In the words of Foxy Shazam, welcome to the church of rock 'n' roll. This is where it was all first recorded, Sun Studios. From small things, mama, big things one day come!
Sam Phillips was a young buck trying to make a go of it recording virtually anything that he could. He had a business called Memphis Recording Service which featured a portable recording machine (about the size of a microwave oven) that Sam dragged around town recording weddings, birthday parties, and music. After a while, he realized that musicians were turning to others to put out records, and he decided to hone in on that territory. Hence, Sun Studios was born.
It's small. I mean, really small. Basically two rooms. But what came out of Sun changed the world forever.
Sam Phillips recorded a song called Rocket 88 that was credited to Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats. But as we all know, the driving force behind that song was none other than Ike Turner. There is a great story about the amp used by Ike to record the song. It was damaged en route to Sun, and the cone in the speaker was torn. Because there was no time to get a replacement, they simply stuffed paper into it, and it gave out this amazing distorted sound to his electric guitar that became an inspiration to millions. Take a look at the picture of that amp below.
Regardless, Rocket 88, recorded in 1951, is called the first rock song ever, and it still sounds great. It came out of this humble studio in Memphis, and its success motivated Sam to quit his full-time job and dive in head first to make a go of it at Sun.
Sam's willingness to record black artists and music that was traditionally thought of as black music was quickly noticed among musicians, who then started beating a path to his door. Among them were some who would go on to become the founding fathers of rock. People like Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash. But also people like B.B. King, Rufus Thomas and Howlin' Wolf. He recorded them all, and turned their music on to the world.
Elvis clearly surpassed them all. His meteoric rise and iconic status is the stuff of legend. The great part of the story is that Sam wasn't instantly won over by the young Elvis. It was his assistant who first thought that Sam ought to record Elvis, and Elvis came by time and again to pay to have Sam put down a track on acetate. We'll talk a lot more about Elvis later, but he permeates virtually everything in Memphis.
You have to put this in its proper time and place. This is the mid-1950s in a southern state with Jim Crow firmly in place. There were radio stations who controlled everything and those radio stations were racially divided. Clubs operated in the white areas of town, or down along Beale Street where the black theaters were located, and the two didn't mix. If you were a young white guy, you had to go to West Memphis (i.e., Arkansas) to go see black bands in the clubs because West Memphis was more lax. To have a guy willing to record both black and white artists, and to allow them to mix up the musical heritages of both into this blend, was particularly open-minded.
Do you want to talk about influencing the world? Here's a great story for you. Bill Justis, Jr. was a session player at Sun, and had his own career, too. He played with some of the greats, but he also put out a song in 1957 called Raunchy on the Sun label. Others covered it and it was the first instrumental rock 'n' roll hit. A year later, a 15 year old kid on the top level of a double decker bus in Liverpool, England "auditioned" for two other kids for a spot in their band. The song that George Harrison played to Paul McCartney and John Lennon was Raunchy.
The run at the original Sun Studios was pretty short lived. Because of its limited size and capabilities, Sam moved to a more modern studio a few blocks away (it's still operating, and I got off the tourist track to get you a picture of it). It's output is not too shabby, either. Yes, it did record Wooly Bully by Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs, to which I always do a great fat man dance, but it also made recordings by the Yardbirds, the Cramps, Alex Chilton and Phil Collins.
But back to Sun. Once Sam moved, the building fell derelict for a long time, but amazingly, the studio remained in tact for decades. Finally, some band called U2 decided that they would like to record there for their Rattle and Hum album. The studio was basically still there, albeit in a state of disrepair. U2 laid down 3 tracks at Sun using original equipment. That ultimately lead to the restoration of the place, and voila, it is now a great rock tourist attraction with almost all of it the original stuff used in the 50s. And it has also been reborn as a recording studio with a lot of famous musicians wanting to feel the aura of the place and record some tunes there.
The tour of Sun was one of my favorite things on this trip. You get to stand in the small studio and take it all in. There is the mic used by Elvis to record, and they let you grad it and ham it up to get some photos. U2 left a drum set from the Rattle and Hum sessions, and you can sit behind it for more posing. And there are guitars and other memorabilia scattered around the room that you can check out. I don't know if you can see the baffling on the walls or the zig-zag ceiling, but I hope so. Oh, and our tour guide was awesome - fun, spunky, witty and great with two little girls who became the stars of our tour. It was terrific fun, and a fantastic start to our exploration of Memphis. Check out some of the photos below - cool, right?
That last shot has a portion of the famous Million Dollar Quartet photo, which memorialized a spontaneous jam session at Sun featuring Elvis, Jerry Lee, Carl Perkins and Mr. Cash. Sam surreptitiously recorded the whole thing - hoo boy!
The Sun Studio tour also includes some other cool rock stuff, like Elvis's cowhide guitar case.
I could go on and on, but you're probably saying "uncle" about right now. I will leave you one more great picture of the guitar sign on the outside of Sun. I've been reading a great book about Leo Fender and Les Paul called The Birth of Loud, which is about electric guitars, amplification and their critical role in the development of rock. I'll talk about it a lot more in another post.
Anyway, I saw some examples of Fender's and Paul's influence all over Memphis. But there is a lesser known guitar manufacturer founded by Paul Bigsby. If you look carefully at the Gibson guitar hanging outside of Sun, you'll see that the bridge on it says "Bigsby." Yeah, we'll discuss all of this at a later time, but I'm laying some enticing groundwork to keep you interested. By the way, isn't that guitar sign super cool? Look at the "strings" coming out of the tuning pegs at the top, and the whammy bar on the bridge. Good detail on the fretwork, too. Well done!
Did that get you interested? Sun is only two rooms, but Elvis's Graceland is still out there in the Memphis environs. And did you know that you can visit Jerry Lee Lewis's ranch, too? Oh yes you can. There is more, much more, to do in Memphis that talks, walks and breathes music. It is a pretty cool place if you have the least bit of interest in rock.
My name is Bill, and I live in the greater Philadelphia area. I love music, and I have a lot of opinions. This site is primarily focused on music, but sometimes I get off track. I hope you enjoy.