Record producer Sam Phillips, one of the key figures of the 20th century, died this past July 31. Born in 1923, Phillips grew up in Muscle Shoals, Ala., where he cultivated an intense, lifelong love of African-American music. In 1950, having moved to Memphis, he opened a studio, the Memphis Recording Service, specifically to record regional blues and R&B singers.
Sun Studio in Memphis, where Sam Phillips revolutionized rock ’n’ roll.
For three years, he leased recordings to various national labels, including RPM and Chess (for whom he supplied Howlin’ Wolf’s breakthrough hit “How Many More Years”). In 1952, he started his own label, Sun Records. Beginning in 1954, with Phillips’ discovery of Elvis Presley, Sun became the place where the first legitimate R&B records by white musicians were made. (If ever the phrase “and the rest is history” contained any real meaning, here would be the place to insert it.) Besides Wolf and Presley, Phillips was responsible for the careers of Johnny Cash, B.B. King, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Junior Parker, Carl Perkins, Charlie Rich, Rufus Thomas and Ike Turner. Even in the short version recited above, it’s an impressive resume. But there’s more, or, rather, there are specifics. One thing that has always differentiated rock ’n’ roll from other 20th century music is the foregrounding of “the record” as its primary text. Tin Pan Alley was all about “the song” and jazz “the performance.” But rock ’n’ roll was about records, which from the start meant more than simply a means of preserving live performances (the approach that jazz took to recording). Rock ’n’ roll records were musical experiences unto themselves, aural landscapes in which listeners could lose themselves for two and a half minutes. The sounds of rock records were often more important than the notes played. (As Brian Eno has pointed out, any random second of “Good Vibrations” is enough for most people to identify the track — a claim that can’t be made for the work of, say, Mozart or Charlie Parker.) And of course, “from the start” in this case means those ur-texts of rock, Elvis’ Sun singles. They weren’t reproductions of a live music experience, since Elvis never performed live before making his recording debut. And in fact, their sound, with its close-miked bass and slapback echo, was not, strictly speaking, reproducible in a live setting. The slapback, especially, was Phillips’ trump card. It gave Elvis’ first singles (and the rockabilly hits that followed in their wake) their weird, otherworldly feel. Combined with the new rhythms the musicians had discovered, it came to signify the sound of modernity. As a producer in the 1950s, Phillips was almost without peer. A man blessed with the patience of a saint, he was known for plumbing depths in his artists they often didn’t know were there. He midwifed such founding statements of rock as “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” “Mystery Train” and “Great Balls of Fire.” More obscure tracks are no less impressive: the easy, unbreakable drive of Perkins’ “Boppin’ the Blues” or his flying-by-the-seat-of-his-pants “Put Your Cat Clothes On,” the abstraction of Wolf’s haunted “Moanin’ at Midnight” or Elvis’ ethereal “Blue Moon,” the rough backwoods perfection of Warren Smith’s “Ubangi Stomp” or “Red Cadillac and a Black Mustache.” The blunt starkness of Johnny Cash’s work at Sun has been an ideal pursued by everyone from Dave Dudley to Young Marble Giants. But Phillips’ finest moment, after the Elvis sides, may have been “Flying Saucers Rock ’n’ Roll” by Billy Lee Riley. Opening with the most jarring, crashing guitar chords in history, Riley’s performance makes Jerry Lee Lewis sound polite. The suspicion that rockabilly was largely the creation of raving lunatics seems confirmed by this one glorious 45, which went nowhere in the winter of 1957. Sam Phillips and Phil Spector constitute a sort of yin and yang of rock ’n’ roll recording technique. Virtually all rock production in the last 50 years can be traced back to either the spartan sound of Sun (Buddy Holly, Stax/Volt, the Beatles, Fleetwood Mac, Timbaland) or the more layered approach of Spector, in which individual instruments are subsumed into a dense, more or less undifferentiated soundscape (Motown, the Beach Boys, psychedelia, Roxy Music, Public Enemy). While both are obviously gigantic legacies, to these ears, it’s the line descending from Sun that’s the richer of the two, whose sounds never seem out of date. Of course, it will always be for introducing Elvis Presley to the world that Sam Phillips will (rightfully) be best remembered. Less commonly acknowledged, however, is that Phillips was not merely the first man to record Elvis: He was also responsible for focusing Elvis’ talent, for giving his music (and his career) a direction — and this is something that’s hard to overstate. Like Sam Phillips, Elvis Presley loved black music, but there is not the slightest evidence that Elvis ever considered singing rhythm and blues professionally before Sam Phillips heard him fooling around with Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right” and asked what the hell he was doing. “If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel,” goes the famous quote, “I could make a million dollars,” which, in Sam Phillips’ words, meant not “I could get rich quick” as much as “I’d be standing on the edge of the future.” Of all the great scenes in Peter Guralnick’s Elvis biography Last Train to Memphis, the most uncanny is that of Phillips and Scotty Moore, Presley’s future lead guitarist, meeting regularly to drink coffee and talk about the future of music, about something Phillips was sure he sensed in the air. Without knowing it, they were talking about Elvis, of course, a man who lived blocks away, who at that point neither of them had met. When the three of them did finally get together with Bill Black to try and make music, it wasn’t the blues they initially gravitated toward — it was Eddie Arnold, Hank Snow, Bing Crosby. But it was Sam Phillips who caught something in Elvis’ voice, who noticed in him the same comportment, “simultaneously proud and needy,” as some of the bluesmen he’d recorded. And it was Sam Phillips who, in “That’s All Right,” heard something, not only startlingly new, but something he recognized from those coffee shop conversations with Scotty Moore. It was Sam Phillips who knew it was a single. While it’s silly to think that anyone else could have done what Elvis did in the mid ’50s (can you seriously imagine Carl Perkins or Jerry Lee Lewis having the kind of impact he had?), it’s not mere hyperbole to suggest that, had he not met Phillips, had he first worked with any other producer, Elvis might not have done what he did either. He would almost certainly have found a career in music, but that career might easily have been in pop or country. Or, as Phillips himself once guessed, he may well have disappeared into the anonymity of a gospel quartet. Which means that Elvis’ first records (and his subsequent career and what we know as the last half of the 20th century) were basically one huge happy accident, a matter of the merest chance. So take a minute to thank Sam Phillips, not just for “I Walk the Line” and “Baby Let’s Play House,” but for “She Loves You” and “The Tracks of My Tears” and “God Save the Queen” and “Get Ur Freak On” — for whatever your favorite record just now happens to be. Because, in a very real sense, he produced them all.