into the Rock and Roll, Rockability, Blues and Country Music halls of fame before his death in 2003.
Record producer Samuel Cornelius Phillips, better known as Sam Phillips, died a rich and famous man, but he came from humble beginnings and a childhood that opened his mind and led him to make decisions that, in essence, revolutionized the music industry in the 20th century.
The youngest of eight children, Phillips was born on January 5, 1923, on a farm near Florence, Alabama, to poor tenant farmers. He picked cotton in the fields as a child, working with his parents alongside black laborers, who sang as they worked. Their music had made an impression on Phillips, as had Beale Street—the heart of the music scene in Memphis, Tennessee, where Phillips and his family visited in 1939.
"Beale Street convinced me that with the talent coming out of the Delta, especially of black artists, I really wanted to try to do something with that talent because I was very close to it all my life," Phillips told National Public Radio in November 2001. "I saw the great association between country music and black blues in the South."
And in fact, Phillips ended up turning country music and black blues into what the world came to know as rock 'n' roll, according to Phillips's 2003 obituary in The New York Times.
The Great Depression bankrupted Phillips's father, who died in 1941, and the adolescent was forced to leave high school and look after his mother and aunt. He worked in a grocery store and funeral parlor for some time, but soon after shifted into the music industry.
Musical Career Beginnings
Throughout the 1940s, Phillips worked as a disc jockey and radio engineer for an AM radio station that broadcast music from both white and black musicians. He later became a radio announcer for another station, and just two days before his 27th birthday (January 5, 1950), Phillips opened his own recording studio in Memphis. The Memphis Recording Service, as it was named, invited amateurs to perform. Phillips would record their performances and sell them to larger record labels. The MRS also served as the studio for Phillips's own label, Sun Records, which he launched in 1952.
Among amateurs who performed at the Memphis Recording Service and later went on to become famous musicians were Johnny Cash, B.B. King, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Howlin' Wolf and, perhaps most notably, Elvis Presley.
Phillips was open to different styles of music, but took a particular liking to the blues, which he once said "got people—black and white—to think about life, how difficult, yet also how good it can be."
Releasing 226 singles throughout its 16-year run, Phillips's label produced more rock 'n' roll records than any other label of its time. Sun Records' sister label, Phillips International, which Phillips launched in 1957, released an additional 71 singles.
The Birth of a Star
Elvis Presley walked into the Memphis Recording Service in 1954 and, hoping that he and Phillips could discuss a formal recording session, exchanged information with the owner. It took Presley several tries before he finally impressed Phillips. The two worked together to launch Presley into regional success, which became a drawing card for Sun Records, bringing musicians from around the region to record.
Despite the regional popularity, Phillips's studio underwent financial difficulties and he was forced to sell Presley's contract in November 1955, to RCA Records for $35,000. With those funds, Phillips was able to boost distribution of Carl Perkins's "Blue Suede Shoes," which became Sun Records' first national hit.
Although Presley had gone on to work with RCA, he continued to use techniques that Phillips had taught him. For Phillips, it was all about conveying emotion and giving a song "a living personality," according to Sun Records' website. Technical perfection was unnecessary to Phillips, and he always sought imperfectly perfect sound.
Financial Success and Recognition
In addition to breaking ground both musically and financially by making Presley a star and launching other Sun Records musicians into fame, Phillips continued pursuing endeavors that made waves and changed the status quo. He was also a savvy businessman, and his insight allowed him to take risks that paid off.
In 1955, Phillips launched WHER radio station—the first all-female radio station in the nation. He was also one of the first investors of the Holiday Inn motel chain, and later created the subsidiary recording label, Holiday Inn Records. Phillips owned the Sun Studio Café in Memphis and, along with his family, founded the Big River Broadcasting Corporation, which owns several radio stations near his birth town, Florence, Alabama.
Phillips was recognized for his achievements in 1986, as part of the first group inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He was also the first non-performer ever inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. In 1987, Phillips was inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame; in 1998, the Blues Hall of Fame; and in 2001, the Country Musical Hall of Fame. He also received a Grammy Trustees Award in 1991 for his achievements.
Phillips was portrayed by different actors in several films and television shows that were made about Presley and Johnny Cash from 1979 through 2005. In 2000, A&E Television Networks released a documentary about Phillips's life and involvement in the emergence of rock 'n' roll, titled Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock 'n' Roll.
On July 30, 2003, one day before the original Sun Studio was designated a National Historic Landmark, 80-year-old Phillips died of respiratory failure.
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