If he could find a white man who could sing like a black man, he could make a million dollars. That’s what Sam Phillips would say over and over again from his Memphis Recording Service on Union Avenue.
Then one day in 1953 Elvis Presley walked in, and the desire became a reality. Elvis, and the acts that the 1955 sale of his contract to RCA for $35,000 helped finance, rewrote the rules for popular music.
Through the years, however, Phillips’ white man/black man quote has been turned against him. Often the “N-word,” which associates say he didn’t use, is inserted to add fuel to the argument that Phillips was a brazen opportunist, co-opting the sound of rhythm and blues to sell to a white audience, while cutting out the innovators.
In reality, Phillips opened his studio in January of 1950 to record black musicians in the Memphis area who had no place else to go. Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King and Junior Parker were recorded by Phillips early in their careers. 1951’s “Rocket 88,” featuring a Mississippi born piano player named Ike Turner and credited as the link between R&B and rock ‘n’ roll, was produced by Phillips. Before he founded Sun Records in 1952, Phillips leased his recordings to labels like Chess in Chicago, which made stars out of the Wolf, Rufus Thomas, James Cotton, Little Milton and many others.
“When people come back to this music in a hundred years, they’ll see these were master painters,” Phillips told an interviewer about the blues musicians he recorded. “They can’t write a book about it. But they can make a song, and in three verses you’ll hear the greatest damn story you’ll ever hear in your life.”
All you have to do is listen to the music Phillips recorded, urged, forced out and exorcised from his artists to know that his musical heart was pure. He wouldn’t sign anyone just because they were white. They had to rage and swagger with the intensity of Howlin’ Wolf or rip it up like Billy “the Kid” Emerson. Listen to Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls Of Fire” or Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes” and you realize that skin color is not even a consideration.
Motivated by the music that moved him most, Phillips was the ultimate fan. He didn’t collect records, he made them. He didn’t complain about the state of popular music, he changed it. Music critics can debate the origins of other genres, from funk to rap to honky tonk to blues, but there’s no question that the big bang of rock ‘n’ roll exploded at Sun Records. Phillips was the engineer who drove the mystery train.
The story of the Memphis musical Mecca is one of blacks and whites working together, colorblinded by a love for music that took the boundaries for a walk and left them miles away. Sam Phillips, who grew up in Florence, Ala., picking cotton side by side with blacks, was the vortex of this integration of ideas and influences. He was the straw that stirred the pop music revolution that’s still going today; it’s hard to imagine Eminem without Elvis, 50 Cent without that blues gangsta Howlin’ Wolf, or Steve Earle without Johnny Cash.
Elvis hung around for almost a year before Phillips recorded him. When he finally did put the kid in front of a mike it wasn’t to put a white face on the blues, but to record “My Happiness,” a ballad. “That’s All Right,” the Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup cover that would become Presley’s first single, was worked up during a break.
Phillips possessed a producer’s most valuable gifts — an ear for the truth and the ability to light a fire under performers by the sheer force of his personality. And when his ears perked up while Elvis, guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black were messing around with a combination of country and blues, that was all the encouragement they needed to make history. Phillips didn’t like dividing lines; he encouraged glorious collisions.
Think about all the songs that he was first to hear, but also think about what they might’ve sounded like if Phillips wasn’t there. In 1957, Johnny Cash brought him a slow, mournful song called “I Walk the Line” and Phillips kept urging him to quicken the tempo. Cash hated the new version and when he heard it on the radio for the first time, he pleaded with Phillips to stop sending it out. “Give it a chance, son,” Phillips said. The single became a smash hit and Cash’s signature tune.
Phillips eventually did make his million dollars and then some from the recordings he produced with his eyes on fire. But he made more money with other investments, including a fledgling motel chain called Holiday Inn.
It’s really hard to overstate the legacy that Sam Phillips leaves behind, both in blues and its offspring, rock ‘n’ roll. Of all the people who were ever moved by music, who ever let it get inside them and feel whole, if only for three minutes at a time, Phillips was the most successful. He didn’t play an instrument, he made the instruments play him. His talent was drawing genius out of other people, which he proved is a form of genius itself.