The Memphis Blues Again

The rockabilly history of Sam Phillips' Sun Records

Country singer/songwriter Johnny Cash plays acoustic guitar as he reclines on a bed, Memphis, Tennessee,1958 Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

They had all come to Memphis long before. Now they came again, these men who would always be as remarkable for what happened to them as for themselves. Once they had come in the nearly impossible hope of transforming themselves into recording artists. Now, with more than fifty albums among them, they came to cut an album together, at Sun Studio, where it all began, an album that would pay tribute to that distant past.

In 1955 Carl Perkins had come to town in a beat-up Plymouth. This time he drove a white Mercedes with his golf clubs in the trunk. Johnny Cash showed up in his MCI tour bus with the words JC unit one JC on the side. Roy Orbison flew in from Malibu and was driven around Memphis in a chauffeured limousine, while the session producer, Chips Moman, drove the 1955 blue Cadillac that had belonged to Orbison in the early days. Jerry Lee Lewis was driven to the sessions in his manager's flashy red and white sedan. Once Jerry Lee had his own flashy cars, but the IRS took them for unpaid back taxes.

Thirty years ago, these musicians had been the right men at the right time — all the wars over, the economy secure, the nation presided over by the benign, golf-playing Ike. And they had converged in the right place, Memphis, home of Beale Street and the blues, the city that had just spawned Elvis, where black people's music came up from the cotton fields, where bluegrass drifted in from the east, where hillbilly music came across the river from Arkansas — a city so diverse that a man could make his mark only by being uniquely himself.

Rockabilly did not exist until it was invented by these men and their mentor, Sam Phillips, the owner of Sun. And because there was no previous form to adhere to, or diverge from, rockabilly would be strictly improvisational, rooted in the personalities, propensities and histories of the men who made the music. Because they could not help it.

Jerry Lee Lewis

He was nicknamed the killer in high school, and it gave him a persona he has clung to ever since. Jerry Lee has been known to say he has no sense. You don't have to hang around him long to know he isn't kidding.

He auditioned at Sun in 1956, and Sam Phillips was taken by his playing and his bodacious spirit. "Jerry Lee doesn't have a super voice," Phillips says now, "but it's all in the way you say it, baby."

Jerry Lee's year was 1957, when he recorded "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" and "Great Balls of Fire," records that sold 11 million copies. But in December of that year, he married his third wife, Myra Gale Brown, his thirteen-year-old cousin. The press seized the story and beat it to death, nearly killing his career in the process.

For the next decade, he kept touring, claiming more stridently as the years went by that he was the real king of rock & roll, never forgiving Elvis for remaining professionally unscathed while living with Priscilla Beaulieu, who was only sixteen when she moved into Graceland. "At least I made an honest woman out of Myra," he would say. And so, at the Memphis sessions, when Johnny Cash said he wanted the quartet to record "We Remember the King," adding that it was written by Paul Kennerley, Jerry Lee said, "Hmmm. I didn't know he knew me."

In 1983, fifteen years after he had reestablished himself by becoming a country singer, there was widespread suspicion that the Killer had killed his fifth wife, a twenty-five-year-old cocktail waitress. Evidently, Jerry Lee is obsessed with this, declaring to a newsman who did not ask that he did not kill her. And when a keyboard was carried into Sun Studio in a four-foot-by-one-foot box, Jerry Lee looked at it and said, "You got my wife in there?"

Now he is married again, to another young woman. "Where do you find these girls?" someone asked him. "On my doorstep," he replied.

Throughout the sessions, he repeatedly played his old songs, crashing his hands down on the keys in one glissando after another. "He's like a bulldozer," one of the musicians said. "If you can ever shut him up long enough to find out what he's gonna do, you can get it done." When he wasn't recording, he hung around the sessions, showing his gold watch and six ornate rings (three on each hand) to the middle-aged fans who waited outside Sun. One night, at the Peabody hotel, he jammed with Jason D. Williams, a young piano player who looks and plays like Jerry Lee, and who enjoys referring to himself as the Killer's illegitimate son. "He's great," Jerry Lee told the audience, though when they cheered in agreement, he put up his hand to silence them. "I said he was great," he growled, "not better."

At the sessions, he seemed happiest when he was recording ("You're only sixteen, but you're Jerry Lee's teenage dream"), least happy when he arrived one evening, dressed in jeans, his comb in one back pocket, his gun in the other, and was called into Moman's trailer, only to emerge in a fury half an hour later, gunless and carrying a drink that he hurled against a tree as he stormed into the studio.

"This is a case of something," Carl Perkins said later, "that I'm not an authority to say. I don't know much about medicine or brain damage, and I'm not saying he's got it, but there's a switch in there that violently flies off. It's frightening and it's pitiful. Growing older strengthens you in some areas of your life, weakens you in others, definitely changes you. And it looks like it's not changing him for the good."

The day I met him, Jerry Lee was at the piano in the studio, barefoot, wearing a Hawaiian shirt and cutoff jeans. Jerry Lee reacts to women like a dog in heat, and when he first saw me, standing in the control room, he left the piano and came crawling through the control room's glassless window. As he climbed, his body jackknifed, and two dozen pills fell out of his pocket. Jerry Lee scooped them up, and advanced on me. "You write about these pills, honey," he said, "and I'll dance at your wedding, and kill your husband, too."

Then he stared at me for more than a minute, his small, deep-set eyes fierce and brown and mean. Such introductions are commonplace for Jerry Lee. "It's his come-on," someone said.

But then, Jerry Lee was back at the piano, singing in a shaft of light, his voice pure and clear and sad. And something pained and true and nearly sweet was happening in him as he sang, "Please release me, let me go...."

Johnny Cash

The man in black arrived at Sun Studio wearing the requisite-color shirt and navy-blue pants.

He is a big man, but at times there is something childlike in his face, a face that is at once imposing and vulnerable, proud and defeated. It is the face of a man who has been a failure — though he is, of course, not a failure — the sweet, ravaged face of a man who is acquainted with the darker impulses, but whose darkest impulses have always been directed at himself.

In the sessions, he was almost a parody of country-boy macho. "Anybody ready for me 'cept me?" he would say. "Anybody ready to pick?" Beside him, most of the time, was Marty Stuart, his lead guitar player for four years, his son-in-law for two, who both reveres Cash and is protective of him. Throughout the week, they communicated wordlessly, through small nods and slightly raised eyebrows. It was a time of intense recollection for Cash, who vividly recalls the day he, Perkins, Jerry Lee and Elvis recorded together at Sun and became known as the Million Dollar Quartet. Entering the studio for the first time in almost thirty years, he looked at the piano, still in the same corner it had been that day, but positioned differently. And he thought, That piano's turned the wrong way.

He grew up in Kingsland, Arkansas, the son of a sharecropper, loving country music and the gospel songs of singers like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, always knowing that "music was what I was supposed to do." He joined the air force, then attended radio announcer's school as a way into the music business.

He came to Sun in 1955, nervous and edgy, as he always was in those days, and auditioned with religious songs he had written. "They were absolutely elegant," Phillips recalls. "I told him, 'God, this is fantastic. I wish I were a little bigger label. I'd just like to lose a little money on this.' "

Phillips told Cash to go home and write "a weeper with a tempo." Two weeks later, he came back with "Cry Cry Cry" and recorded it and "Folsom Prison Blues." After that, he went on the road, filling out his still-small repertoire with an Elvis imitation. A year later, he made his most enduring record, "I Walk the Line," which he had written as a slow country ballad. When he heard it for the first time on the radio, he was miserable. "I hate it," he told Phillips, "it's awful."

And Phillips, always the wise father to these men no more than twelve years his junior, replied soothingly, "Let's give it a chance."

Cash left Sun in 1958, moving on to Columbia Records, where he established himself first as a notorious carouser, finally as the most successful artist in country music. As the years went by, he would use drugs and sing in prisons and come to know how easy it is to build a prison for yourself. By 1984, he had only one album left on his contract at Columbia and was about to be dropped. Dispiritedly, he began to record an album with Chips Moman. "If you could have heard Cash a year ago when he was down and depressed and just didn't care...," Moman says. "He started caring when he heard himself sounding good again." During that session, he was joined by Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson. They recorded a song called "Highwayman," and the day Johnny Cash walked into Sun Studio, it was Number One on the country charts.

Throughout the recent Sun sessions, he was, in his laconic way, full of confidence, with definite ideas and preferences on everything from instrumental breaks to whether he and Carl Perkins should split the verses on "Waymore's Blues." When he was ready to record, he said, "Well, let's put it down and put it on the radio and see if anybody buys it. We could sell hundreds." Then Perkins turned to him and said, "Just do what we're feeling?" And Cash replied in the voice of a sage, "Whatever you're feeling."

But Johnny Cash has been on the road a long, long time, and at no point was this more apparent than one afternoon when he was being interviewed. A man from a local radio station asked about his childhood, and Cash replied, "When I was a boy, when I was twelve years old, my daddy told me I couldn't play the radio until we ordered a new battery from Sears, and we didn't have the money to order it, and I remember crying and saying, 'I can't live without music."' Later, I was interviewing him. "When I was a boy," he said, "when I was twelve years old, my daddy told me I couldn't play the radio..."

Carl Perkins

When Carl Perkins plays guitar, he usually wedges a smoking Winston Light between the strings and the peghead. When he sings, he often taps a pen rhythmically into his palm. But one afternoon he went so far into "Class of '55" that his eyes closed and the pen came to rest in his hand. When the music faded, he drummed his fingers on his thigh, waiting for Chips Moman's comments.

"I liked that take a whole bunch," said Moman.

"Sure did feel good," said Perkins.

At fifty-three, Carl Perkins looks not quite like Clark Gable, but certainly like James Brolin playing Gable, a resemblance that owes much to Perkins' abundant mustache and perfectly coiffed gray hairpiece.

He arrived at the studio promptly each day, wearing tinted sunglasses, well-pressed jeans, clean running shoes and a striped shirt opened to reveal two pendants on a chain around his neck, a gold cross studded with five diamonds and a ruby and a gold guitar with a sound hole made of tiny diamonds.

Throughout the sessions, he was a paragon of good will and decorum, as he was in the early days, saying "yessuh" to Moman's every request. On the second day, when he found out that Marty Stuart had gotten a six-record contract at CBS, he gave him one of his Fender Stratocasters, saying, "Just got you a record deal, young'un. You gonna need a guitar."

Perkins was a poor boy, raised in Lake County, Tennessee, the son of a sharecropper. He and his two brothers worked the cotton fields, and it was there that he heard black music. At night, he would listen to country music on the radio, then play the songs on his guitar, always speeding them up because the rhythm of the music he heard in the fields was, as he puts it, "burning itself in my bones." His father would say, "That's not the way Roy Acuff does it." And he would say, "I know it, Daddy."

In his late teens, he played honky-tonks with his brothers, covering the popular songs of the day, playing them sharp and fast, for by then they were fans of the bluegrass music of Bill Monroe.

By 1954, he was living in project housing in Jackson, Tennessee, with his wife and two sons. One day his wife was ironing in the kitchen and listening to the radio. "Here's a new record by a new artist on a new label from Memphis, Tennessee," the announcer said, introducing Elvis' "Blue Moon of Kentucky." "Carl," his wife called to him, "it sounds like y'all."

And so he drove to Memphis, to audition for Sam Phillips, though when he arrived, Phillips' secretary, Marion Keisker, told him that the studio had its hands full with Elvis. "He really getting hot," Perkins said. Then he noticed a life-size cardboard cutout of a young man. "Is this him?" he asked. "Sure is," Keisker said. Perkins said, "And he's real pretty, too."

But, of course, Perkins got to audition, and soon he wrote "Blue Suede Shoes," and it hit Number Two on the country, pop and R&B charts. He was booked for the Big D Jamboree in Dallas, and when Phillips flew down to give him a pair of genuine blue suede shoes, Perkins said, "You know, Mr. Phillips, I never been in a city this size." And he would pay for his journey.

"You can't take a poor fellow," Perkins says now, "take him out of a pair of overalls and dress him in a three-piece sharkskin suit, set him in a Fleetwood Cadillac with a gold record fixin' to come and a royalty check that's bigger than what the bank has in that little town he was raised in, and expect that dude to stay like he was. Somewhere or another, it pushes something away." What had been pushed away, he would try to bring back with alcohol.

Then, in 1956, he was in a car accident that killed his brother Jay. During the nine months Perkins himself was in the hospital, Elvis recorded his nearly identical, classic cover of "Blue Suede Shoes," though Perkins would always maintain he was grateful to Elvis for making him so much royalty money.

Perkins continued to record, though he was the victim of bad luck and bad judgment, choosing, for instance, to record "Glad All Over" instead of "Great Balls of Fire." And he kept drinking, knowing it was hurting his music. In 1967, he began touring with Johnny Cash, opening the show and playing lead guitar. By then his drinking was much worse. In 1971, at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, he walked onstage drunk, did three songs, then walked off, threw his guitar against a wall, went to the bus and sobbed. He would never drink again. In 1977, he left Cash and began touring with his sons.

Always a sentimental man, Perkins was moved and inspired by the Memphis sessions. One night, after all four men had recorded "We Remember the King" and were listening to the playback in the engineer's trailer, Perkins turned to the other three and said, "God, I love you all." And they said they loved him, too, and all four men embraced, and they cried.

Now, a day later, he was eager to go again. "They ready to do anything yet?" he asked.

"They're fixing the song still," someone told him.

"It's supposed to be one of the greatest pieces ever written," said Perkins. A producer from the Dick Clark crew that had been taping the sessions turned to Perkins. "Who said it was the greatest piece ever written?" he asked.

"Somebody told me a while ago it was," said Perkins.

"It's like they say," said the producer, with a grin. "You throw enough shit against the wall, somebody's gonna think it's a picture."

Perkins laughed. He turned to me. He said, "Am I gonna be on the cover of this magazine?"

Roy Orbison

He was not feeling well for most of the sessions, and so he would arrive, late in the evening, the pale face obscured by dark glasses, dressed in black jeans and a turquoise or scarlet denim jacket, his neck, wrists and hands displaying diamond pendants, diamond watches and golden rings, staying separate from the others, occasionally smiling a beatific smile, more a presence than a person.

It is not easy to imagine Roy Orbison growing up in Wink, Texas, for it seems unlikely that he would have fit in there, any more than he would ever fit in anywhere else. He was six years old when he got his first guitar, and soon he learned that if he played well and sang well, he could stay up with the adults after the other children had gone to bed. The first song he learned was "You Are My Sunshine."

He never dreamed that music would make him rich or powerful or famous. "I was drawn to it emotionally," he says, "It was a beautiful thing in an almost disastrous world." It was wartime, and soldiers on their way to active duty would come to Orbison's apartment, and at night they would sing. "They were going off to war, so they were playing their songs with everything they had. The intensity and power of that was astounding. It was just life encapsulated in that two-room apartment."

Orbison was first recorded by Norman Petty, Buddy Holly's manager, and eventually, at the suggestion of Johnny Cash, he sent a tape of "Ooby Dooby" to Sun. He was not a rockabilly artist, in interests or in style, and he did not do his best work at Sun, but the experience was "a great, wonderful workshop." Then Phillips released "I Like Love," which Orbison didn't want released, and he left and returned to Texas.

He wrote "Claudette," a song for his wife, and played it for the Everly Brothers, who wrote it down on top of a shoe box and went to Nashville to record it. Not long after, Orbison recorded "Only the Lonely," and he still remembers taking the demo home, playing it, getting the excited notion that it might make the Top Twenty. It became Number One. Yet success would not be easy for him.

"Roy is basically so kindhearted, so soft-spoken," Sam Phillips says, "I guess he probably had as difficult a time as any artist I can think of. He wanted to be accepted. His voice was something else, but he must have had a real rough time, not at all looking the part, you know." He tended to be photographed in elegant clothes, standing beside elegant cars, yet despite this insistent materialism, there was something irrevocably spiritual about him.

In 1966, Claudette Orbison was killed in a motorcycle accident, and Orbison was devastated. He stopped working. Two years later, two of his three children died in a fire in his home. In 1969 he began performing again, and since then, he has been on the road ten days a month, year after year.

Though he must be aware that his greatest productive years were in the early Sixties, he is certainly aware that musicians who came after him regard him with great respect. "I've never been able to accept a compliment anyway," he says, "so all I could ever say was thank you."

During the Memphis sessions, when it was his time to record, everyone in the studio became silent, expectant, as Orbison approached the microphone. Yet when he sang "Going Home," a song he cowrote, the cameras of the Dick Clark crew that was taping him made him so self-conscious that the vocal track would have to be recut several weeks later.

The next evening, while he waited for the session to begin, he did not join the others in the studio, but stayed by himself, in his trailer. "I'm an introvert basically," he said. "It's probably the reason I'm an entertainer." Then he looked out the trailer window, gazing through his dark glasses into the darkness of the night. "I'm still an introvert," he said.

Sam Phillips

Sam Phillips was the south's first genuine hipster, and now, thirty-five years after establishing that distinction, he is long-haired, bearded, slender, a Kris Kristofferson lookalike and music's own Dorian Gray. Indeed, he looks younger now than he did back in the days when his relationship to young artists was that of father to son, when he would inspire and dominate them with his messianic voice and piercing eyes, with his persuasive powers and, above all, with his total confidence in those powers.

His genius was in discerning talent and nurturing it. ("Do it one more time for Sam," he would say.) Like all proud and complicated men, he would be swamped in his own contradictions: his genuine caring for his artists versus his notorious tightness with money; his heartfelt belief in individualism versus his rigorous control of an artist's music. He was driven, stubborn, sure of himself. When Carl Perkins recorded a song, listened to the playback and said, "Mr. Phillips, that's terrible," Phillips replied, "That's original."

He had grown up listening to black gospel and blues, and to the early country-gospel groups, like the Rangers Quartet, the Spear Family, the Chuck-wagon Gang. In school, he played in the band, first on drums, later on tuba and baritone horn. He was never an especially accomplished musician; nonetheless, he could read music. "But," he says, "don't hold that against me."

He would have liked to have been a criminal lawyer, though after his father died, he had to go to work, and he became a radio announcer with, as he puts it, "a lot of South in my mouth." He moved up steadily, from a 250-watt station in Decatur to the 50,000-watt WLAC in Nashville, acquiring along the way his certification as a radio engineer. He came to WREC in Memphis in late 1944. Six months later, he was engineering broadcasts of the big bands — Glenn Miller, the Dorsey Brothers — from the Peabody Skyway.

It was not a bad gig for a young man who still refers to himself as a hillbilly, but it was too conventional, too uninspired for one so restless. In 1950, he decided to record the blues singers who played on Beale Street, just a block from the Peabody. He found a radiator shop and converted it into a studio, though it was so small that all of his business was conducted next door at Miss Taylor's restaurant, in the third booth from the window. The next year, he recorded Jackie Brenston's "Rocket 88," considered by many to be the first rock & roll record. He was full of passion, running Sun by day, working at the Peabody by night.

But in 1951, he had a nervous breakdown. After nine shock treatments, he returned to work and recorded Howlin' Wolf and B.B. King.

By 1954, labels like Atlantic and Specialty were putting out rhythm & blues records. "As they began to get rolling real good, I thought, 'Is it possible to broaden the base and get a little more airplay because the artist is white, without stealing from the black man, but trying to get some of that feel and fervor into it?' " It did not take him long to sense he had found his man in Elvis. "There were," he says, "certain dead giveaways in his rawness, and his untrained voice, and that he was not hung up on any one type of music."

Later, Phillips remarked that he had also been struck by Elvis' insecurity. "It was so markedly like a black person's," he would say. It was a trait he discovered in all the young men from the country who came to Sun. "Every one of them. Number one, you have to consider that success was an unbelievable thing. You can dream, but, oh, so many times, you just know it will never happen. It was frightening to them. And it came really fast. It just wasn't easy for these people to get a real handle on it. Their feelings have got to have been, 'Look what I've got and it feels so good and I'm so lucky but it can't last... it just can't last.' "

There always came a day, not too long after their first successes, when his artists left him, usually because of his tighrfistedness. Still, he always believed that, had they stayed with him, they would have fared better personally.

"I don't need any sympathy, but it was tough on me. Because you give birth to a child, and that's an artist, okay? It hurt me deeply. And boy, the big record companies got after my butt because we were really doing something at the time — and I'm not sure it's not still true — unique."

Sam Phillips sold Sun in 1969. Since then he has become an original stockholder in Holiday Inn, the owner of two Memphis radio stations and a noted character in the Memphis community. But on the day he and his artists came back to Sun for the first time in almost thirty years, Phillips stood in a corner, quietly, unobtrusively, a slight smile on his face as he watched the men whose careers he started be besieged by the press and by fans.

Then Carl Perkins walked over to him. "Mr. Phillips," he said, "I thought this was the biggest room I ever saw in my life." And Phillips, still the all-knowing father, smiled and replied, "Carl, dimensionally it might not have been so big, but it is still a big room."

The Last Night

They recorded JohnFfogerty's "Big Train (from Memphis)" on the very last night. The day before, the sessions had been moved from Sun to American Recording Studio, the studio Chips Moman founded in 1967, and where he and his 827 Thomas Street Band had recorded Elvis' "Suspicious Minds" and "Kentucky Rain."

In recent years, the studio has been turned into an Elvis museum, so a room adjacent to the studio was a jumble of Elvis pictures, Elvis plates, a framed collection of his Sun hits and a huge RCA dog made of china. There was also a life-size cardboard cutout of Elvis, his face permanently pensive, permanently young. On this night, the cutout was turned toward the open door of the studio. Throughout the session, it seemed as if Elvis himself were watching.

It was midnight before they got started. Around one microphone were Chips Moman's wife, Toni Wine; the Judds; Becky Evans, who sings with a local band; and June Carter Cash. Around the other microphone were nearly a dozen men, including John Fogerty, Rick Nelson, the four artists from Sun and Sam Phillips. Then the lyric sheets were handed out, and Jerry Lee, Johnny Cash and Phillips put on their glasses to read them.

They began to sing, and Phillips put an arm around Jerry Lee, and Cash put his arm around Orbison, and there they stood, adorned with gold watches and silver chains and flamingo shirts and leather pants and heavy gold rings. After "Big Train," the band played one riff after another, and they all sang snatches of the great Sun songs. That's all right little mama... but don't you step on my blue suede shoes... because you're mine, I walk the line... come on over baby, whole lotta shakin' gain' on. And they kept singing, and as they sang, their songs became a communion, a celebration, a requiem and a wake.