Raised at the Coke machine in Sun Studio, he’s gambled with blues greats, rambled with rock and roll pioneers, and ambled with players at every level of Memphis music.
The eldest child of Sam and Becky Phillips, Knox inherited more than just his father’s great hair. Sam made sure his kids — Knox and younger brother Jerry — witnessed some of the blues greats at work in his Memphis Recording Service and Sun Studio. Thus, very early in his life, Knox was aware that the “colored only” and “whites only” signs he saw at public venues in Memphis were antithetical to what his parents were teaching him. In a city that sought to discriminate, Knox was taught tolerance, kindness, and humanity.
His playground was Ike Turner’s band bus, which said “Rocket 88” on the side and was parked in front of the midtown duplex where the Phillips’ lived. Another regular around the house was Sputnik Monroe, the wrestler who brought integration to the civic auditorium. In a biased world, Knox’s childhood was otherworldly.
Not yet ten years old when Elvis Presley became a national sensation through his father’s handiwork, Knox was old enough to know the right answer when his mother would ask if he wanted to wake up in the middle of the night to hang out with the newly crowned king of rock and roll. Elvis made regular visits at irregular hours to the Phillips household, usually with an entourage, and usually just to hang out, play on Sam’s pinball machine and pool table, and eat Becky’s delicious breakfasts. It may have meant missing school the next day, but this was an education like no one else was receiving.
Knox almost pursued the straight and narrow. He was about to enter Vanderbilt’s law school when he turned left into the music industry.
At Rhodes (then Southwestern), he met Randy Haspel, and soon he was producing Randy and the Radiants at Sun. The Gentrys followed, and in short order Knox found himself committed to the family business. He engineered parts of Willie Nelson’s Shotgun Willie for Jerry Wexler at Atlantic, and also some of Jerry Jeff Walker’s landmark album Mr. Bojangles.
He brought the Amazing Rhythm Aces to Memphis, helping make their debut album Stacked Deck and the Grammy nominated hit, “Third Rate Romance,” as well as the Grammy winning follow-up, Too Stuffed to Jump, with the hit “The End Is Not In Sight.”
When Jerry Lee Lewis was despairing from the pigeonhole that the music industry kept him in, Knox brought him in to record what he wanted, how he wanted. He gave Jerry wide berth and lots of rope. They sent some of the tapes to Jerry Lee’s Nashville label, but some remain in the Phillips vault, rumored to be so explosive that national security clearances are necessary before they can be heard.
Another standout project was John Prine’s 1979 album Pink Cadillac. Co-produced with brother Jerry at the family’s Sam Phillips Recording Service, the Phillips family funk set the album apart from standard fare. Knox coaxed father Sam to the studio telling him that this guy’s voice was so bad, he’d love him. Sam came to help get the song “Saigon” on tape, slowing down the performance so the composition’s soul could breathe. It kicks off with a guitar making hash of its amp, a distortion that would, in a couple decades, become the norm but which then was heard by much of the industry as a mistake. It was what Knox’s father might have called “perfect imperfection,” and Knox left it on the song, front, center, and bold.
Knox Phillips has had a hand in nearly every aspect of the business—producing, engineering, running a studio, running a publishing company, pitching songs to TV and the movies.
As a trustee of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, Knox lobbied the organization to establish Memphis as its sixth chapter. The idea of wrangling eccentric, rebellious, independent- minded Memphis musicians must have been daunting, but Knox knew there was long-term gain if the corralling could be done. Forty years on, the Memphis chapter provides a voice for the dirt farmer at the coastal sushi tables, and a safety net for the players here who’ve not seen a cover charge increase in decades.
These professional accomplishments and the challenges of working with Memphis irascibles and irreplaceables proved to be training for his battle with cancer. Dosed mightily by radiation and chemotherapy, Knox fought his way back to strength. He remains active behind the scenes in many aspects of the music business, connecting the Memphis spirit, his father’s legacy, and his own indomitable character and fortitude to the national and international scene. Maybe greatest of all, you don’t have to know any of these things about Knox Phillips when you meet him to feel them all. He shares his big smile, warm embrace, and encouraging words with everyone he meets; friend, family or stranger, all are welcome.