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Sam Phillips 1923-2003

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Samuel Cornelius Phillips, founder of the legendary Sun Records, has died at age 80.

In 1950 Phillips opened the Memphis Recording Service studio at 706 Union Avenue. He recorded blues artists and leased the masters to record labels, such as Chess. Among others, he recorded fledgling acts BB King and Howlin’ Wolf over the next couple of years before starting the Sun Records label in 1952.

Elvis Presley came along in 1954. Phillips has been criticized for having sold Presley’s contract to RCA, but it was probably a very wise move. Presley only had a few months left under contract, and Presley’s Sun Records hadn’t really sold that much. Presley’s records had made some noise- Phillips obviously recognized Elvis’ potential, but he lacked the distribution and promotional clout of RCA. Plus, Phillips pointed out, that money helped him turn Sun into a real record label, much better able to properly exploit other acts that he signed after Elvis.

Among those other acts were Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison- EACH ONE of which is arguably as big a creative haul as Elvis.

My favorite impression of Phillips comes from a famous studio outtake with Jerry Lee Lewis with a mic left running unbenknownst that you really have to hear to believe. Jerry Lee was suddenly balking at recording “Great Balls of Fire,” the follow-up to his big splash “Whole Lotta Shakin’.” “H-E-L-L” Jerry started preaching against the “devil’s music”- leaving Sam having to be the voice of moderation in arguing with Jerry Lee Lewis. This was, as you might imagine, an unenviable position. “Now, religious conviction does not mean anything resembling extremism.” Good luck telling this to The Killer. It’s priceless.

Good work, Mr. Phillips. Rest in peace.

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