In 2001, Memphis-based record producer Sam Phillips was enshrined in the Country Music Hall of Fame, hailed as “one of the most important non-performers in American music.” Among the first to recognize – and capitalize on – the full potential of blending musical genres and inventing what would become the first wave of rock & roll music, Phillips’ Sun Records gave the record-buying public their first taste of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Charlie Rich, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, B.B. King and Howlin’ Wolf, among many others.
Samuel Cornelius Phillips was born 95 years ago, on
, which housed his Memphis Recording Service. Starting his first record label, Phillips, in 1950, he recorded blues acts but soon branched out into country music, specializing in the wild, untamed sounds that would define the vintage Sun Records artists, including Presley, Cash, Orbison and Lewis, whose later fame on larger labels would cement their legacy as Sun’s “Million Dollar Quartet.”
In the summer of 1954, aspiring singer Johnny Cash, having heard Elvis Presley’s breakthrough record “That’s All Right,” contacted Phillips at Sun Records but was repeatedly brushed off. One day, while waiting on the steps at Sun, Cash approached Phillips telling him he wanted to play a few songs for him. In Good Rockin’ Tonight: Sun Records and the Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll, authors Colin Escott and Martin Hawkins quote Cash as saying, “I sang two or three hours for him,” adding that he played everything from songs by Hank Snow and Ernest Tubb to “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen.” Phillips invited Cash and his band, the Tennessee Two, to audition, but also recorded a solo session of demos with the singer, who accompanied himself on acoustic guitar.
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One of those four early recordings, “My Treasure,” is indeed a treasure. A romantic ballad about the value of an enduring love over earthly possessions, the Cash original went unreleased until after his signing with Columbia Records. It was included on the 1961 Sun compilation Now Here’s Johnny Cash, one of several post-Sun-era releases for the Man in Black, who had recorded enough material with Phillips to generate “new” product throughout the early Sixties. Listen above to the original demo for the track, including a false start in which Cash flubs a line.
Sam Phillips, who was included in the first class of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees in 1986, died in 2003 at 80 years old. Last year, actor Chad Michael Murray portrayed the charismatic record producer in the CMT series Sun Records. In 2016, it was announced that Leonardo DiCaprio would play Phillips in an upcoming biopic based on Peter Guralnick’s definitive biography Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll.