Samuel Cornelius Phillips (January 5, 1923 – July 30, 2003), better known as Sam Phillips, was an American record producer who played an important role in the emergence of rock and roll as the major form of popular music in the 1950s. He was a producer, label owner, and talent scout throughout the '40s and '50s. He is most notably attributed with the discoveries of Howlin' Wolf, Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash, and is associated with several other noteworthy rhythm and blues and rock and roll stars of the period.
Phillips was a native of Florence, Alabama and a graduate of Coffee High School. He was exposed to blues and became interested in music by African-American workers on his father's cotton farm.
The "Memphis Recording Service" and Sun Records
Sam Phillips wanted to attend law school. However, because he did not have the money, he went to school for broadcasting and became a radio DJ. In the 1940s, Phillips worked as a DJ for Muscle Shoals, Alabama radio station WLAY (AM). According to Phillips, this radio station's "open format" (of broadcasting music from both white and black musicians) would later inspire his work in Memphis. In 1945, he worked for four years as an announcer and sound engineer for WREC.
On January 3, 1950, Phillips opened the "Memphis Recording Service" at 706 Union Avenue in Memphis, Tennessee, which also served as the studios for Phillips' own label, Sun Records, through the 1950s. In addition to musical performances, he recorded events such as weddings and funerals, selling the recordings. "Memphis Recording Service" let amateurs perform, which drew in performers such as B.B. King, Junior Parker, and Howlin' Wolf. He then would sell their performances to large record labels. Phillip focused on R&B music. Sun Records was launched in 1952.
Phillips combined different styles of music. He was interested in the blues and said: "The blues, it got people- black and white- to think about life, how difficult, yet also how good it can be. They would sing about it; they would pray about it; they would preach about it. This is how they relieved the burden of what existed day in and day out."
Phillips recorded what some—notably music historian Peter Guralnick—consider the first rock and roll record: "Rocket 88" by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats, a band led by 19-year-old Ike Turner, who also wrote the song. "Rocket 88" was considered the first rock and roll song. The recording was released on the Chess/Checker record label in Chicago, in 1951. From 1950 to 1954 Phillips recorded the music of James Cotton, Rufus Thomas, Rosco Gordon, Little Milton, Bobby Blue Bland, and others. Others such as B.B. King and Howlin' Wolf made their first recordings at his studio. In fact, Phillips deemed Howlin' Wolf his greatest discovery and he deemed Elvis Presley his second greatest discovery.
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