On This Day: Sam Phillips, Record Exec Who Discovered Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Born in 1923

by Joe Rutland

Sam Phillips founded Sun Records and helped give people like Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and a young man from Tupelo, Miss., their start.

Tuesday marked Phillips’ birthday as he was born in Florence, Ala., on Jan. 5, 1923. His importance to the early times of rockabilly and rock music may be forgotten at times, yet his contributions are noteworthy.

But his name will also forever be tied to Elvis Presley, who made his first record of Arthur “Big Boy” Cruddup’s “That’s All Right (Mama)” at Sun Records.

His company was based in Memphis, Tenn., at a time when artists were looking to get their work on records. Phillips, in some people’s minds, was the person who actually came up with the basic rock-and-roll sound. Cleveland, Ohio disc jockey Alan Freed has been given credit as the first one to call this new music sound “rock and roll.”

Sam Phillips Put Together Who’s Who Musical Lineup

The lineup of talent at one time under Sun Records reads like a who’s who of musical genius.

Lewis, the roaring bluesy piano player whose “Whole Lotta Shakin'” and life outside music raised eyebrows. Cash, whose ability to sing about the troubles and misfortunes of life through his own experiences. Roy Orbison, whose falsetto voice made songs like “Oh, Pretty Woman” and “Crying” left people filled with emotions.

Then there was Presley, who took the sound of African-American blues and turned it into rockabilly and rock music. His talent to attract audiences with his energy and voice was a part of what led Phillips to sign Presley.

Sam Phillips was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1986 by Atlantic Records president Ahmet Ertegun. He died on July 30, 2003, in Memphis.

Phillips Developed Recording Styles For His Artists

Sam Phillips had an open style and insightful guidance. It allowed musicians, especially Presley, to search and feel their way to where they would perform beyond Phillips’ and their own expectations.

His recording style of performers was focused on a feel. In fact, Phillips told Presley the worst thing he could go for was perfection. Phillips was always seeking what he called the perfect/imperfect cut.

Most recordings at the time gave substantially more volume to the vocals. Phillips, though, pulled back on Presley’s vocals and blended it with instrumental performances. Phillips also used tape delay to get an echo into Presley’s recordings by running the tape through a second recorder head.

It’s not a stretch to say that Sam Phillips and what he did for music not only had an impact in the 1950s. It still impacts today’s rock-and-roll sound. His vision and talent made lasting imprints on the music industry.

H/T: Sun Records

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