Sam Phillips opened the Memphis Recording Service in 1950 in a small storefront just off Beale Street in downtown Memphis. Two years later he started Sun Records – and sparked a music revolution.
There are probably more than a few origin stories of rock & roll, but it’s tough to beat the story of Sam Phillips’ 1951 recording of “Rocket 88” by Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats. Co-written by Ike Turner (who also played keyboards on the single) it was released on Chess Records, but was recorded by Phillips at his little studio on Union Avenue. That was only the beginning.
Phillips recorded a remarkable roster of blues and R&B talent in the early 1950s, with names like Howlin’ Wolf, Junior Parker, and B.B. King. After a couple of years operating as a recording studio for hire, he started his own label, Sun Records, and the explosion of rock & roll put his little yellow label on the map. He recorded and released early records by Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Roy Orbison. And when a truck driver from Tupelo, Mississippi wandered into the studio in 1954 to “see what he sounded like,” Elvis Presley walked out with his first record.
What’s fascinating is the story of Marion Keisker, Sam’s assistant, who was the first to see, hear and record Elvis’s first track. She saw his talent and potential immediately, but took some time to convince Sam to trust her judgment.
There must have been magic in the microphones during those early days at Sun, on one occasion capturing the combined talents of what came to be known as the Million Dollar Quartet — Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins all in the studio together. Phillips moved to a larger space in 1959, and held onto his label for another ten years, finally selling it to Mercury Records in 1969. Sun Records went quiet until 1985 when the original location was relaunched as Sun Studio, to record again and invite the public in for tours. And to put some magic back in those mics.