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An Interview with Sam Phillips

THE BIRTH OF ROCK 'N' ROLL When a baby is born, everything kick-starts in that first breath: heart thumping, lungs pumping, feet kicking, voice howling.

THE BIRTH OF ROCK ‘N’ ROLLWhen a baby is born, everything kick-starts in that first breath: heart thumping, lungs pumping, feet kicking, voice howling. Rock ‘n’ roll got its first gulp of air in 1951 when a young engineer named Sam Phillips – proprietor of the town’s first studio, the Memphis Recording Service – recorded an artist suggested to him by Ike Turner. Jackie Brenston’s Chess Records single “Rocket 88” had a contagious, driving beat and a raw sound that set it apart from other records of the time. “And that takes nothing away from Bill Haley or anybody that came later,” Phillips says. “It’s because you’re talking about automobiles, and everybody – and I’m talking about young people – everybody wanted one. And the rocket age was coming in, so the subject matter is right, the sound is right, and in my opinion it is the first rock ‘n’ roll record.” “Rocket 88” went to Number One on the R&B chart. Later that year, Phillips made the first recordings by unknowns B.B. King and Howlin’ Wolf. But, of course, that was only the beginning…

Born in Florence, Ala., in 1923, Phillips was the youngest of eight children in a family of tenant farmers. “I probably didn’t really know it then,” he says, “but my being associated with black people and other poor white people who didn’t have much in the way of worldly goods was, I think, one of the reasons I became so interested in what could be done with so little.

“I was also impressed with preachers in the South, both black and white,” he recalls. “And by courtroom tactics, which, of course, in the old days involved unbelievable speeches to the jury, and the ring and the sound you’d have in some of the old courthouses with the hard benches. Sound is something I’ve been fascinated with as far back as I could remember.”

Phillips began his professional career as a radio engineer and DJ, which eventually landed him at CBS affiliate WREC in Memphis. The more he heard of local talent, the hotter he got to capture it. In the liner notes to Rhino Records’ Sun Records Collection box, he says, “I didn’t set out to revolutionize the world. I wanted to see if what I had thought all of my life – that there was something very profound in the life of people with less means when it came to money, less means when it came to social acceptance – was right or wrong. When I opened the studio, the main thing I wanted to do was keep it open until I had the opportunity to do some of these things that I had in my mind since I was a child in Alabama.”

Was he ever right. This year, Phillips is being inducted into the TEC Awards Hall of Fame in recognition for an engineering and production career that is arguably the most critical in the history of popular music. What would any of our jobs be now if Phillips had never sent his artists’ raw blues to Chess? Never started Sun Records and signed and recorded Elvis Presley or Jerry Lee Lewis or Johnny Cash? In his 1997 autobiography, Cash, Johnny Cash writes “I have so much respect for Sam. He worked so hard and did so much good for people like me. If there hadn’t been a Sam Phillips, I might still be working in a cotton field.”

I want to talk about how you became a recording engineer and a producer. How did you know how to do it?

Instinctively. I started out in radio in 1942 in Florence, in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. There was only one station there at that time, and I went from there to a little town 40 miles east of the Shoals area in Decatur, to another 250-watt station, from there to WLAC in Nashville, as an engineer and an announcer.

So, you knew about audio equipment from your experience in radio?

Yeah, mainly, and I took an extension course during the war from Alabama Polytechnic Institute, which is in Auburn. Really it was over my head, but I passed. It was an advanced electrical course, but so much hung on that for me and my family that somehow or the other I got through it.

I don’t classify myself as a real technical engineer in terms of knowing the actual makeup of the electronic gear, but I do know quite a bit about that, and I am an expert in what I hear. So, I came to Memphis – that was in ’45 – and the WREC studios were in the Peabody Hotel, and here I am 22 years old, and I’m mixing the bands that go on the CBS Network every night, six nights a week, and I never thought two years before that I’d ever see a big band.

What was a typical day like for you at that time?

I never thought of it as being a work day, although it was sometimes hard getting up in the morning. I was at the studio every morning by 7:30, because I had to record a program off of the CBS network, a news program, and that was before we had tape. This was on the 16-inch disc.

Then I had to be there until 11 at night. By the time I got home it was close to midnight, so the hours weren’t what you’d call optimum, but I loved every minute of it. I loved the big bands. And the bands seemed to really like what I was doing in the way of a mix. Everybody has a different notion of what they want a band to sound like. A lot of times, I would play around with it just a little bit. I got fussed at sometimes, but most of the times I was complimented on how I would be able to hear what they wanted to be emphasized in the recording, so I became known as one of the better mixers. I also learned a lot about microphones, because I had to set up the microphones, and we only had four for the whole 12-, or 16- or 17-piece bands.

So, what did you do with them?

One of the most fascinating things is setting up microphones. I mean, you might think, “Grab a mic, take it over here, get some sound,” but I could never do that in my life. Whether my boss was looking over my shoulder or not, I couldn’t do that, because I was fascinated with how, for example, I could get woodwinds with the brass and rhythm and piano and this sort of thing, and that was a challenge. I did that for six-and-a-half years.

Was that unusual at that time, do you think, to spend a lot of time on mic placement?

Yeah. People usually had a standard setup on programs like that, but if there was anything unusual about a particular band that I found out, I would always make a note of that, and at the time I was ahead of the game.

It sounds like a lot of what you learned about mic placement was from working with it on your own.

That’s right, because I never had a course in any kind of audio. The engineering course that I passed in Alabama was more about the electrical circuits – light bulbs and transmission lines and transformers and that sort of thing. But I needed to take it. It was a good basis for understanding electricity.

When did you make the break and stop working in radio to focus on the studio full time?

That was in the middle of ’51. I had been at WREC since June of ’45, and I quit in June of ’51. That was after I had a nervous breakdown. I opened the studio on January the 2nd, 1950. I had worked on it with saw and hammer and nails and paint for almost three months before we actually were in position to start recording.

I loved radio and I loved the big bands, but when I saw all the potential here in the Delta region, I was totally amazed at the confirmation of all the things I had heard on a small basis in Alabama. I heard all the great rhythms that the black musicians seemed to have in abundance, without having any formal training whatsoever, and so I thought you just didn’t hear that [on the radio]. Black people [on the radio] were people like Duke Ellington, and they had to do the stuff that white people wanted to hear in order to sell records. Count Basie, Nat King Cole…there’s nothing wrong with that – they did what they did so fabulously. But there were so many people that had such a great, great feel for the life that many people lived. I knew this, and I just said to myself, “Man, I’ve got little enough sense to start fooling around with this.”

I did both jobs for a year-and-a-half before it got so hard on me that I just couldn’t do everything. I had been run down for some time, because I was a hard worker. I don’t mean to brag, but I never thought of anything but giving a full day’s work for a full day’s pay, but then I got into something I really loved, and I was going to do that regardless. So, I guess it all hit me, and I was given electric shock treatment. I don’t guess I was ever crazy [laughs], but I just knew I had to have some help.

When I came back on the job, I went to [my boss] Mr. Wootten and told him that I had the toughest decision I had ever had to make. That was to either give up my little studio – I wasn’t making any money out there to speak of – or my job at WREC. I had two very young children, and a deaf aunt who was also blind in one eye and my mother to take care of, and I hope I never have a decision that tough to make again, but I did make it, and it worked out.

You must have been scared.

It was a scary thing, but I had so much confidence in my ability, and I really don’t mean that bragging. I just believed in sound so much, and I had such a devotion to what I was doing. I loved what I knew black and poor white people in the South could do with music if only they were heard, and I loved the close kinship between the two, between country music and blues music. There’s not much difference there. It’s such honest music. Each can be very different, but really back then when you got down to a fantastic Jimmie Rodgers’ country record and some of the later things from Lightnin’ Hopkins and people like that, it was just an amazing inspiration to see what these people had experienced and would write.

And I wasn’t just an engineer. I had to be a psychologist, a business person, a family man and totally devoted to sound, and I knew I had to do something different in the way of sound. If I was trying to do the same thing as the records that were on the radio at that time, everybody could do something as good or better, because they probably had better equipment and facilities than I had at 706 Union. But I knew what I had, and that if I did the things that I should do, I could get what I was looking for. I just hoped and prayed that it was what the people would want, if I could get distribution on it.

So this was when you were making records for people in your studio and then leasing the records to a label?

Yes. I really did not want to go into the label business because of the monetary [risks], and you couldn’t have just a little regional record label. You had to have a national label. You might not have the power of distribution that the majors had, but you definitely had to get out of a region and expose the records to enough people – north and south, east and west – to find out whether what you’re doing was going to be accepted generally or not. If your dog is barking up a tree and there’s no possum up there, you got a dog that ain’t no good, you know?

[When I started Sun] I had to set up 38 distributors, and I drove before we had interstates to do that. We did a great job of distribution, and that was very important but also tough, because we were so different in what we were doing. Even our blues was different because it was more of what I call gutbucket. It was more down-to-earth-type blues. There were some good record labels: Atlantic and Specialty and Chess and Checker, but very few of them had any artists that were right down where I thought the grass should grow. That really made me stick by what I felt I had to do to give it a fair trial.

The point was that I really wanted to do something different and give an opportunity to some people that didn’t have an opportunity. I was right in the middle of what was happening, and I recognized that. I wanted to prove that there was a market out there for these people and that these people deserved to be heard. I’m not a good guy, or a sweet guy or anything like that, but you have to be honest to yourself.

Tell me about the studio at 706 Union.

I used the old 1-foot-square acoustic tiles, and I knew there were a lot of ways to approach it to make a live-er studio or deader studio. I never truly liked a dead room for what was I going to do with a very sparse number of people on the session – maybe two to four or five was a big band – so all that was taken into account.

I designed some angles in the little studio, about 18 by 32 or 33 feet long, and I designed a V-type ceiling with horizontal and vertical Vs on either end of the studio, and I just kind of played with it. I would go in and clap my hands. It sounds kind of crude, but that was the way a lot of people felt the vibe of a studio. I wanted to have a good sound that I felt was natural.

I never used EQ. I’d reset the mics or exchange mics. I never used EQ until we got to the mastering stage. I had very little limiting and compression. I had a homemade compressor that I made so if something got out of hand it would get it. I never complained about equipment then, even though I had to make quite a bit of it myself. I had an old, used RCA 70D board that I’d reworked that I got from a little station up in South Carolina, and I just had all I needed. I had six inputs.

I also knew that I had to use the right type of microphones. I couldn’t buy some of the more expensive microphones, but I knew what I was doing with what I had. I worked with how each different vocalist would work the microphone. Some I’d work directly in front, maybe six inches back, some I would have work across the mic.

Can you give me some examples? For instance, how did Howlin’ Wolf approach a mic? How did Elvis Presley approach a mic?

Well, the Wolf sat down, and he played the harmonica, too. He never liked to stand except when he was onstage. The Wolf liked to have a microphone that was more or less nondirectional, because he was going to wiggle his head regardless. He had played these little spots over in Arkansas trying to grind out a few pennies on the weekend; he always played like he was in a show. So I knew working a directional mic was not going to work on the Wolf. You would lose some of those overtones of his voice, which are just amazing to this day to me.

On Elvis, in most cases I would use a Shure 56S or, on occasion, I would use a [RCA] 77D, which is an excellent microphone if you use it right. It’s just great for voice; it’s just great for just about any instrument and was one of the most versatile microphones then.

I had three different microphones that I normally used on vocals, and it depended on who it was. One was the Shure, one was the RCA 77D, and the other, if you can believe this, was the old RCA 44D. It was bidirectional, but surprisingly, on a few people, it worked to get a sound that was most complementary. It made your pickups elsewhere more difficult because it’s bidirectional and the vocal wouldn’t be as loud as instruments normally, but I was very much intrigued by some of the things I could do with the 44D. I was experimenting all the time.

I just want to say that the “noise” that people make with their voices are the most beautiful things. I’ve never heard a bad voice. I’ve heard the worst voices in the world. The Wolf is one of them, okay? But I never heard a bad voice. There’s music in voice. If you feel it and it’s a part of your spirituality, there is nothing as beautiful as the human voice.

A lot of people you recorded probably had never been in a recording studio before.

That’s a fact. You go back 50 years in Memphis, Tennessee, and tell me how many black people had ever even thought about walking inside a recording studio to get a record made. It was almost out of the book for them.

How did you set them at ease to get good performances?

I’m a psychologist. I just know how to handle people. I’m certainly no genius, but God gave me a few talents, and dealing with people is one of them. That don’t mean we have perfect harmony all the time, but I don’t believe anybody ever left my studio because we couldn’t get in the groove. I had a type of sound fixed in my mind and tried to convey it to the artist as we went along. If we weren’t successful as we went along, I’d tell them why I thought that, and we’d play it back and listen to it, but one thing I never did was get in a hurry. I never made people feel like they were threatened or rushed. That never occurred. I knew what they were going through, and I knew what I was looking for, and together, we were going to get it. If it was there, we were going to get it.

But weren’t there times when you just had to say, “It’s not happening today, let’s come back tomorrow”?

Oh, yeah, but there’s a lot of different ways to say that. And did you know, I didn’t even have a talkback microphone in the control room until maybe the last year or so? I’d get up from behind the board and open the door and go in there and we’d talk. And I never had a light to say “Watch the light.” And so you might say, “Well, were you that poor?” Well, I was poor, but I could have gotten me a light bulb. I just did things different.

Who did your mastering early on?

I did some of the mastering myself early on, but the one deep-cutting head on the Presto lathe that I had just wasn’t adequate to get the level that I needed, so I decided to go ahead and get them done in Chicago. I sent them to Bill Putnam, who was just a great operator, and he and his wife actually did most of the acetate mastering. He had some old Scully lathes, though I don’t recall exactly the heads that he used.

Everybody who has anything to do with sound knows that you can lose a lot in the mastering if you’re not careful. I wouldn’t let them use a hot stylus on mine for a while after the hot stylus became popular, because the presence of certain sounds could just be so easily lost.

Have you been happy with the remastered versions of your recordings?

I would say that [on the remastered vinyl] overall they did a good job, but in some cases they maybe didn’t devote enough time to the remastering. But you have to keep in mind that we did lose some things on tape at that time with the type of oxides that we were using. We went from black oxide to red oxide to you name it. They would stay rolled up a long time, and you would get a little shadow distortion that came about by magnetism from the piece of tape that was closest to the last one you just wound. So, I think they’ve done a pretty good job overall, because they did have to deal with a lot.

However, I would have been a little harder to please on some things, and I think they didn’t know how to handle the bottom end a lot. I didn’t have a strong bottom end in the way of a bulky bottom, but I had one that would sting you pretty good. I would also have spent more time to straighten out the presence of the voice. You just have to love it to do it like it should be done.

One thing I do want to do is see how they master CDs. I think we’ve got a little ways to go, as good as stuff sounds today, because I know that the Sun stuff that was transferred to CD, in many instances, was made a little edgy. It wasn’t necessarily that the process was bad, but it was bad for what they had to work with. The frequency response was so much better than you could get on any acetate, so you have to be real careful not to abuse that.

Inside Sun Studios and Phillips Recording

Memphis is the home of rock ‘n’ roll and the blues, thanks in large part to the recordings that Sam Phillips made of Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Charlie Rich, Howlin’ Wolf, Rufus Thomas, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash and many others.

Besides the legendary artists who have recorded there at 706 Union Avenue, Sun Studio has attracted artists from all over the world who have wanted to catch the vibe of that space. A short list includes U2, Ringo Starr, Def Leppard, John Fogerty, Tom Petty, Paul Simon and Bonnie Raitt.

“The major thing about 706 Union to remember is that when Sam Phillips had it, all the great recordings were literally made with five microphones,” says producer Jim Dickinson, who has worked at both Sun and Phillips Recording studios, and whose credits include Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Ry Cooder, The Replacements and more. “So even when Sam was using the RCA as a vocal mic, it was a room mic, if you get my point. The instruments were clustered around them, so the major character that you hear in those recordings is the room, or sometimes the room with slapback added.

“Beyond a question of a doubt, the room is really the thing with 706 Union Avenue,” Dickinson continues. “The room sound, even with the gear they have in there now, is still special. It has to do with that old asbestos square acoustic tile, which covers everything but the floor. The ceiling is no longer flat. Sam made it into these kind of V-shaped rows with the acoustic tile and straight pins. When you speak, you can feel the air pressure in the room. The more volume that you put into that room, the more the midrange compresses. It is sort of like the Phil Spector principle of putting in too much in too small of a space, and the whole room becomes a compressor.”

In 1958, Phillips began constructing Phillips Recording at 639 Madison Avenue, just a few blocks down from the old Sun Studio. After the move to Phillips Recording, the 706 Union Avenue address turned into a scuba shop, and then into a garage where sports cars were stored, until it was reopened as a studio in the mid-’80s.

At the time Phillips Recording was built, it was designed to be a stereo facility with a custom-made console, and it had an Ampex 3-track recorder. There were also three live echo chambers. The tracking space had an isolation booth and stair-stepped risers that were designed for setting up guitar amps. Phillips had also custom-built reversible acoustical wall panels that are reflective on one side, absorptive on the other.

“Sam was very much involved in every detail of the design of this studio. He put a lot of thought into it, and he’s still very proud of it today,” says studio manager and chief engineer Roland Janes. Music history buffs might note that Janes was the guitarist on many of the Sun classics, including Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and “Great Balls of Fire,” Billy Lee Riley’s “Red Hot” and “Flying Saucer Rock & Roll” and Charlie Rich’s “Lonely Weekends,” among others. He has been at Phillips since 1982. “This was probably one of the best-built studios in the world when it was built,” says Janes. “It was state-of-the-art.”

Over the years, classic hits were recorded at Phillips, including the Amazing Rhythm Aces’ “Third Rate Romance,” Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles,” Sam the Sham & The Pharoahs’ “Wooly Bully,” as well as more arcane cool sessions, like John Prine’s album Pink Cadillac and The Yardbirds’ “Train Kept A Rollin'” and “Mister, You’re a Better Man Than I.” The studio is still an analog facility with a Studer A80 multitrack and a DDA 36-in/24-out console.

“We totally retooled the studio about five years ago, and we labored over whether to take the studio digital or not, and we finally determined to stay analog,” says Janes. “We did get a new Dolby SR noise reduction unit, which I don’t always use.” Today, both Phillips and Sun are active studios, and artists come from all over the world to experience some of the historic magic.

Volumes could be written (and have been) about the artists whose careers started with Sam Phillips at Sun, but we asked Phillips to give us some nuggets about the strengths of some of the greats.

Howlin’ Wolf: The Wolf had the most potential of any black artist I ever had. If I hadn’t lost him, I just think he probably could have been one of the biggest artists I ever had. I know that sounds odd, but that’s true.

Jerry Lee Lewis: Jerry Lee Lewis is one of the greatest talents of all time, but you had to watch his timing. With his enthusiasm for doing things live and doing them instinctively, which I love dearly, he tended to rush time a little bit, and I had to watch that but not kill his spirit.

Roy Orbison: Roy was naturally a ballad singer, and I knew that, but at that time, you have to take into account what was taking place. If I hadn’t done this silly little “Ooby Dooby,” a huge song, and gotten Roy to where he was recognized by the younger people, I honestly don’t know whether Roy would have been around or not. But, of course, nobody could do a ballad much better than Roy.

Carl Perkins: Carl was one of those bare-bones, raw-bones-type persons that absolutely could have been one of the biggest country singers ever. That song “Turn Around” is a country song that I did on Carl before we cut “Blue Suede Shoes.” I didn’t like converting people – I wanted them to stay in whatever instinctively they felt, but by that time, everybody who came into the studio that had heard Elvis really wanted to rock.

Johnny Cash: The most distinctive voice outside of maybe The Wolf; certainly the most distinctive white voice. His songwriting is so to-the-point. You’re going to follow Johnny Cash’s narrative on any song that he sings, especially the ones that he writes.

Elvis Presley: Somebody I truly loved as an individual. I wish more people could have experienced the real Elvis. When I heard his voice, it was the sweetest thing I’d ever heard in my life. It was not only pretty, it made you wanna cry, it made you wanna be happy. Elvis knew that the thing that he loved better than anything else in this world outside of his family was music, and it showed in everything that he did.