Sam Phillips could be said to be the man who invented rock ‘n’ roll.

Samuel Cornelius Phillips
January 5, 1923
Florence, Alabama
July 30, 2003 (aged 80)
Memphis, Tennessee
Rock and Roll, Blues, Country
Sun Studios, Sun Records
Photo courtesy Phillips Family Collection

Born on a farm outside of Florence, Alabama, on January 5, 1923, two of his primary role models were an old blind black man named Silas Payne whom his family took in when he was eleven or twelve years old, and his deaf-mute aunt Emma, from whom as a child he learned to sign and whom he would take care of until her death in 1965.

From Silas Payne he learned the gift of imagination, “that you must have a belief,” as Sam always insisted, “in things that are unknown to you.” From his deaf-mute aunt, whom he considered, even with her handicap, to be one of the most brilliant and accomplished people he knew,

“I just thought, ‘Man, alive, me with a couple of pretty good ears and a couple of eyeballs, there shouldn’t be any limit to what I try - if I set my mind to it.’”

The fundamental lesson was communication, and that was what Sam brought to his work first in radio, then in the recording studio. Sound was the vehicle. Anyone who ever listened to Sam expound upon his boyhood knows that it was sound that carried him away.

The sound of a whippoorwill.

The sound of a mockingbird's song.

The sound of the sharecroppers working and singing in the fields.

The sound of a hoe striking the ground.

And the sound of the silences in between.

As Sam said, “I would hear somebody speak to a mule harshly – I heard that. Nothing passed my ears.”

Courtesy Phillips Family Collection

He started in radio in his hometown, migrated to Nashville, then Memphis, where he took a job at the city’s most sophisticated station, WREC, in 1945, at the age of twenty-two. There he engineered the big-band broadcasts on a national hook-up from the roof of the Hotel Peabody every night, but in the end, much as he loved the sound of the bands, he tired of their lack of spontaneity.

“They might have played the damned song 4000 times, and they were still turning the pages.”

To Sam if you weren’t doing something different, then you weren’t really doing anything, and, in furtherance of that principle, in January of 1950 he opened up a little studio, the Memphis Recording Service, for the avowed purpose of “mak[ing] records with some of the great Negro artists in the South who just had no place to go.”

Roscoe Gordon and his chicken and Sam Phillips hold a vinyl record Roscoe Gordon and Sam, photo courtesy Phillips Family Collection

He did this, as he often pointed out, at the risk of his job, at the risk of his health, at the risk of his young family’s future. When he showed up for his work as an engineer at the radio station, he was greeted with sarcastic comments and racial jibes and advised on more than one occasion that maybe he ought to start thinking about giving up his eccentric little experiment and start focusing on his own professional future.

Instead, he quit his job, because, he said, "with the belief that I had in this music, in these people, I would have been the biggest damn coward on God’s green earth if I had not.”

In 1951 he made what is widely considered to be the first rock ‘n’ roll record, Ike Turner and Jackie Brenston's “Rocket 88,” and he recorded the artist he still considers the greatest talent with whom he ever worked, Howlin’ Wolf. He recorded B.B. King, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Little Junior Parker, and Rufus Thomas as well, all at the outset of their careers, until, in the summer of 1953, a shy eighteen-year-old kid with sideburns, just graduated from high school, wandered into his studio to make a record “for his mother” – and in hopes that somehow he might get noticed.

Listen Now:

Rufus Thomas - Bear Cat
Photo courtesy Phillips Family Collection

“He tried not to show it,” said Sam Phillips, “but he felt so inferior. Elvis Presley probably innately was the most introverted person that [ever] came into that studio.”

This Elvis Presley considered himself a ballad singer almost exclusively, but Sam heard something different in his voice. He didn’t discover what it was until almost a year later when he finally summoned Elvis back for a studio try-out with guitarist Scotty Moore and bass player Bill Black. After running through a series of ballads with little success, the three musicians were taking a break when Elvis, perhaps sensing that his opportunity was slipping away, picked up a guitar and started fooling around with an old blues called “That’s All Right Mama.” That was when Sam Phillips’ ears perked up. “What are you doing?” he said. “I don't know,” said Elvis, somewhat abashed. “Well, back up, try to find a place to start, and do it again.”

After that Phillips recorded, in short order, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Charlie Rich, not to mention such rockabilly notables as Sonny Burgess and Billy Lee Riley. Memphis became the spearhead of a musical movement, the Memphis Recording Service at 706 Union Avenue became its epicenter, and Sam Phillips was seen, both then as now, as the avatar of a revolution, whose vision gave birth to a moment of freedom and individuation. He scorned copy artists and imitators. The individuals that he championed had only one thing in common: a commitment to expressing themselves each in his own way – what Sam liked to call individualism in the extreme.

Like other great American creative geniuses – like Walt Whitman, who sought to encompass the full range of the American experience in his poetry; like William Faulkner, who could see past prejudice to individual distinctions; like Mark Twain, who celebrated the freedom of the river and a refusal to be civilized – Sam Phillips had a democratic vision of his own. In his vision, categories of every sort would be broken down, and people would be free to express themselves as they liked, make any kind of damn fool of themselves that they wanted to – and be judged solely on the individual results. He himself got out of the music business at an early age – after 1960 to all intents and purposes he devoted himself to other interests, radio in particular – but he never wavered in his belief in giving voice to those who had no voice, in his commitment to the kind of freedom that he believed rock ‘n’ roll in its first flowering represented, not just in musical but in social, racial, and political terms.

“If it could be worked,” he said presciently, “to where just a few like Elvis could break out again, then I would preach, I would become an evangelist if I were alive, saying, ‘For God’s sake, don’t let’s become conformists. Just do your thing in your own way. Don’t ever let fame and fortune or recognition or anything interfere with what you feel is here.’ And I’ll tell you, I hope it’s not too long coming, because of the fact that as we go longer and longer into the lack of individual expression, as we go along, if we get too far we’re going to get away from some of the real basic things. All of us damn cats that appreciate not the ‘50s necessarily but that freedom are gonna forget about the feel. We gonna be in jail, and not even know it.”

Photo courtesy Elvis Presley Enterprises

What Others are Saying

  1. I was so proud to be a part of the announcements yesterday in Memphis! What a great honor for my grandfather Sam and our family. I wish he was alive to see it.. He would be extremely honored to be among a class of such talented music pioneers! Looking forward to the induction ceremony!

    Halley Phillips
  2. What a great honor for the Phillips Family, to receive a much deserving award for their Sam! It is an honor, as well, for the Elvis fans worldwide, and for Sam’s birth town- Florence, AL! I was raised in the same section of north Florence that Sam was and he is truly an inspiration to me. If a poor boy from the northside of Florence can be successful, then this poor girl can be successful too. Not in the same league of course, but Sam proved that when you have ambition, put it in drive, and go cat go!

    Liz Scott
  3. Well overdue, much deserved. I can barely imagine where music would be today if it weren’t for Sun Records and the great Sam Phillips. Thankyou Sam.
    And to the Phillips family, congratulation on keeping the name alive.
    We’re doing our bit down under… Recently a friend and I put together a show called Sun Rising- The Songs That Made Memphis. It focus’ on the first 6 or 7 years of Sun Records. It’s edutainment and the shows content is totally inspired by what Sam did. Our aim is to bring peoples attention to Sam THEN the artists… Once again, thanks Sam.

    David Cosma
  4. As an Alabama boy I’m proud to be from the same state Sam Phillips is from. I grew up on the blues music he produced and marketed without realizing where it came from before we ever heard of Elvis. Artists like Howlin’ Wolf were a staple amongst us. Once the delta blues made it to England and back we finally began to realize what an impact we had on the rest of the world. Congrats to the Phillips Family for keeping Sam’s impact alive.

  5. No other record producer had an ear for talent as did Sam Phillips. His rota of artists at SUN and the success achieved by them speaks for itself.

    A genius indeed.

    Brian Quinn
  6. Hello i’m Xav from France I visited Sun Records on march 2012 with some good friends from Greenwood MS and i loved it…it was fantastic to be where rock and roll was born…i’m 46 and i’m a great great Elvis fan since i was 15.
    i loved memphis.. great feeling i’ll never forget these great moment spent with my friends in walking on the footstep of elvis….thanks so much mr Philips to have discovered all those great artists…good bless your soul and america !!!!!
    you’re the boss !!!

  7. Congrats, Sam I when to Sun records last summer
    as soon as I walked in you could feel the music & the
    history this where it all started what a feeling I stood where rock n roll and blues was born ,
    Thank you Sam and thank you
    Sun records from just a fan

    campbell ferguson
  8. sam Phillips was elvis ———-elvis was sam phillips

    arval wooten

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