Sun Records founder Sam Phillips, who decided that a then-unknown Elvis Presley deserved a recording contract when he heard him sing songs for his mother, has died. He was 80. Phillips, the record producer who helped usher in the rock ‘n’ roll revolution, died yesterday (July 30) of respiratory failure at Memphis’ St. Francis Hospital, his son Knox Phillips said. He said his father had been in declining health for a year.
The elder Phillips founded Sun Records in 1952 and helped launch the career of Presley, then a young singer who had moved from Tupelo, Miss. In the summer of 1953, Presley went to the Sun studio to record two songs for his mother’s birthday. Phillips noticed him and offered Presley a recording contract.
Phillips produced Presley’s first record, the 1954 single that featured “That’s All Right, Mama” and “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” and nine more. “God only knows that we didn’t know it would have the response that it would have,” Phillips said in a 1997 interview. “But I always knew that the rebellion of young people, which is as natural as breathing, would be a part of that breakthrough.”
Presley was good with ballads, Phillips recalled, but there was no need to challenge the established balladeers like Perry Como and Bing Crosby. “What there was a need for was a rhythm that had a very pronounced beat, a joyous sound and a quality that young people in particular could identify with,” he said.
Born Samuel Cornelius Phillips in Florence, Ala., Phillips worked as an announcer at radio stations in Alabama and Nashville, before settling in Memphis in 1945. He started Sun Records so he could record both rhythm & blues singers and country performers. His plan was to let artists who had no formal training play their music as they felt it, raw and full of life. The Sun motto was “We Record Anything, Anywhere, Anytime.”
In the early days, before Presley, Phillips worked mostly with black musicians, including B.B. King and Rufus Thomas.
After the success of Presley on Sun, others who recorded for the label under Phillips included Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Conway Twitty and Charlie Rich. He got out of the recording business in 1962 and sold Sun Records in 1969 to producer Shelby Singleton of Nashville. The Sun studio on Union Avenue in Memphis is now a tourist attraction.
In his later years, Phillips spent much of his time operating radio stations in Memphis and in Alabama. He stayed out of the limelight except for some appearances at Presley-related events after Presley’s death.
Last summer, BMG Heritage released the two-disc retrospective “Sun Records: The 50th Anniversary Collection.” In an interview with Billboard, Phillips said he derived tremendous pleasure from people who tell him his actions gave them the courage to follow their dreams.
“I’ve been told so many times that I was an inspiration to people who went into the business, who felt, ‘If he can do it, we’ve got a chance,'” he said. “And I have to say that makes me feel better than anything in the world. It’s the greatest thing.”
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