On This Day: Memphis’ Famous Sun Studio Opens in 1950

by Jennifer Shea

This January 3 is the 71st birthday of Sun Studio in Memphis, Tennessee. The famous studio went on to record such artists as Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis.

Sam Phillips Founds Sun Studio

The studio was initially called Memphis Recording Service. But Sam Phillips, a radio engineer at the Memphis radio station WREC-AM who founded Sun Studio, eventually renamed it, The Boot reports. 

Phillips launched the studio at 706 Union Ave. with his close friend and assistant Marion Keister. At the same time, Phillips opened Phillips Records with his friend DJ Dewey Phillips. 

Phillips Records never did yield a hit record. After his label fell flat, Phillips started recording songs for other record labels. Then he launched a new label, Sun Records, which met with more success. 

Sun Records recorded musicians such as BB King and Rufus Thomas, who provided the label with its first major hits. Eventually, Phillips became well-known enough that the then-18-year-old Elvis Presley turned to Sun Studio to record two songs, “My Happiness” and “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin.” 

Phillips definitely noticed Presley’s singing, and he invited the musician back to the studio to record “I’ll Never Stand in Your Way” and “It Wouldn’t Be the Same Without You.”

He also recorded an impromptu jam session with the song “That’s All Right,” then played it on his radio show, “Red, Hot and Blue.” The radio play launched Presley’s music career.

Sun Goes on To Launch Other Artists’ Careers

Then, as Presley’s career took off, Phillips had to admit that his tiny record label was too small for the rising artist. So he sold Presley’s contract to RCA Records.

The loss of Presley hurt, but selling his contract freed up the funds to jump start the careers of artists like Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash. 

While the studio shut down in the 1970s, it opened again in 1987 and still records songs today.

It has temporarily closed during the pandemic due to Shelby County’s coronavirus restrictions. But once the pandemic is over, the studio will once again offer 45-minute guided tours to the public at $15 for adults and free for children.