By now, just about everybody in the music biz has heard about the passing of Sam Phillips, the founder of Sun Records — the seminal label that in a space of a few years introduced the world to artists such as Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, B.B. King, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley.
In an era when terms like “legends” are overused to the point of utter meaningless, Phillips — the innovator, entrepreneur, visionary and straightforward guy with an innate sense for spotting and developing talent — was a true legend: the father of rock ‘n’ roll. In fact, in terms of developing musical forms that transcended art itself, leading to social change and a cultural revolution, few other individuals — among them Motown founder Berry Gordy and Beatles producer George Martin — have equaled the impact of Phillips.
Not that it was easy. Phillips launched his Sun Records label from a small studio space at 706 Union Ave. in Memphis, a town blessed with a musical scene of varying styles: Delta blues, gospel, country and hillbilly. It began in 1952, a time when “race” records were the norm and segregation was rampant throughout the South. Yet, Sun released records by black and white artists, and in the studio, black players would play on white releases and vice versa. For Phillips, the only thing that mattered was the music.
Sun Records’ releases broke new ground in advancing the art of music and defining new styles. This came not only in terms of bringing rock ‘n’ roll to mainstream listeners and the mostly untapped teen market, but also by advancing the rise of country music, with the infectious backbeat and up-front drums(!) of rockabilly taking over the airwaves of America and the world. Compared to the tired, conventional crooners and sappy orchestrations so prevalent in ’50s pop, the sounds of Sun made audiences want to get up and move!
Changes in musical mores have typically been reflections of society itself, and the revolution coming out of Sun Studios was indicative of a changing world. While the big band sounds of the ’40s were part of the guarded optimism of the war, the post-nuclear, Cold War era in the ’50s needed something completely different: Rock ‘n’ roll was the answer. The same could be said with the changes during the ’60s, with The Beatles, Motown and the rise of guitar-rock, just as punk music provided the flip side to the overproduced pop and disco of the ’70s, followed by grunge, thrash and rap in more recent years.
So far, only a few times in history has a single person — i.e., a Phillips or a Gordy — stepped forward as the flag-bearer for a musical revolution. So, given today’s corporate music climate — where a willing culture is spoon-fed prepackaged “product” that’s carefully created by labels filled with lawyers, accountants, psychologists and marketing/demographic consultants — could it happen again? Absolutely! Some may argue that the days are long gone when a Phillips type could cut a record and drive over to a radio station where a hip DJ would break it to the world. However, with the immediacy of the Internet and a worldwide audience ready for something creative, interesting and new, the time has never been more right than now.