Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum Celebrates Sun Records and Sam Phillips

by Preshias Harris / 494 days ago / Comments

Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and more began at Sun Records

Can it really be an entire century? Sam Phillips was born January 5, 1923 in Florence, Alabama, and by January 1950 he was in Memphis, starting up his Memphis Recording Service and then the legendary Sun Record Company.

Sam Phillips is best known now the world over as the man who recorded Elvis Presley’s first records and early sessions with other artists who became international superstars: Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins.

However, Phillips was among the first to recognize and record the music of Blues artists such as B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Rufus Thomas, Bobby ’Blue’ Bland, Little Milton and many more.  In 1950, Phillips recorded a song by Jackie Brenson and His Delta Kats featuring a young Ike Turner. Titled “Rocket 88”, it is considered by many to be the first real rock and roll record.

In February (re-scheduled from the original January 5th date), The Musicians Hall of Fame & Museum celebrated Sun Records and the 100th birthday of its legendary creator, Samuel Cornelius (Sam) Phillips.

A highlight of the 100th Birthday Event was a Q&A session with Sam’s son, Jerry Phillips, led by the Museum’s multimedia archivist (and former member of Country band BR5-49) Jay McDowell.  Attendees at the event also took in a special presentation and a tour of Sun-related exhibits at the Museum. 

During the Q&A, we asked Jerry to comment on the belief among some Blues purists that Elvis ‘stole’ the music from Black artists whereas Sam felt that Elvis’ music opened the door for Black artists to be heard on ‘mainstream’ radio.

“Elvis was familiar with a lot of blues songs, even at eighteen, nineteen years old,” Jerry pointed out. “There was a disc jockey by the name of Dewey Phillips who had a show on WHBQ in Memphis called ‘Red Hot and Blue’ and he played a lot of blues music and Elvis listened to that.  [My father] felt that if he could break those racial barriers down and bring the Little Richards in, the Chuck Berrys in to ‘white’ radio, he thought it was a great thing to do.” 

I asked Jerry if Sam had problems working with Jerry Lee Lewis who had a reputation for being difficult to work with, particularly when alcohol was involved. Jerry said Lewis was the only one of all of them – including Elvis, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins – who knew he was great and didn’t care if you thought he was great or not. 

“Jerry Lee wasn’t drinking in the studio at all at that time,” noted Jerry.  “These guys were young, around nineteen years old and Sam didn’t allow any drinking going on in the studio.” He said that alcohol and drugs didn’t come into play for Jerry Lee until later on in his life.

“Jerry Lee Lewis was just one of a kind,” he said.  “When he married his thirteen-year-old cousin, you can imagine my father… He’d just sold Elvis’s contract {to RCA], he’d got money, Jerry Lee’s record was going up the charts like crazy. Sam is thinking, ‘This is it. This is the next Elvis.’ Then [Lewis] married his thirteen-year-old cousin and my father told him, he said, ‘Man, don’t take that girl to London with you.’ But Jerry Lee Lewis, you couldn’t tell him anything. He was like, ‘Aw hell, she’s my wife. I’m gonna take her with me. I’m not ashamed of her.’ But he got run out of town, basically and his career fell. I mean that record went from skyrocketing to zero.

“That was a bad thing to happen to my dad, [losing] that kind of artist.  If Jerry Lee hadn’t done the things he did, I believe he and Elvis would have been fighting it out for the title King of Rock and Roll.”  

After the Q&A session, we joined Jerry Phillips, Jay McDowell and Linda Chambers, CEO of the Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum, on a tour of the exhibits devoted to Sam Phillips, Sun Records and Phillips’ Memphis Recording Service.  The exhibits include the actual machine used to record an acetate of Elvis singing “My Happiness” and “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin” apparently as a gift for his mother.

The Museum has now reopened following five weeks of refurbishments needed following a flood that damaged the Municipal Auditorium under which the Museum is located.  If it has been a while since you visited the Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum – or if you have never been there – it’s definitely something to put at the top of your bucket list!

For more information, visit the Museum’s website, Twitter and Instagram. The Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum is located at 401 Gay Street, Nashville, TN 37219.

More about the story of Sun Records here.

Photo: Jay McDowell (left) looks on as Jerry Phillips fields a question during the Q&A.


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About Preshias Harris

Preshias Harris Journalist

Preshias Harris is a music journalist who has interviewed everyone from Alabama to ZZ Top for articles and stories published in numerous music magazines. She is the author of longest-running monthly country music column in America and authored The College of Songology™ 101: The Singer/Songwriter’s ‘Need To Know’ Reference Handbook. As a music career development consultant with special emphasis on emerging and aspiring artists and songwriters, she focuses on ‘chasing the dream’ while understanding the realities of the music industry. She maintains a writers’ room on Music Row – named The Sangtuary – for her clients and their co-writers. She is a member of ASCAP (as a publisher), BMI, The Country Music Association (CMA), The Recording Academy, The National Association of Talent Directors (NATD) and a life member of Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI).

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