“He potentially changed every life on this planet simply byrecording music. I certainly have other heroes in life, but I've nevermet a man like him,” says producer/musician/artist Jim Dickinsonof recording legend Sam Phillips, who passed away in July, due torespiratory complications.
Dickinson's reflection might be an exaggeration if he were talkingabout almost anyone else in the recording world, but truly, many of uswouldn't be doing what we do today had it not been for the revolutionPhillips started in Memphis in the 1950s.
Samuel Cornelius Phillips was born on January 5, 1923, inFlorence, Ala. In 1942, he began work in broadcasting. After stints inAlabama and Nashville, he settled in Memphis and started work at WREC,recording big bands at the Hotel Peabody for broadcast. There, Phillipsbegan actively experimenting with mic placement that would highlight aband's strengths and the interaction of the performance in the room'sambient space. When it came time to build his own studio, Phillips hadclear ideas about the importance of creating the correct acousticalspace and the creative utilization of microphones. He also had strongfeelings about the type of music that he wanted to record.
Phillips built the Memphis Recording Service (which later became SunStudios) in 1950; it was the town's first independent studio. There herecorded and produced groundbreaking, seminal sides from Howlin' Wolf,Jerry Lee Lewis, Rufus Thomas, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash,B.B. King and, of course, his most famous discovery, Elvis Presley.Most of these were released on Phillips' Sun Records label, which heformed in 1952.
Among the legendary Phillips-produced recordings are Elvis Presley's“That's All Right,” Johnny Cash's “I Walk theLine” and Carl Perkins' “Blue Suede Shoes.” Phillipsalso produced what was arguably the first rock 'n' roll record in 1951:Jackie Brenston & His Delta Cats' propulsive “Rocket88,” which reached Number One on the R&B charts.
Phillips' Sun Records productions are among the most distinctivesounding in recorded music. These days, when so many tracks suffer fromoverproduction, it is instructive to remember Phillips' trust in thehonesty of the raw, creative moment, as well as the fact that hisrecordings captured that brilliance with no more than fivemicrophones.
Another quality that set Phillips apart was his intrinsic belief inwhat he called “the undeniable importance to God of everyindividual soul.” In an October 2000 “Mix Interview,”Phillips explained, “I loved what I knew black and poor whitepeople in the South could do with music if only they were heard, and Iloved the close kinship between the two: between country music andblues music. There's not much difference there. It's such honestmusic.”
Presley was probably the ultimate manifestation of Phillips' visionof merging black and white regional sounds. Though Phillips soldPresley's contract to RCA for almost $40,000 in 1955, his successcontinued with hits by Perkins, Charlie Rich and others. In 1960,Phillips built the state-of-the-art Phillips Recording Services at 639Madison Ave. in Memphis, and legendary recordings continued to takeplace, including Amazing Rhythm Aces' “Third Rate Romance,”Jerry Jeff Walker's “Mr. Bojangles,” Sam the Sham & ThePharoahs' “Wooly Bully,” as well as more arcane coolsessions like The Yardbirds and Phillips' 1979 production of JohnPrine's album Pink Cadillac.
Besides spotting great raw artistic talent, Phillips hired andtrained a handful of engineers who would go on to great success, aswell.
“He was probably more instrumental in getting more people intothe music business — especially people who went on to be highlysuccessful — than anybody I know of, like Alan Reynolds, whoproduced all of Garth Brooks' records, Jack Clement, Billy Sherrill andRick Hall,” says Roland Janes, studio manager/ engineer forPhillips Recording and original Sun Recording session guitarist.
Clement, who recorded some of Jerry Lee Lewis' most famous recordsat Sun and later went on to produce many of Cash's great records, says,“Sam gave me my first job in the music production business. Heencouraged me to go out there and be different: Get wild, get crazy. Doeverything wrong. I started off with a guy who is an experimenter, so Ibecame an experimenter.”
In 1986, Phillips was inducted into the inaugural class of the Rockand Roll Hall of Fame, along with Sun artists Presley and Lewis.Subsequent honors include the Alabama Music Hall of Fame (1987), theBlues Hall of Fame (1998), the Country Music Hall of Fame (2001) andthe TEC Awards Hall of Fame (2000). Sun Studio was declared a NationalHistoric Landmark on July 31, 2003, the day after Phillips passedaway.
Phillips' family members have requested that tributes be made in theform of donations to the University of Memphis School of Music's SamPhillips Scholarship fund, which grants money to music business andmusic technology students; call 901/678-4372.
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Learn more about the legend: Mix's final interview with SamPhillips was in October, 2000, with contributing editor BarbaraSchultz. Read it here..