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Rock Legend Sam Phillips Dies

Sun Records founder was eighty

July 31, 2003 12:00 AM ET

Sam Phillips, the legendary producer and label head who helped introduce Elvis Presley's music to the world, died yesterday; he was eighty.

Born on January 5, 1923, in Florence, Alabama, Phillips gravitated toward music at an early age. In his early twenties, he worked as a disc jockey in Memphis, before opening the small Memphis Recording Service studio (which predominantly recorded events like weddings and funerals) and the Phillips record label in 1950. Phillips worked on early recordings by Howlin' Wolf and B.B. King, and he recorded Jackie Brenston's pivotal single, "Rocket 88," which is oft cited as the first rock & roll recording. In 1952 Phillips launched Sun Records, which earned its first hit with Rufus Thomas' "Bear Cat," which landed on the R&B charts.

The fuel for what would become rockabilly (the seemingly disparate genres of R&B and country and western) was in place long before Phillips opened Sun, but his little Memphis-based label provided the spark. Phillips' lore has the producer telling confidantes that he was seeking a white singer with a black sound, thinking such a pairing of elements would make him a million dollars. Deliverance came in the form of Elvis Presley, who for $4 had made some recordings at the Memphis Recording Service for his mother in 1953, though Phillips wasn't present for the session. He was around in January 1954, when Presley returned, though that session didn't yield any viable music. But the teenage singer piqued Phillips' curiosity enough to where he enlisted guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black to back Presley for three songs in July 1954, one of which was "That's All Right," which enjoyed regional success and effectively served set Elvis on the road to Kingdom.

Presley didn't earn Phillips that million dollars, however. The sum was actually $35,000, at the time a formidable amount, paid to Phillips by RCA, which purchased Presley's contract in 1955. Phillips took the money and dumped it into Sun, which quickly became an incubator for the fledgling rockabilly subgenre. By March 1956, Sun had its first pop hit with Carl Perkins' "Blue Suede Shoes," which climbed as high as Number Two. Phillips also saw potential in a young Johnny Cash, and signed him to the label. In October of that year, Cash released "I Walk the Line," the first of four hit singles for Sun. As with Presley, Phillips lost both Perkins and Cash when major labels came bidding, but he found success in 1957 with Jerry Lee Lewis. Lewis scored a Number Three hit with "Whole Lot of Shakin' Going On." Lewis stuck around longer than most, charting "What'd I Say" in 1961.

Phillips and Sun enjoyed continued success into the early Sixties, albeit with less heat. He opened a second Memphis studio (for Sun and his Phillips International label) in 1960, and eventually expanded to Nashville, where he gave producer Billy Sherrill, who would go on to define a decade of string-laden countrypolitan music, his start. In addition to its hitmakers, Sun also fostered the careers of other musical luminaries including Roy Orbison and Charlie Rich, as well as waxing numerous first-rate sides by regional hitmakers like James Cotton and Junior Parker.

Financially, Phillips' musical successes paled in comparison to his decision to invest in the Holiday Inn hotel franchise, which, with a few other investments made him a wealthy man. With rockabilly ushered out in the Sixties by the British Invasion and its musical offspring, Phillips got out of the game. In 1969 he sold Sun and its catalog to a Nashville businessman. Phillips walked away from the industry with little fuss, only returning to the studio after his retirement for sporadic work like the two tracks he recorded for John Prine's 1979 album, Pink Cadillac.

Phillips was among the inaugural group of inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. When he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001, he joined a group that only includes eight other artists (Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, the Everly Brothers, Bob Wills, Chet Atkins and Bill Monroe) who have been inducted into both Halls.

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