Knox Knox Phillips has been all caught up in what’s been all shook up for all his natural born days
Photo: Downtowner Magazine / Trey Clark
The Fonz

Knox’s childhood in Memphis was otherworldly.

Courtesy Phillips Family Collection

An Education Like No Other

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.

Baby
Baby Knox with his mother Becky and father Sam Courtesy Phillips Family Collection
The Fonz 2
Knox and Elvis shared similar hairstyles Courtesy Phillips Family Collection
Knox and Elvis
Knox grew up with Elvis hanging around the house and studio Courtesy The Commercial Appeal
Knox and Elvis

Knox, Sam and Jerry Phillips

Courtesy The Commercial Appeal

Perfect Imperfection

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.”

My Way of Thinking
Randy & The Radiants
Cinnamon Girl
The Gentrys
Shotgun Willie
Willie Nelson

Connecting Memphis’ Spirit To The World

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.

Cadillac Man
The Jesters

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.

Starting All Over Again
Mel & Tim

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.

Knox and Jerry Lee Lewis
Working with Jerry Lee Lewis Courtesy The Commercial Appeal
Sam and Knox
Knox and Sam Courtesy The Commercial Appeal
Knox and John Prine
Working with John Prine Courtesy The Commercial Appeal
Knox Podium
Knox Phillips, son of Sun Records founder Sam Phillips, is observed by veteran DJ and television personality Wink Martindale, while he speaks during a ceremony celebrating the birthday of the late Elvis Presley at Graceland Courtesy The Commercial Appeal
Knox and John Prine

From left, Canadian singer David Thibault, TV/radio personality Wink Martindale, Knox Phillips and Jenna Bush Hager cut a cake to honor the birthday of the late Elvis Presley at Graceland

Courtesy The Commercial Appeal

What Others are Saying

  1. Messick class of 55. Brought up on WDIA and Daddy- O- Dewey

    Bill Shaler III
  2. I’m blessed to work for the Phillips family. They are kind, compassionate and hardworking. You never feel like you work for them, but with them.

    Sabrina Thomason - Eaton
  3. I’ve known Knox since he was a little kid in 1957/58 when I “baby sat” him in New York City when his parents were out celebrating the New Year in Times Square. Jerry Lee was headlining at the Times Square Paramount in the Alan Freed show then. We had created the International Jerry Lee Lewis Fan Club on this date (August 2) in 1957. Knox has never forgotten me and has always been outgoing and cordial and agreed to most of my requests for some kind of favors over the years. God has blessed him and he has been a boon to Jerry Lee Lewis and Sun Records fans forever. Love him!

    Kay Martin
  4. Knox, always good to hear about you and jerry. we made the young days in Memphis unforgettable. glad to see some old photos, love to the family, john

    john b ryland
  5. Hi Knox…just finished the new “Sam Phillips” book…
    what an all encompassing read… what a dedicated father… and your mom’s love & faith kept “it” all alive!!! I met Jim Casey in N’ville in 2001 at an NSAI songposium… I still have lotsa original songs that you may be interested in givin’ a listen too for your artists… let me know if I can ship you a few… and I am very pleased you’re keepin’ your Dad’s legacy alive!!! thanks, Rick
    youtube…. “rickmcguiresongs”…..

    Rick McGuire
  6. It would be a highlight of my life to meet these brothers. Rock n Roll history, Baby!!!

    willie small
  7. I had the great opportunity to work with Knox in the early 70’s recording a number of songs together. What a talented man he was and is. Working with him and Sam was some of the most rewarding years of my life. Jerry Dycke

    Jerry Dycke

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