Samuel Cornelius Phillips was born on a farm January 5, 1923 near Florence, Alabama as the youngest of eight children.
As a child, Sam picked cotton with his parents alongside black laborers in the fields.
The experience of the workers singing in the fields left a big impression on him.
Then while traveling through Memphis with his family in 1939 on the way to see a preacher in Dallas, Sam snuck off to look at Beale Street, the heart of the city’s music scene at the time.
“I just fell totally in love,” he would later recall.
Sam Phillips conducted his high school band and had ambitions to be a criminal defense attorney.
However his father was bankrupted by the Great Depression and died in 1941, forcing Sam to drop out of high school to look after his mother and aunt.
To support the family, Sam worked in a grocery store and then a funeral parlor.
By the 1940s, Sam began working as a DJ and radio engineer for Muscle Shoals radio station WLAY (AM). This radio station’s “open format” (of broadcasting music from both white and black musicians) would inspire Sam.
Then in 1945, Sam took a job as an announcer and sound engineer for WREC.
The Memphis Recording Service
On January 3, 1950, Sam Phillips opened his own Memphis Recording Service at 706 Union Avenue in Memphis, Tennessee.
Sam let amateurs perform, which drew performers such as B.B. King, Junior Parker, and Howlin’ Wolf.
Sam would then sell their performances to larger record labels.
In addition to musical performances, Sam recorded events such as weddings and funerals to sell to friends and family.
Sam then 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.
The recording was released on the Chess/Checker record label in Chicago, in 1951.
Sam’s Memphis Recording Service also served as the studio for his own label, Sun Records, which he launched in 1952.
Sam combined different styles of music.
He was interested in the blues and later was quoted as saying:
“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.”
Sam began to record the music of James Cotton, Rufus Thomas, Rosco Gordon, Little Milton, Bobby Blue Bland, and others.
Elvis Presley auditioned for Sam Phillips in 1954, but it was not until he sant “That’s Alright (Mama)” that Sam became impressed.
Sam recorded Elvis’ version of Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s “That’s All Right” with a flip side of “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” an upbeat version of a Bill Monroe bluegrass song.
At first, Blue Moon of Kentucky was slightly more popular than “That’s Alright (Mama).”
Then Elvis took off, becoming highly successful very fast, first in Memphis, then throughout the southern United States.
While still not known outside the South, Elvis Presley’s regional success became a drawing card for Sun Records, as singing hopefuls soon arrived from all over the region. Singers such as Sonny Burgess (“My Bucket’s Got A Hole In It”), Charlie Rich, Junior Parker, and Billy Lee Riley recorded for Sun with some success, while others such as Jerry Lee Lewis, BB King, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, and Carl Perkins would become superstars.
Others such as Howlin’ Wolf also made their first recordings at Sam’s studio.
In fact, Sam Phillips at first deemed Howlin’ Wolf as his greatest discovery and Elvis Presley his second greatest discovery.
Despite popular regional acclaim, by mid 1955, Sam Phillips’s Sun Studio experienced financial difficulties, and in November of 1955 he sold Elvis Presley’s contract to RCA.
RCA Records payed $35,000 for Sam’s Elvis contract, beating out Atlantic Records that had only offered $25,000.
With his sale of Elvis Presley’s contract, Sam was able to boost the distribution of Carl Perkins’ song “Blue Suede Shoes”, which became Sun Records’ first national hit.
Sam also became one of the first investors with Roy Scott in Holiday Inn, a new motel chain that was about to go national. He became involved with the chain shortly after selling the rights to Elvis Presley, which he multiplied many times over the years with Holiday Inn.
Sam Phillips’s pivotal role in the early days of rock and roll was then exemplified by a celebrated jam session on December 4, 1956 which came to be known as the Million Dollar Quartet.
Sam however, lost many of his talents by the late 1950s after he sold Elvis’ contract and was unable to regain his once prominent position in the Memphis music community.
He built a satellite studio and opened radio stations, but the studio continued to decline and Sam finally sold Sun Records to Shelby Singleton in 1968.
Sam and Sun Records, had however, produced more Rock and Roll records than any other record label during its 16 year run, producing 226 singles.
Through savvy investments, Sam Phillips soon amassed a fortune.
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
In 1986, Sam Phillips was part of the first group inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and his pioneering contribution to the genre has been recognized by the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.
He was also the first ever non-performer inducted.
Then in 1987, Sam was inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame.
He received a Grammy Trustees Award for his lifetime achievements in 1991.
In 1998, Sam was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame, and in October 2001 he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Sam Phillips died of respiratory failure at St. Francis Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee on July 30, 2003, only one day before the original Sun Studio was designated a National Historic Landmark, and just weeks before the death of his former colleague, Johnny Cash, on September 12, 2003.
He is interred in the Memorial Park Cemetery in Memphis.
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