Sun Recording Studios of Memphis is a fun, fun tour. Its located on Union Street and if you grew up with Eivis Presley, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash, this is where they got started, with a dream of Studio owner, Sam Phillips.
Sam Phillips was a unique character. He grew up around the Blues which according to historians started on Beale Street in Memphis. The slave music of misery,and white sharecroppers alike singing out their woes; every street corner in the black area of Memphis had a jug band that played for pennies. Music flowed from black churches. The field hollers and rythmic beat of the black community made the streets course with energy while radio stations only played country music and Grand Old Opry. Phillips wanted to record the energetic blues.
There was one DJ named Dewey Phillips who played “race” music. Teenagers listened to it in secret. Dewey would screech out of his microphone,” If your momma don’t like it, all the better. Tell ’em Phillips Sencha.” His station was the Red Hot and Blue in Memphis, screaming to the kids and they loved it.
What Sam Phllips did, (he and Dewey were not related) was open a recording service. He’d charge you to come in and record your stuff. He’d do a wedding, an anniversary, your poetry, anything at $4 a pop, hoping that someday, someone would walk into his studio and make it big. He recorded the Beale Street Blues and captured that raw energy. He didn’t care about white or black music, he would crank up the amps and distort it. He’d blend styles because he thought music should be fun. He wanted music to sound like a party in the room.
Elvis grew up in Memphis and he walked in one day. But Elvis paid to record his ballads. Sam didn’t like “You Are My Sunshine” and other such stuff. He’d try and get Elvis to play something with energy. Elvis played with the studio band for a year and a half before something happened that Sam liked while the he and the session players were just messing around in the studio during a break. It was the song, “That’s All Right.” Sam brought it to Dewey who played it 14 times the first night it went on the air. Rock N Roll was born.
A young John Cash walked in in 1954. “I’m John Cash and I want you to hear me play”. Sam listened but told him, “write me an uptempo weeper love song”. “Cry, Cry, Cry” was released in 1955. Sam called him “The Giant Voice In Black.”
But, Sun Studio’s first biggest paying hit was Carl Perkins, “Don’t you Step On My Blue Suede Shoes.” Of course Sam was sending recordings to Dewey Phillips and Elivis was hitting the pop charts, crossing styles and fusing music. Carl heard Elvis on the Radio, as did Jerry Lee Lewis. It drew them to Sun Studio.
This is what the studio calls its Million Dollar Quartet, Jerry Lee, Carl, Cash and Elvis in one photo. Jerry Lee signed on as a session player (back-up pianist) but in between recordings he’d pound the ivories like a wild man, play with his feet until his piano sounded like a drum. He finally broke through with HIS kind of music with a “A Whole Lot Of Shakin’ Goin On” in 1957. And six months later, “Great Balls OF Fire” scaring the hell out of parents everywhere.
I love this poster of Jerry Lee playing a burning piano. Lewis is the only musician of the fab four who is still alive and playing rock n roll.
Sam Phillips sold Elvis’s contract to a bigger studio. He was in debt and he knew he didn’t have the bankroll to really further Elvis’ career. A good move for both of them. Elvis didn’t want to leave. I enjoyed this tour very much. There are great pictures of great musicians here, some of their instruments and the recording studio itself. Even if you didn’t grow up in the 1950’s, you will enjoy the energy in this place. The tour guides are great. Lahna Deering was our guide and she is a musician with the Deering And Down band. You can hear her unique music on her website at this link. I like it and hope she makes it big some day.
The rest of the studio tour is about the many great musicians that came here and made great music.
A rare picture of Roy Orbison without sunglasses. Here he is, young and hopeful.
Big Walter Horton, Blues Harmonica Great.
Jim Jaillet, my partner. We were invited to have fun, so we did, as did others. They encourage you to dance to the music and sing along.
What a crooner!
The way Roy Orbison usually appeared in public.
Paul Burlison, a renowned session guitarist.
Ike Turner, leader of the Delta Cats Band.
Two of Elvis’ session players that were recorded with him at Sun Studios, Scotty and Bill.
Rufus “Bearcat” Thomas Jr.
If you are an equipment junkie, it is all here.
An old 45 RPM player. In fact, Sun Studios sells 100’s of remastered 45’s. They sell all of the wonderful pictures as well. It kind of makes me think about galleries who don’t allow pictures for fear you won’t buy any. They do a gold mine business selling everything and still allow photos. Kudos to them.
Lahna demonstrated how Johnny Cash would put a dollar bill under his strings and loosen them up to get that special sound you hear in “Folsom Prison Blues.”
A lot of information about Sun Studio, and all the greats that passed through its doors is on Wikipedia:
They have especially great pictures you don’t often see of Elivis.