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Music Review: Various Artists – The Legendary Sun Records Story

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Sam Phillips’ Sun Label has become legendary as the first musical home for such rock ‘n’ roll giants as Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, and Carl Perkins. It was also the home of dozens of other artists who may not have been as well known, but who produced equally proficient and, at times, spectacular rock ‘n’ roll.

The Legendary Sun Records Story is a three-CD, 60-track box set that presents a nice introduction and overview of the music recorded for the label. In addition to the aforementioned legends, artists such as Sonny Burgess, Carl Mann, Eddie Bond, Vernon Taylor, Billy Riley, Warren Smith, and a host of others are represented by some of their best material. The only artist missing is Elvis, which was for contractual reasons. He is really not missed, though, as his material has been constantly re-issued down through the years; plus it’s nice to hear some of the label’s lesser known songs.

Women were few and far between on the Sun Label, but those who were there could rock just as hard as their male counterparts. The RCA label signed Janis Martin as the female Elvis Presley. Sam Phillips responded by signing dance band vocalist Barbara Pittman and re-inventing her as a rock ‘n’ roller. Her included tracks, “Everlasting Love” and “It’s Getting Better All The Time,” represent some of the better female rock ‘n’ roll of the 1950’s. Linda Gail Lewis is the younger sister of Jerry Lee Lewis. Her rendition of “Nothin’ Shakin’” is a fiery song that should have made her brother proud. She continues to record today with her two daughters as The Lewis 3. Jean Chapel was as close to a female sex symbol as the Sun label would come. She recorded a gospel-tinged rendition of “Welcome To The Club.”

There are a number of other artists contained here that are worth exploring as well. Harold Jenkins recorded a moody “Gimme Some Love” during 1956. He would change his name to Conway Twitty and become one of the most successful country artists in history. Ray Smith was a pianist who could rock as his “Break Up, Shake Around” and “Right Behind You Baby” clearly shows. Billy Riley was a session guitarist and harmonica expert and his “Flying Saucers Rock ‘n’ Roll” and “Baby Please Don’t Go” are rockabilly at its best. Sonny Burgess is rockabilly personified. His “Red Headed Woman,” “Itchy,” and “We Wanna Boogie” are all energetic pieces of 1950’s music history. The most unique track here is Rufus Thomas’ “Bear Cat,” which was his answer song to Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog.”

There is also a generous offering of well-known tracks. “I Walk The Line” and “House Of The Blues” by Johnny Cash,” Blue Suede Shoes” and “Match Box” by Carl Perkins, “Breathless” and “High School Confidential” by Jerry Lee Lewis, and “Domino” and “Rock House” by Roy Orbison are always welcome.

Sam Phillips is sometimes remembered as the man who sold Elvis Presley’s contract to the RCA Label. He always ran his company on a shoe-string budget and the money from the sale enabled him to record much of the music on this box set. The Legendary Sun Records Story is an excellent introduction to many of the famous and not-so-famous musicians who provided the foundation for the development of rock ‘n’ roll music.

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