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Sunday, September 9, 2007

Sun Recording Studio

Anyone who’s familiar with rock & roll history knows about Sun Studio in Memphis. I heard recently that if rock & roll were a religion, Memphis would be Jerusalem and Sun would be its most sacred shrine. Here are perhaps a few things you didn’t know about Sun and a bit about the connection that Mike and I have to the studio.

About 1950, Sam Phillips opened tiny Sun Recording Studio at 706 Union Avenue with the slogan “We record anybody, anywhere, anytime.” (You can see a photo of the original studio here:

He probably paid the rent with the walk-ins who paid three or four dollars to record a message or song for someone. But Sam loved the blues and was recording black artists such as B.B. King, Junior Parker and Howlin’ Wolf. The very next year, the whole game changed when he recorded a group that included on piano 17-year-old Ike Turner, later of Ike & Tina Turner. The song was “Rockin’ 88s” and it had a completely new feel and sound with a strong backbeat and distorted electric guitar. By all accounts, this was the first rock & roll record.

Sam wanted to take this sound into the mainstream (translation: white) market, but he understood the social climate of the day and knew that he needed a white singer to break through with this new music form. And then one day, Elvis walked into the studio. You know the rest of that story.

Then came the rest. Elvis put Sun on the map. Others heard the new sounds and came to Mr. Sam hoping to be recorded. That era at Sun produced Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins. Others who came to Sun in those early years were Charlie Rich, Roy Orbison and Conway Twitty.

About 1960, Sam built a new, three-story studio on Madison Avenue. That’s the one that Mike and I knew. The original studio sat empty for 30 years. As the music changed over the years, Sun still attracted artists who wanted the vibe and sound produced at that studio, so the original Sun was refurbished and Sam donated some of the original equipment. Ringo Starr, Paul Simon and U-2 are among those who have recorded there. It is still available for recordings and there’s even an X painted on the floor where Elvis stood to do his first records. The studio/museum is also open to visitors for tours.

Personal notes

Back when we were still in high school, Mike and another, slightly older friend of ours played in a band called Jimmy Day & the Knights, the first blue-eyed soul group in town. At one point, they were looking for a new guitar player and hooked up with Jerry Phillips, Sam’s younger son. A side benefit of having Jerry was that they had pretty open access to studio time. Older brother Knox, who’s now the face of Sun and a leader in the Memphis music community, would volunteer to work the soundboard for the group. Another band girlfriend and I got to go to several of those sessions to sit quietly in the control booth with Knox and see how music was made.

I remember at least one time when Jerry invited the band to the Phillips’ home, I presume for a rehearsal. What I remember most was Sam Phillips –THE Sam Phillips – wandering through the room we were in. I was pretty darn impressed.

In later years, Mike was a session musician at Sun. In 2003 Mike and more than 1,000 others from around the world attended Mr. Sam’s funeral. Mike sat with the family of Jerry Lee Lewis, with whom he had toured, and had the occasion to visit with some of the folks from the old years at Sun. Sam Phillips died at age 80, an inductee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and a music legend.

You can read more about Sun Studio at

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