“Million Dollar Quartet” runs March 12-17 at the Fox Theatre.
If music history was like March Madness, Sun Records would be the industry’s University of Kentucky: They may not have made every single shot they ever took, but their winning percentage is pretty impressive in retrospect.
The Sun story began in 1950, when producer Sam Phillips opened the Memphis Recording Service (later known as Sun Studios). Phillips, an advocate of African-American music, worked closely with such labels as Chess Records and Modern Records, recording such soon-to-be-famous names s Howlin’ Wolf, Junior Parker, Rufus Thomas and B.B. King. He also recorded what is widely considered the first true rock ‘n’ roll single, “Rocket 88” by Jackie Brenston & His Delta Cats (featuring composer Ike Turner on keyboards). As a result, many music historians call Sun Studios the birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll.
In 1952, with financial help from record executive Jim Bulliet, Phillips launched Sun Records. In the early days, the label’s primary mission was to record rhythm & blues music for a white audience. But Phillips soon expanded his sound to include rock ‘n’ roll, rockabilly and country.
The label was hardly what you’d call an overnight success, but Phillips quickly gained a reputation for going the extra mile. Legend has it that he drove more than 60,000 miles in one year to promote his artists to radio stations and record stores, and paid artists just 3 percent royalties (instead of the typical 5 percent) to keep his costs down. He struggled with alcoholism and depression, especially after Sun’s first hit, Rufus Thomas’ “Bearcat,” was the subject of a copyright infringement lawsuit that nearly bankrupted him.
In the summer of 1953, a novelty recording released by Sun Records finally turned fate in Phillips’ favor. The Prisonaires was a black quartet of inmates from a local prison who were given permission to record a single, “Just Walkin’ in the Rain.” The song drew attention from the Memphis Press-Scimitar newspaper, which ran a story about the recording process. That story is what attracted the interest of a 19-year-old named Elvis Aaron Presley, who went to Phillips in hopes of recording a demo.
The 25 recordings Phillips and Presley made together, including “That’s All Right” and an uptempo twist on Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” made rock ‘n’ roll history. They also led Phillips to sell Elvis’ contract to RCA Records for $40,000, the highest amount ever paid for a contract at that time.
But Elvis was just the first in a long line of superstars Sun Records helped create, a list that includes Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Charlie Rich and Conway Twitty (who recorded for Sun under his real name, Harold Jenkins). The list of hits the plucky little label generated before being sold in 1969 was astounding — Cash’s “Cry! Cry! Cry!” and “I Walk the Line,” Orbison’s “Ooby Dooby,” Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Honey Don’t” (later made famous by the Beatles), Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire” and many more.
It’s almost impossible to overstate the collective impact these artists and their records had on the sound of popular music, and on country music (lest we forget, drums were forbidden on the Grand Ole Opry stage in the 1950s).
It’s telling that the 2001 tribute album Good Rockin’ Tonight: The Legacy of Sun Records featured contributions from rock legends like Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, Jimmy Page & Robert Plant, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, Tom Petty and Elton John. For, without Sam Phillips’ single-minded determination to introduce “race records” to a white audience some 60 years ago, rock ‘n’ roll as we know it today might not exist.
Bret Love is the co-founder/editor in chief of Green Global Travel, a web-based magazine devoted to ecotourism, nature/wildlife conservation and the preservation of global culture. He’s also a longtime freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, AirTran’s Go, American Airlines’ American Way, Amtrak’s Arrive, Destination Marriott and, of course, Encore Atlanta.