Sam Phillips and Sun Studios holds a legendary status in the history of Rock music. In 1950, Sam Phillips opened the Memphis Recording Service at 706 Union Avenue, Memphis, TN. This is at a time when the south was segregated. Radio stations, public buildings, and schools were divided black and white. Memphis was still under the city commision goverenment organized by E.H. “Boss” Crump who died in 1954. To give a time perspective, my father was born in 1952 and my mother in 1956. Sam initially had success with black blues singers such as B.B. King and Howlin’ Wolf. Also at this time regional popularity was still common as radio stations were generally independently owned and tended to feature artists from the region.
Sam’s biggest artist was Elvis Presley whom he discovered when Elvis stopped by to record a record for his mother’s birthday. In 1956, Elvis became a huge hit and launched Rock music. Elvis’s first Number 1 hit was “Heartbreak Hotel” in April of that year.
Elvis was not Sam’s only big hit. Around the same time Johnny Cash was recording for Sun Studios and his “I Walk the Line” was a hit for him in 1956 on both the Rock and Country charts.
Roy Orbison who wouldn’t really peak until 1960 was recording with Sun Records at this time.
Carl Perkins wrote and had a hit with “Blue Suede Shoes” on both the country and rhythm and blues charts. Though Elvis would later become better known for the song. Abour 4 months after the song was released Perkins was in a bad car accident and took months to recover probably leading to him actually becoming better known as a songwriter for other artists. (I actually was sort of at his funeral, it was held on the campus of Lambuth Unviersity while I was a student there.)
In December 1956, a piano playing artist by the name of Jerry Lee Lewis signed with Sun Studios and was present for the Million Dollar Quartet jam sessions that month. He would have a hit in 1957 with “Whole Lotta Shaking’ Goin’ On.”
Sam’s success with these artist lead others to search the studio out in later years, but Sam sold Elvis’s contract to RCA so he could settle debts. In 1959, Sam moved the studio to Madison Avenue but in the mid 1960’s he lost interest in recording music and branched into radio. But his legacy to rock music was set.