By Greg Trelease
June 23, 2013
If rock’n’roll was a religion, Memphis would be its Holy Land and Sun Studio one of its most revered shrines.
On any given day of the week, baby boomer tourists and music fans alike visit Sun Studio to stand in the same spot that Elvis Presley recorded his very first song back in 1953. They come to be in the actual place where Jerry Lee Lewis started a “Whole Lotta Shakin Going On.” It was here where Carl Perkins tried on his “Blue Suede Shoes” and where Johnny Cash first proved he could “Walk the Line.”
In 1950, Sam Phillips opened what he first called The Memphis Recording Service with a mission to record “anything, anywhere, anytime.” His passion was to record the rhythm and blues music he heard on nearby Beale Street being performed by black musicians who had little chance of getting their music on record elsewhere. It was on Beale Street, Memphis’s entertainment section and the hub of the South’s black community, where the sounds of blues and country were blending together to make a new sound. Phillips wanted to capture the excitement of this new music and make it available to those outside of Memphis and to the world. “I knew this music wasn’t going to be available, in a pure sense, forever,” Phillips said. His studio’s goal was to capture that pure raw energy on record and share it with the world. And that he did.
Radio stations across the South in the early 1950s played mostly country music and Grand Ole Opry broadcasts. A few stations such as Nashville’s WLAC and Memphis’s WDIA aired black music, often called “race music” at the time. Yet these stations opened up “the blues” to a new larger audience – white teenagers who secretly tuned in to avoid the complaints of their parents.
The demand for this new music increased despite the racial barriers preventing many of the black artists from performing live or having their music played on the radio.
Phillips had an idea. If he could just find a white Southern boy who could sing like a black man – he just might be able to break down social barriers and get this music heard.
“I don’t sound like nobody” the 18-year-old high school graduate stated firmly when asked at the studio who he sang like. The young man grew up listening to Beale Street blues musicians as well as the music of his parents on the Grand Ole Opry radio shows. He had just paid $4 to record a birthday song for his mom and had the high hopes of being invited back to the studio for more recordings.
A year later, he was invited back – this time with a band. On his return to the studio, Phillips wasn’t impressed with what he heard until break time. As the band started packing up, the boy started singing an older blues tune called “That’s All Right, Mama.” Phillips immediately ran into the studio shouting, “What’s that?”
Here was the sound and the person Phillips had been looking for. He had found his ambassador of the blues in a 19-year-old white Southern boy named Elvis Presley.
Phillips quickly pressed Elvis’s version of the song to vinyl, and in two days it aired on WDIA’s Red Hot and Blue show for the first time. Fourteen times that night, as a matter of fact. The reaction to the song had teenagers across the South calling in and requesting repeated broadcasts.
The sound of Elvis on the airwaves of WDIA in 1954 was a call to arms across the South. Guitarist Carl Perkins, piano player Jerry Lee Lewis and a young Johnny Cash soon made their way to Sun Studio after hearing Presley on the radio.
With the success of his new artists, Phillips eventually opened a larger studio nearby as the original building lay quiet until the mid 1980s.
The Memphis Recording Service and Sun Records building was reopened as “Sun Studio” in 1987 as a functioning record label as well as a tourist attraction. Musicians once again found themselves drawn to this famous three-room studio. U2, Bonnie Raitt, Ringo Starr and Brian Setzer are a few who have returned to these hallowed walls to capture “the Sun sound,” which inspired them many years earlier.
Today, Sun still shines brightly in Memphis. Besides being a tourist attraction, Sun Studio is once again playing a role in bringing aspiring musicians to the public’s attention. PBS stations across the country broadcast “The Sun Studio Sessions,” a weekly TV show featuring new singers, songwriters and performers. Filmed in the same spot where rock ¤’n’ roll’s great pioneers once recorded, the show provides greater exposure to new up and coming artists – a goal not far off from Phillip’s original intentions more than 60 years ago.
Sun Studio was designated a U.S. National Landmark and listed in the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 2003.