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.
Messick class of 55. Brought up on WDIA and Daddy- O- Dewey
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.
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!
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
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
It would be a highlight of my life to meet these brothers. Rock n Roll history, Baby!!!
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
I met Knox and his wonderful wife at the doctor’s office at which I worked. I was a receptionist at the office. He asked my name and said it was his daughter’s name and that I reminded him of her. In the amount of time it takes to interact with patients while checking in, doing paperwork, etc… he left me with an impression of being the coolest person I had ever met. I had no idea who he was and I was a complete stranger but before he left I felt like I was a new member of his family. He told me his story and about a TV show about his famous father. He was so excited and happy to talk about it. This morning I see a ad for a movie that has been made about his amazing Father. The man playing Sam Phillips in the movie referenced Sam as the Wizard behind the curtain in Oz. Knox, congratulations to you and your family
Growing up, I attended Treadwell School for 11 years. In the 6th grade, I went to White Station Elementary: Miss Hatcher’s class. Knox Phillips was a classmate of mine. That was one of my favorite years in school, and I’d have to say, Knox was one of the nicest kids I ever knew. He was unusally polite and friendly, and was liked by everyone. I remember Knox’s hairdo, cool even in 6th grade. I watched him goofing around on TV on the Dewey Phillips Show “Red Hot and Blue”, and felt like I knew a “big star”. Over the years, I’ve followed his notoriety and was proud to say: “I was in school with that guy!” I’m also proud to know of his great success and proud to say I knew him way back then.
He probably wouldn’t remember me, but I’m certainly proud to say I knew him, even so long ago. Wishing Knox great blessings and happy memories.
Just another Memphis kid!
Knox, you probably don’t remember me but I lived across the street from you on McEvers. I remember your mother and dad and of course Jerry. I remember ya’ll ‘s Pomeranian named Bugger. Your Mom and Dad were so nice. Your Mom would bring groceries home and drop a couple of magazines off for my grandfather who was bedridden. Guess you heard BB Cunningham was murdered about 4 years ago and he was still playing bass for Jerry Lee Lewis. He and his wife had been over to my house a couple of weeks before it happened. BB got Jerry Lee to autograph a 78 Sun labeled recording of ” Great Balls of Fire” for me.
Hello Knox! This is your “nurse”! Enjoyed reading this and getting to know more about you! Love, hugs, and prayers… ALWAYS!
Absolutely loved this article!!
I recently enjoying reading Peter Guralnick’s fantastic book “Sam Phillips.” I was pleased to be able to meet Knox Phillips back in 1976 when I was in Memphis to play a show as bass player in Dickey Lee’s band.
My wife and I visited Sun Studios in Nov., 2015. I had previously popped by in March of 1982 while stationed in Millington (it appeared to be shuttered and closed at that time). I shared with the young man at the ticket counter about my previous visit (and disappointment that it was closed in ‘82). He told me his wife’s father still worked out at the base and comped us 2 tix for the tour! Class act he was, and after reading the Sam Phillips biography, I now realize we were treated to the top down Phillips family legacy of kindness and generosity. What a thrill, and one of the highlights of my musical travels!! Bless you all and keep the legend alive!
Just listening to The Gentrys 1970 album produced by Knox Phillips. Almost 50 years later and it still sounds fresh. Jimmy Tarbutton plays some incredible guitar on this, and Jimmy “The Mouth Of The South” Hart had great lead vocals. I bought a sealed copy on eBay to replace my worn out copy. Sure wish this album could be remastered along with the 45s The Gentrys later released. The band and Mr. Phillips’ outstanding production makes this album one of the most underrated Rock and Roll LPs of all time! Cheers! Richard McCarthy