Today's audio update: Johnny Sun tells what it's like to record at Sun.
The first man to set up a recording studio specializing in the music of black Mississippi Delta musicians was a red-haired freckled-faced young fellow named Sam Phillips. Back in 1950, Phillips was 27 years old, a DJ on radio station WREC, and a man with a deep interest in blues music, especially the blues of the Delta country. It was not terribly unusual for a white man of that time to be interested in black music. Memphis teenagers had been hiring black bands to play dances and other occasions for some time. This is not to say that Phillips' passion was universally understood or appreciated. Occasionally, after working with a black band—with men like Chester Burnett who was known as Howlin' Wolf, or with Ike Turner, Bobby "Blue" Bland, Big Walter Horton, or James Cotton—Phillips would walk into the WREC studios and his fellow DJs might pretend to smell him to see if he had been working with the sort of people who sang and played on what were (then politely) called "race records."
Phillips had a portable recording service, and he taped and pressed local events: speeches, sermons, weddings, and graduations. He also set up a permanent studio at 706 Union St. in downtown Memphis. It was a former radiator shop that Phillips renovated largely with his own two hands, and it became the only full-fledged recording studio in the city at the time. Phillips recorded people like Riley King, who was called the Beale Street Blues Boy, or sometimes just B.B.—B.B. King.
In 1951, Sam Phillips recorded a song most music scholars believe to be the first rock 'n' roll ever cut. A group of musicians who'd been playing around Clarkdale drove up to Memphis in an overloaded car, amplifiers strapped to the roof. They were pulled over by a cop, and an amp rolled off the roof, but the leader of the Kings of Rhythm, Ike Turner, explained to the cop that they were on their way to record some songs. It was their big break. It is a testament to Ike Turner's persuasive (and endless) line of patter that the Kings were sent on their way without a ticket.
Ike was a talker but never a fine vocalist, so the Kings, playing Ike's arrangement, backed up Jackie Brenston on "Rocket 88."The damaged amp produced a fuzzy rumbling bass sound that Sam Phillips liked and that is the one of the signature sounds of rock 'n' roll. I'd never heard the record, so my visit to Sam Phillips' recording studio, which came to be called Sun Records, was worth it if only to hear the 45 seconds of "Rocket 88" the very enthusiastic guide played for us. There were eight of us on the tour, and we glanced at one another. This was, identifiably, rock 'n' roll.
There isn't much to see at Sun Records: three small rooms, one of them full of memorabilia. Here, for instance, is the very sport coat Elvis Presley wore on his first TV appearance, which the guide played for us on a television set up for the purpose. The guide, I should say, was a young man in a buzz cut, jeans that he rolled up at the cuffs in the 1950s style, and a black T-shirt that revealed arms completely covered in tattoo art.
The man called himself Johnny Sun. This had the ring of a stage name, and indeed Johnny Sun was a musician who was working on a CD. He said that Sun ran tours during the day, but musicians can still buy studio time and record there. It's $75 an hour if you're interested.
At Sun Records, the legend is that a young white guitar-playing truck driver named Elvis Presley came in to record a birthday song for his mother, "My Happiness." The story is sweet but probably untrue, or so Johnny Sun explained. Elvis strolled into Sun Records in August of 1953. His mother's birthday was in April.
It was Johnny Sun's opinion that Elvis came to Sun to be discovered. It took a year. Sam Phillips had not been present for that first effort and wasn't much impressed with what he heard. Phillips wasn't much of a fan of white country music as expressed in the early '50s. All he heard, he told music writer Robert Palmer, was "cornstalk fiddle" and "weeping steel guitars." Elvis was playing straight cornpone country in "My Happiness."
A little less than a year later, Phillips invited Elvis back. Nothing much was happening in the session until the musicians took a break and started playing around with a Delta blues hit of 1946, Arthur Big Boy Crudup's "That's All Right."
Phillips knew what he had: It wasn't country or country swing like Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock."It was, Sam Phillips thought, a version of country blues, different but no less authentic than country blues as played by Mississippi Delta musicians for decades. And it rocked like "Rocket 88" had rocked.
The Sun tour goes on, and Johnny Sun explained—this is the company line—why Sam Phillips made a good move when he sold Elvis Presley's contract to RCA. The $35,000 sale kept debt-ridden Sun alive. Had the label failed, Elvis would not have been Elvis and Sun would not have recorded such stars as Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis.
I stood in the third and final room, the very studio where all these men worked: B.B., Elvis, Howlin' Wolf, Ike Turner, Jerry Lee. It is said that the old-style microphone is the one Elvis used, and our guide said that recently a woman felt obliged to lick the metal. He respectively asked us to refrain from licking the microphone. Bob Dylan, we were told, kissed the floor of the studio when he visited. We were, Johnny Sun said, welcome to kiss the floor all we liked.
I thought about what had happened in that room and who had recorded there and what that music had meant to people of the Delta and to African-Americans in general. I thought about what it had meant to me and to my generation and what it will mean for generations to come. I thought that what had happened there in Sun studios was important, and the idea of kissing the floor did not seem entirely out of the question.