Sam Philips - the man who discovered Elvis


David McGonigal: My first question was one I didn't actually have on my list at all, I've been doing my maths and you're looking remarkable, a lot younger than I expected you would be.

Sam Philips: Well I think that works real good, David, that in lieu of cash, at my age anyway.

DM: The first and fundamental question I have to ask is what did you hear that no-one else did? Obviously everyone dwells on the Elvis thing but you consistently found the people who created that first decade of rock'n'roll. What were you hearing?

SP: Well, I tell you David it does truly go back to my childhood. I somehow developed a real ability to absorb things around me, I don't know that that has anything to do with intelligence. Being the son of a West Alabama sharecropper I was an observer of people, circumstances, situations.  

Now I don't know that I knew how to put 'em in the proper order or to stack them together to make anything of it but I think that that was the asset I had in becoming a little creative and maybe seeing the big picture a little bit better than some people. And there's the fact that I may have had a talent for music. I was in my grammar school band and high school band, and I also formed a little summer band between jobs, but I never thought of music as being a profession. I loved it, I still say John Philip Souza was the greatest composer ever. I mean if you can make people march and like it even if it's not a memorial day, that's pretty good music. So I liked music, I loved it yet I never envisioned making a living in music. Looking back upon it, that was probably a good thing as I stayed an experimenter. And I hated to be like anybody else - I was almost as bad as Elvis about that.

As a child I thoroughly enjoyed black people singing. We were around a lot of black people, because we were sharecroppers and they were sharecroppers under sharecroppers. (I was) fascinated with the different ways that people coped with their existence, especially the black persons. We were about as poor as you could get, but we weren't black and that made a difference. In music I was later able to engender the intertwining and interlacing of white and black and our common bond. I wasn't forced to do it, and by God I wasn't ashamed to do it. That was simply the basis for my attempt to do things differently in the music industry.

I've always been fascinated with radio, that was my first love. My true first love was to be a criminal defence lawyer but I didn't get to finish my senior year as I had to get a job and a draft deferment to take care of my mother and Aunt Emma.

DM: Ever sad you didn't?

SP: No, no I don't look back too much. I've never really had good sight looking back. There are many things that looking back you would have done different but that's one thing I didn't regret.

I accidentally got into radio. I was doing a little summer concert and was announcing a program for the University of Alabama. I was also the conductor. I've never had any problem reading music but I heard more than I read, and even now, 71 years old, I'll put my damn hearing up with anybody's.

DM: That must have been different from most of the guys coming through your studio? Most of them, I presume, couldn't read music?

SP: I didn't let that stand in my way. Their spontaneity was what I was looking for. I had come to Memphis in 1939 to hear a preacher and I simply fell in love with the city. We had arrived about 5 am, it was absolutely pouring yet the streets were filled with black folks who'd saved up their money from the plantations to be here. Some had saved two or three years to get to spend this one weekend. It just hit me like a ton of bricks, I mean, man, what a place. I found out later there was an awful lot of crime. Yet there were an awful lot of happy folks, happy because the happiest thing that they would ever get to do was come off the damn farm and come down to Beale Street.  

I got a lot of south in my mouth, and I didn't have no easy time, believe me, getting a job as a radio announcer. Well, I was a pretty good engineer so I got a job as an announcer and board operator. Then a friend   of mine said there's a job at WALC and I'd like it because they're putting on a big band every night. Hell, two or three years   earlier I didn't think I'd ever get to see a big band.

So I took my first flight and I wasn't scared because I was coming to Memphis. I blew my whole budget for the year flying over - and I had to be back at work 6 o'clock that night. Anyway, I got the job!

I went back and gave two weeks notice. They lost a dedicated employee but they didn't lose the most talented one.

DM: Setting up Memphis Recording Service, I hear it said that you did it because you wanted to give black artists who otherwise wouldn't get a chance a chance to record.  

SP: Well I set it up truly to attempt to record black artists. Country artists were being recorded real well in Nashville and of course you had your Broadway stuff, plus New York and Chicago. I didn't want to lose my job. My boss lectured me real good. 'Son, that's fine, the only thing if it interferes with your work, well, now, don't say I didn't tell you. You got two young babies at your house'.

Hell, I worked 18-20 hours a day because I didn't know any better! I opened it up to really try to see what I could do with the black man's music.

When I opened up the problem I had to overcome was that black artists couldn't believe they could walk into a studio and a white man was going to take the time to audition and listen to them and make a tape of them - and not present them with a bill before they went out the front door!

When they first started coming in, practically every one would want to do Nat King Cole or Duke Ellington or Count Basie - simply because a white man was looking through the control room window. I'd get down with them and that really opened up a lot of true emotions because I really wanted to hear their own music.

I had to be careful not to overcompensate for the things that had been done wrong to them. But I had to let them know that I was interested in their talent and what they felt for music. In dealing with people we often don't think about what the other person's concern is. I remember the toughest thing I had in the world was that audition for WLAC. I mean, I was scared to death!

On top of that people are looking for some recognition, and to make a little money. It was no accident what I did at 706 Union Street. I don't say someone else couldn't have done it as well but it didn't just happen. It was well thought out. I couldn't have gone to one those people and saying 'Man, I feel sorry for you. I want to make a recording of you'. Bullshoot. That wouldn't have worked, no, that would have put them right back down where in the hell they started from. They didn't want an advantage, they just wanted the opportunity.

DM: That was the recording side - did you set up Sun label pretty soon after the studio?

SP: Well, I didn't want to set up the label at all. I wanted to be at the 'creative end' . But some independent labels I dealt with just weren't fair. I mean, they beat me out of some money and I just couldn't afford to be beat out of anything.

DM: Why did you call it Sun?

SP: Well, I was a country boy. If the sun is out then you could haul cotton today, you could pick cotton, you could do a lot of things, they mean happier days. It was no big sit-around thing. And I'll tell you something else, David, I kept it exactly like it was. When all the record company labels were putting five, eight colours on, I kept the this old yellow and burnt umber brown. The only thing that hurt me bad was when I had to take the rooster off when I put it to 45s   - he was right there on that small hole.

DM: Who came up with the logo?

SP: Jay Parker and I were in a high school band together. I didn't even know he was here in Memphis at the Memphis Engraving Company - almost across from the Peabody. I had sketched out some things   and I wanted to go to Memphis Engraving because they were really good. The first guy I saw was Jay and he was the artist I was assigned to. I said 'Jay, I'm the world's worst artist and I'd like to have a few musical notes here and the sun rays and the rooster or something that depicts getting up'.

The next day he had the Sun label. One thing I do well is that I make decisions fast and as soon as I saw it I knew. The same way I knew when I make records - I didn't have to sit around and listen. He had sketched out three or four different designs, but one was it. Hasn't been changed one iota since the rooster had to leave because of the big hole on the old 45.

DM: I don't want to dwell on Elvis but we've reached that point. When Elvis came in, the story is that he came to record something for his mum's birthday. But his mum's birthday was a long way off wasn't it - was he really there because he wanted to become part of the music scene?

SP: Oh yeah. He had heard Little Junior Parker's Mystery Train. He heard that and he liked others I had done, including the Prisonaires' Walking in the Rain and Rocket 88 which is supposed to be   the first rock'n'roll record according to some people in this business smarter than I am. [Bil Haley recorded Rock around the Clock in 1954?]

I later found out that, but didn't know it at the time, Elvis came in with the biggest lie because he just didn't have the courage to come in and say 'Mr Philips, would you audition me for free?'

I mean, I never charged anybody in my life for an audition. But Elvis didn't just come in and ask for a session, he came in and asked to make a record for his mother. From that little control room I had seen his Crown Electric truck pass by every day for a month or two. Hell, I knew every damn car that passed by just about, then. Crown Electric didn't have all that much business in this vicinity. Elvis finally got up the courage to come in 'to make his mother a birthday record'.

DM: Were you doing direct to vinyl recordings?

SP: I think if you put it on tape it was a dollar more and Elvis chose to go directly onto acetate.

DM: I'd heard that you'd actually done some recording with black artists in the foyer of the Peabody Hotel. Is that true?

SP: No.

DM: It was all done in the studio? So it's another one of the myths like Elvis recording in the stairwell.

SP: Except for one session of the Prisonnaires in a maximum security prison, we did it all in the studio.

DM: When Roy Orbison came in, did you actually recognise that voice quality straight off?

SP: Roy, he's from Odessa Texas [or Wink?]. He called me and I said, 'Look Roy, don't come all the way over here just for an audition. But if you ever get up the money to come, do it. In the meantime, send me the little tape you have'. He sent it and called to ask what I thought before the tape even arrived. When I got it, I heard Roy's fantastic vocals. I   look for uniqueness. It is a word that's overused, until you hear the raw talent of Roy on Ooby Dooby - he was just like Elvis with that great voice. I said, I can't record him as a ballad singer. I mean we've got Dean Martin and Eddie Fisher. Let's get the attention of the young people - there has to be more vitality than ballads. He later went on to Monument and did some fabulous stuff.

DM: Of all the Sun recordings I've heard, the one that stands out as really different is Folsom Prison Blues. It almost doesn't sound like it was the same studio?

SP: They all were. I Walked the Line to Folsom Prison, Big River all the same.

DM: But was that just Johnny Cash's input into the recording? Was that the way you wanted it to go? Or was it the way you saw his voice working?

SP: No, we, it was a synergistic thing - I worked with my artists. We knew what we were trying for and after a while together, we   found we could get it over quickly. But keep in mind of the hundreds of people I recorded, all of them didn't make it. I'm sure that I missed some that were great but I had to make some decisions.

DM: What were the studio's acoustics like?

SP: Well, I went for the live sound. I didn't know how it would play over the acoustics in little beer joints, clubs and restaurants where sound bounces off the walls. Your ear gets used to hearing a certain sound. If you put it down with a real different approach you don't need to overcome the sound that sound's real to a person's ear. It would have been easier to control and make records had I made the studio dead, but I decided I wanted more liveness to it - that way you didn't have to doctor it as much.

DM: Thinking back to Rocket '88 and the car theme. The first rock'n'roll song was about a car, and that same theme carries through to Bruce Springsteen and songs today.

SP: Well a Rocket '88 was the hottest automobile. It was before the Thunderbird and the Mustang. Oh man, everybody wanted to own a Rocket '88 - especially black people. They wanted a beautiful car as bad as I did. Rocket 88 - what a song.   See, Ike Turner had a couple of songs - he was playing the piano then. And   I said, 'Ike, I don't hear anything on this trip. Does anybody in your band have anything while we're all set up' and he said 'Well, Jackie [Brenston] has a song called Rocket '88'. Ike started 'Do, do, do' and that was a great piano lick - it reminds me of Jerry Lee Lewis. Their amplifier had fallen off the car on the way into town and the woofer and amplifier were bust in pieces. We crammed in some newspapers and some brown paper, just to see if we could get   something we could use for a beat. That gave it a unique sound and the subject matter was just great for the time.

DM: What was your achievement of which you are proudest?

SP: Well, I think I'm proudest of recognising where I was when I got to Memphis. Somehow of having the stamina to go through what I had to go through to establish the little studio, to continue to work and have a nervous breakdown in the process from sheer overwork. That and to see ultimately the impact that one little dude from Florence, Alabama - rural Florence Alabama - could have.   I guess, just building that studio with that type of intention is probably the proudest thing.

To try and have it succeed and see a change that literally changed the world - that's literally what it did - it brought people closer together and a thread has gone right across the face of this earth. And to see that happen has just been incredibly pleasing. Not that I'm claiming all the credit! I'm just saying that to help set the stage for something like that to happen is more than I can believe I'm capable of doing.

DM: Probably the harder one to answer is: biggest mistake?

SP: Oh gosh, I made so many of them! I know a lot of people have asked me that question and they think maybe it was selling Elvis - but it was not. That was additional money after many, many hard years of work in getting established, going from hand to mouth. Taking that $35,000 and then coming along with Carl Perkins and 'Blue Suede Shoes' proved that I wasn't just a 'one hit' label.

I would say the one mistake that stands out that I think I could have had a better track record on re-signing artists. Perhaps I should have tried harder to hold on to some of the artists that left me. I didn't blame them because they were being offered BIG contracts. But I had an awful lot invested in those people in blood, sweat and money. So if I have one regret it's that I should have tried a little harder, gambled a little more. But there was no security in the record business, not for a small guy back then. The big companies could overcome it with the diversification they had but we hungry folks had to make it everyday. We couldn't skip two or three days - we had to make it work.

So I guess I was a little too cautious when they'd say 'Oh man, I've got a chance to go to a major label'. Did you know Elvis really had to think about it, cause he knew we had a thing, synergism? A lot of people don't know that I talked to Tom Parker and RCA and said 'if Elvis for some reason does not want to go, no matter what the money is and how bad we need it, there's no deal'. And Elvis had told them the same damn thing. That's the type of guy he was, period: in his whole career he was on just two labels.

I never tried to sell another artist because it wasn't a money-driven thing. You had to have money but it can jump in the way of creativity so fast.

DM: Did you stay friends with them after they left Sun?

SP: Oh yeah, the only person that I was disappointed in, because he's one of the greatest people that I've ever known, was Johnny Cash. Johnny doesn't lie. But I went to Johnny and said 'A couple of my distributors have told me that you have signed an option contract with Columbia. All I want from you is that you tell me that you have or you haven't' and he said 'No, sir, Mr Phillips I have not'.   I later found that he had, and he apologised to me and said 'that was the toughest day of my life and that was the biggest mistake I ever made. I had no reason to lie to you.'

The thing is I worked for and with my artists. I don't mean we always got along - hell we ain't dead. But they knew that I respected their potential talent, they knew that I worked for them and didn't grow above them and look down upon them. I was a part of the whole festive occasion. I know that Johnny and Carl said I devoted all my time to Jerry Lee when he came along. Well, I had already devoted my time to Carl and was still doing it with Johnny. They weren't children but they were kinda jealous. I was fighting like hell to get Jerry Lee going, I thought this guy had unbelievable potential. But I wasn't letting Cash and Perkins down.

DM: Was Jerry Lee the hardest to deal with?

SP: No, I never had any problem with any of my artists. I really didn't, David, I know that's hard to believe in today's world. But they knew I respected them, they knew I loved them, but that we had a business to do and they had to know who was boss. I had to make it happen. Certainly without them I couldn't have sold a black record. But when they had finished my work was just beginning: promotion and selling . . .printing and shifting, presssing . . .

DM: What do you think of the modern music scene, particularly country?

SP: I think country is doing real well but I'm very sad that a lot of stations are not playing some of the classics like Merle Haggart. But time does move on.

What I wanted to do was broaden the base of acceptance so I think what has happened is good, I just hope that the great things of Merle Haggart - even old Conway Twitty that we lost (he was a great rock artist, too) will   go on. Rock n'roll has influenced country today. Yet, conversely, country was the influence on rock n'roll - along with the blues. So it's a good synergism between the two . . .

DM: Any particular favourites in the new batch of country? Dwight Yoakam?

SP: Oh, I like Dwight a lot, I think he is as honest as they come and still has the essence of what it should be today.

DM: Garth Brooks?

SP: I like Garth, but I don't hear Garth as a stylist like I hear Dwight. And I always favoured people that are more stylised. I haven't seen his show but people tell me it is incredible.

There is a whole crop of new artists that are so damned good. When I started in this business, hardly anybody could play a guitar or play a musical instrument. These people today can play music and don't even have one lesson and don't need it. God, it's in their head, it just comes forth from the spirit. It's totally incredible the influence that rock'n'roll has had on people - people have just become unbelievable musicians.

DM: Because they're the generation born after rock n'roll was created?

SP: They pick up these damn axes and it's just incredible to see them pick.


David McGonigal © David McGonigal Pty Ltd