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Obituary: Sam Phillips, the Man Who Started Rock and Roll Revolution


Sam Phillips, the man credited with discovering Elvis Presley, and ushering in the rock and roll revolution that changed American music and culture, died Wednesday in Memphis, Tennessee at the age of 80. A member of both the Country Music and Rock and Roll Halls of Fame, Phillips ran Sun Records, the record label home to not just Elvis, but other rock pioneers including Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison.

In 1954, Sam Phillips recorded a teenaged truck driver singing an old song called That's Alright Mama. Two years after his first professional recording session, Elvis Presley's truck-driving days were long behind him, and he was one of the best-known singers in the world. That success was no accident. In Elvis Presley, Sam Phillips found an artist whose musical sound could cross racial boundaries.

"I wanted somebody that I knew had the feel that I envisioned could deliver that in a way and a fashion that not only the white folks would like it," he said, "but it would be, hopefully, accepted by black folks, even though it was a white person that was singing it."

According to music historians, that single recording session started a chain reaction that changed the sound of American pop music. Without it, they say, it is inconceivable that The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen or Bob Dylan would have sounded the way they did.

But Sam Phillips contribution to American music is far greater than just discovering Elvis Presley. Born in Florence, Alabama, Sam Phillips moved to Memphis in 1945, after working as a recording engineer in Nashville. He took a job at a local radio station, helping to engineer live broadcasts of big bands playing at the famed Peabody Hotel. To earn some extra money, Phillips started the Memphis Recording Service, the predecessor to his famed Sun Studio. When he opened this studio in 1950, and recorded artists such as Howlin' Wolf, B.B. King and Rufus Thomas, it was unheard of in the South for a white man to record black musicians. The next year, Phillips recorded Jackie Brenston singing Rocket 88 with Ike Turner's band for Chess Records.

Rocket 88, recorded in 1951, was a number one "Rhythm 'n' Blues" song, and is widely considered the first "rock 'n' roll" record.

As the decade wore on, Sam Phillips and his Sun Records label were amazingly successful, making stars out of Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins.

In his biography Go, Cat, Go!, Perkins recounted that Sam Phillips knew when he had a hit, even if the artist begged to differ. According the book, when Perkins wanted to fix some guitar mistakes in Blue Suede Shoes, he was stopped by Phillips who predicted the record would be a huge hit, off-notes and all.

Sam Phillips success as a record producer is well-known. A lesser-known fact is that Sam Phillips helped open the door for female radio broadcasters. In 1955, he purchased a radio station in Memphis, and came up with a one-of-a-kind programming idea. At a time when few radio stations employed women as announcers, Phillips came up with WHER, an all-girl format with women not just broadcasting, but selling and writing commercials, engineering programs and managing the radio station.

Sam Phillips death came on the same day that his Memphis studio became a landmark. The National Historic Landmark designation is the highest recognition given to properties in the United States. They are places where significant historical events occurred, or where prominent Americans worked or lived, as the nation took shape. It's a fitting designation for Sam Phillips' small studio that produced recordings for musical giants such as Elvis Presley, Charlie Rich, Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash, who recorded his first hit Cry Cry Cry at Sun Studios.