The history of rock & roll may have begun with a man known as Uncle Silas Payne. Uncle Silas was a black man, blinded by syphilis, who lived in Florence, Alabama, with the Phillips family, whose eighth child was named Sam. Uncle Silas used to tell Sam stories, stories that tempered the way Sam came to think, and perceive, stories that shaped his sense of possibility. “In Africa, Samuel,” Uncle Silas would say, “we have the most beautiful molasses rivers, and we have battercake trees that grow warm battercakes on them. And a young boy can pick those battercakes off the trees and sop them in those molasses rivers.” This was a story that amazed young Sam, and it was based in magic and in alchemy.
Much later, Sam himself would have the amazing idea that a white man could sing like a black one. And he would find that man in Elvis Presley, and together they would create the music that came to be known as rockabilly. Rockabilly would become a breeding ground for troubled souls and half-realized dreams. But before it was that, it was magic, and it was alchemy.
Sam Phillips is, at the age of 63, a genuine eccentric, with the glowing, nearly wild eyes of a man whose gaze has been perpetually fixed on a point only he can see. Men of his type are often outcasts, but they are occasionally given, as Sam Phillips was, the opportunity to impress the peculiarities of their vision and quirks on history.
Phillips founded Sun studios in 1950. As a producer at Sun, he became one of the very first white Southerners to record the great Memphis bluesmen, like Howlin’ Wolf and B.B. King, a truly revolutionary venture that annoyed and perplexed his peers. “You don’t smell bad, Sam,” they would say. “Guess you didn’t have a session today.” He discovered Elvis in 1954. He then went on to discover and record Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison, in the process creating a music so innovative and alive that the music itself became a revolutionary force that in turn changed everything.
In 1969 Phillips sold Sun, though he had stopped making records on the label in 1963, at a time when many independent companies were losing their battle for survival. He could have gone to work for RCA, but he had the good sense to recognize that he was far too stubborn, ornery and proud to answer to a corporate hierarchy. The music he had made and deeply loved was the manifestation of an untamable spirit; in the end, his independence mattered to him even more than his music.
He protected that independence by becoming a wealthy man. He was an early investor in the Holiday Inn chain, and today he owns five lucrative radio stations and plays the stock market with all the canny delight with which he once ran Sun.
This interview took place in one nine-hour session in the living room of Phillips’ home in Memphis, a ranch-style house he bought in 1956 that has a small swimming pool in the back and Phillips’ big blue and white 1976 Cadillac parked in the driveway. Throughout the interview, his two sons — Knox, 40, and Jerry, 37 — sat on the modern beige couch facing their father, eyeing him attentively, laughing at his jokes, encouraging him with small nods of their heads, even prompting him by asking leading questions. They adore the man they call Sam and are passionately concerned that his place in rock & roll history be recorded with sufficient respect and that he be given the credit he deserves as the true patriarch of rock & roll. As for Phillips, he tells his version of the birth of that music with all the mesmerizing potency of a man who has a prodigious gift for oratory, no apparent modesty and a singular story to tell.
There are many stories about how Elvis came to Sun in 1954. I’d like to hear your version of it.
He was working for Crown Electric. I’d seen the truck go back and forth outside, and I thought, “They sure are doing a hell of a lot of business around here.” But I never saw it stop anywhere. So Elvis had. . .he had cased the joint a long time before he stopped the truck and got out. And there’s no telling how many days and nights behind that wheel he was figuring out some way to come in and make a record without saying, “Mr. Phillips, would you audition me?” So his mother’s birthday gave him the opportunity to come in and make a little personal record. [Elvis claimed he was making the record for his mother, but her birthday was, in fact, months away, so perhaps he had other motives.]
The first song he recorded was “My Happiness.” The story goes that it was recorded not by you but by your assistant, Marion Keisker. Is that your recollection?
Well, I would love to say Marion did it. She did an awful lot for me, man. I mean we painted floors together. I wouldn’t take anything away from Marion Keisker. And I think she made the statement inadvertently. I don’t want to make Marion look bad on the thing. I wish you’d just drop it, ’cause I don’t care who it was. But it was simply me. That’s all.
What did you think when you heard it?
There wasn’t anything that striking about Elvis, except his sideburns were down to here [gestures], which I kind of thought, well, you know, “That’s pretty cool, man. Ain’t nobody else got them that damn long.” We talked in the studio. And I played the record back for him in the control room on the little crystal turntable and walked up front and told Marion to write down Elvis’ name and number and how we can get ahold of him.
Why would you want to get ahold of him?
Well, I told Elvis, “If I come up with any songs, would you be interested in maybe taking a shot at it?” And was he!
You called him back to cut a ballad called “Without You.” That song was never released. What went wrong?
We got some pretty good cuts on the thing, but I wanted to check him out other ways before I made a final decision as to which route we were going to attempt to go with him. And I decided I wanted to look at things with a little tempo, because you can really hang yourself out on ballads or when you go up against Perry Como or Eddie Fisher or even Patti Page, all of those people. I wasn’t looking for anything that greatly polished.
After that, you put Elvis with a band, Scotty Moore on guitar and Bill Black on bass. Why did you choose them?
The two of them, they’d been around the studio, Lord, I don’t know how many damned times, you know? Scotty had been playing with different bands, and although he hadn’t ever done a session for me, I knew he had the patience and he wasn’t afraid to try anything, and that’s so important when you’re doing laboratory experiments. Scotty was also the type of person who could take instruction real good. And I kidded him a lot. I said, “If you don’t quit trying to copy Chet Atkins, I’ll throw you out of this damn place.” And Bill, he was just Bill Black, and the best slap bass player in the city.
Did you know by then that Elvis was the person you’d been looking for?
I sure did. I wouldn’t have called him back and back and back again. I knew he had the fundamentals of what I wanted. He was the first one I had seen who had that potential. He had a different type of voice. And this boy had listened to a lot of different music, from the Grand Ole Opry to Bing Crosby to Dinah Shore to Crudup to Bill Monroe to Hank Snow.
What were you trying to achieve with Elvis?
Now you’ve got to keep in mind Elvis Presley probably innately was the most introverted person that came into that studio. Because he didn’t play with bands. He didn’t go to this little club and pick and grin. All he did was set with his guitar on the side of his bed at home. I don’t think he even played on the front porch. So I had to try to establish a direction for him. And I had to look into the market, and if the market was full of one type of thing, why try to go in there? There’s only so many pieces in a pie. That’s how I figured it. I knew from the beginning that I was going to have to do something different and that it might be harder to get it going. But if I got it going, I might have something.
How did you come to cut “That’s All Right”?
That night we had gone through a number of things, and I was getting ready to fold it up. But I didn’t want to discourage the damn people, you understand? I knew how enthusiastic Elvis was to try to do something naturally. I knew also that Scotty Moore was staying there till he dropped dead, you know? I don’t remember exactly what I said, but it was light-hearted. I think I told him, “There ain’t a damn song you can do that sounds worth a damn,” or something like that. He knew it was tongue in cheek. But it was getting to be a critical time, because we had been in the studio a lot. Well, I went back into the booth. I left the mikes open, and I think Elvis felt like, really, “What the hell have I got to lose? I’m really gonna blow his head off, man.” And they cut down on “That’s All Right,” and hell, man, they was just as instinctive as they could be.
It’s said that you heard him singing it, and you said, “What are you doing?” and he said, “I don’t know,” and you said, “Do It again.” Is that true?
I don’t remember exactly verbatim. But it was something along the lines that I’ve been quoted.
Scotty Moore says that when he heard the playback he thought he’d be run out of town. How did you feel when you heard it?
First of all, Scotty wasn’t shocked at any damned thing I attempted to do. Scotty isn’t shockable. And for me, that damned thing came through so loud and clear it was just like a big flash of lightning and the thunder that follows. I knew it was what I was looking for for Elvis. When anybody tells you they know they’ve got a hit, they don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. But I knew I had it on “That’s All Right.” I just knew I had found a groove. In my opinion. And that’s all I had to go on, honey. I mean I let people hear it. But I didn’t ask them their damn opinions.
Then what happened?
I let Scotty, Bill and Elvis know I was pretty damn pleased. Then I made an acetate dub of it and took it up to [Memphis disc jockey] Dewey Phillips and played him the tape. And Daddy-O Dewey wanted to hear it again. “Goddamn, man,” he says, “I got to have it.” Red, hot and blue. You’d have to know Dewey. And two nights later, he played that thing, and the phones started ringing. Honey, I’ll tell you, all hell broke loose. People were calling that station, and it really actually surprised me, because I knew nobody knew Elvis. Elvis just didn’t have friends, didn’t have a bunch of guys he ran with or anything, you know? Anyway, it was just fantastic. To my knowledge, there weren’t any adverse calls.
Why did you decide to back “That’s All Right” with “Blue Moon of Kentucky”?
This was before anybody thought of young people being interested in bluegrass. But we did this thing, and it just had an intrigue. And that’s the one where I thought maybe there was a good possibility of getting run out of town, ’cause hey, man, you didn’t mess with bluegrass. Bluegrass is kind of sacred, you know.
Once the record was released, there was an incredible furor. How did it affect you?
Rock & roll probably put more money in the collection boxes of the churches across America than anything the preacher could have said. I certainly know that to be a fact. Not only them. Disc jockeys broke the hell out of my records. Broke ’em on the air. Slam them over the damn microphone. Now if I hadn’t affected people like that, I might have been in trouble.
Do you remember the session for “Good Rockin’ Tonight”?
Oh, God, we all loved that song, man. I took Bill, and I said, “I don’t want none of this damned slapping. I want you to pull them damned strings, boy.”
What about “You’re a Heartbreaker”?
I had a little trouble with Elvis on that because he wanted to move into a little heavier type of feel. And I didn’t want to take him too fast. “You’re a Heartbreaker” wasn’t my favorite song of all time.
Would he balk at doing a song like that?
Elvis never really balked. But you could tell that maybe he felt we could find something better. And I had a little trouble with him on “I Forgot to Remember to Forget.” I said to him: “Man, that is a classic. That is a play on words with a hook that’ll knock your ass off.”
Once you said that, there was no problem?
No problem. No bitching. No griping. No halfway doing it.
How about “Baby, Let’s Play House”?
He loved that. We all did. That thing just hatched.
I would think you’d have worried about that one, though, in terms of sexual connotations.
Oh, we didn’t mind sex around here and there.
But did you think of it as a marketing consideration?
Well, at that time frame it was controversial. But I mean, anything you said that wasn’t “moon, june and something” was. But what’s wrong with “Baby, let’s play house”? Now, if he had said, “Baby, let’s play doctor”. . .
On that song and several others, Elvis changed some lyrics. Would those changes generally be his idea or yours?
It was mainly him. I might suggest a different word to make it a little more hip.
What about “Milk Cow Blues Boogie,” when Elvis says, “Let’s get real, real gone”?
That happened because I wanted something on the front end of that thing. And I was very careful on narrations, ’cause that can kill a record on a jukebox. So we worked this thing out to where it would be a little bit different, and then when we went into our rhythm, honey, it took place.
Was it his ad-lib or yours?
I’m pretty sure I told him that.
What about “Mystery Train”?
That’s my favorite record on Elvis. And when we did that take, he laughed because he thought it wasn’t worth a shit. I mean that was the one, that was it, with that stupid laugh on him. He just knew I wasn’t gonna be pleased with that cut, so he just acted silly as hell, and it turned out to be super.
You recorded four ballads with Elvis at Sun, but none was released. Why was that?
I wasn’t going to release any damn ballads until he was ready as a ballad singer.
Did he know he wasn’t ready at that point?
I don’t think he did. But you need a person who will give you a judgment call no matter what it does to you.
Did you tell Elvis he wasn’t ready?
No. I didn’t tell him that. But I told him in so many ways. It was an insult to him if I had told him directly that he wasn’t ready. I mean, I knew how to get around. But not only did I know Elvis wasn’t ready for it, I knew the market wasn’t ready then, because we had plenty of ballad singers that were super-duper.
Your contract with Elvis had him completely locked up, so the only way Colonel Parker could have become involved was as a concert booker. Why did you decide to sell his contract just a year and a half after he started with you?
I had looked at everything for how I could take a little extra money and get myself out of a real bind. I mean, I wasn’t broke, but man, it was hand-to-mouth. I made an offer to Tom Parker, but the whole thing was that I made an offer I didn’t think they’d even consider — $35,000, plus I owed Elvis $4000 or $5000.
So you thought the offer was so high no one would take it?
I didn’t necessarily want them not to take it.
But once you knew Elvis was going to be big, why didn’t you try to expand your operation?
Number one, you couldn’t borrow money. Not even after Sun Records was successful. The South knew nothing about the record industry and didn’t believe in it. The only route I had was to go public. I didn’t want the accountability. I would rather be my own boss and go down that way. I wanted to stay small.
Did you realize how much Elvis was worth?
Hell, no. I didn’t have any idea the man was going to be the biggest thing that ever happened to the industry.
Were you ever sorry you let him go?
No. That was the best judgment call I could make at the time, and I still think it is. And Sun went on and did many, many things. I hoped the one thing that wouldn’t happen to me was that I would be a one-artist or a one-hit label.
Did you give Elvis any advice when he left Sun?
The one real ammunition I gave him was “Don’t let them tell you what to do. Don’t lose your individuality.”
Then how did you feel when he started making the type of movies he made?
They were just things that you could make for nothing and make millions off of, and Elvis didn’t have anything to do with it. That was Colonel Tom Parker and the moguls at the different studios. I think it was almost sinister, I really do.
Did you ever think of becoming a manager?
I’m insane. But I’m not that insane.
Once Elvis was gone, were you banking Sun’s future on Carl Perkins?
I banked it on me.
A few months after Elvis left, you released Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes.” Wasn’t that the record that put Sun into the black?
Absolutely. And there was another one of those instincts. I knew I was giving up some kind of a cat, man, but, sure enough, I sold him, and that’s what financed “Blue Suede Shoes.”
Steve Sholes of RCA called you at the time “Blue Suede Shoes” was climbing the charts. RCA couldn’t get anything going with Elvis, and Sholes asked you, “Did we buy the wrong guy?” What did you tell him?
I told him, “You haven’t bought the wrong person.” And I gave him the reasons. Number one, Elvis certainly had the talent. And unlike Carl, he was single and had no children and was a helluva-looking man. He said, “Well, would you be mad at us if we put out ‘Blue Suede Shoes’?” Man, that staggered me. I said, “Steve, you all are big enough to kill me, you know.” But they didn’t put it out as a single. They released it as an EP.
Did it outsell Perkins’ version?
Hell, no. Well, I guess over the years when it was put in 19 packages. But the only reason Carl is not recognized for “Blue Suede Shoes” is that Elvis became so mammothly big.
When did you realize how big Elvis would be?
Not when I heard “Heartbreak Hotel.” That was the worst record. I knew it when I heard “Don’t Be Cruel.” I was driving back from the first vacation I’d had in my life, and it came on the radio, and I said, “Wait a minute. Jesus, he’s off and gone, man.” I’d like to run off the road.
Were you jealous?
Hell, no, ’cause when I heard “Heartbreak Hotel,” I said, “Damned sons of bitches are going to mess this man up.” Then, boy, I heard “Don’t Be Cruel,” and I was the happiest man in the world.
What was the difference in what you were trying to achieve first with Elvis, then with Perkins?
With Elvis I kind of wanted to lean more toward the blues. I wanted to get Carl more into modifying country music.
What was your favorite Perkins song?
This is the craziest thing, but one of the cutest songs I ever heard was his “Movie Magg.” And “Boppin’ the Blues.”
When you started Sun, you were recording black bluesmen. Then you recorded country boys, like Perkins and Johnny Cash. It seems that you must have had a strong identification with downtrodden people. How did you develop that?
As a child I was extremely physically unhealthy. I think that made me very sensitive to what life is all about, and more observant of the things that were around. Seeing kids who were so much more robust than myself had a profound influence on my feelings for people, my feelings for suffering. And it made me feel there had to be a certain belief in yourself.
Did the Depression affect you?
When the crash came in ’29, I was six years old. My father was a tenant farmer and had managed to accumulate a little personal — well, we called it wealth. A few hundred dollars in the bank. So one night he goes to sleep and the next morning he wakes up and he has no money. He was almost 50 years old, and he had the great stamina and belief to not look back, ’cause there was not a lot he could do about that. That was a very inspirational thing to me.
When did you first hear the blues?
On our plantation — I call it that because it was 320 acres, which was one of the biggest farms then — very seldom did you go by the black mammas hanging out clothes or boiling clothes in a big old wash kettle that you didn’t hear some humming, some singing. Certainly in the fields that was absolutely their theme song. I saw that. I even felt that. So many people that went through relatively the same thing missed this because they thought of the black man as another mule or somebody not quite human. But I didn’t, maybe because I was always loved by the black adults, like Uncle Silas Payne. They looked at me and had such a sympathy. And I’d see them work, and I mean the sweat and the heat and you walked every foot of the way behind those mules. And I saw how they kept their spirituality. They felt hope, and to me that said something. I can’t say I knew at that immediate time what it said. I damn sure know what it means now.
That they were the most creative people from a purely instinctive standpoint of any race in the United States. But had I not experienced what I did, it would be very difficult for me to feel that, or to feel the way I do about my kindredness with the black people, with music, with poor Southern whites, with the misunderstood peoples of the South. But because of that, I think the blues came very naturally to me.
You wanted to be a criminal lawyer, but your father died when you were young. Without enough money to be educated extensively, you became a disc jockey and an engineer. You worked in a number of places before settling in Memphis. Why did you choose to live there?
I first came through Memphis in 1939, in a ’37 Dodge with a rumble seat. I’d heard about Beale Street. I’d heard it was the most unique street in the world. And we drove down Beale — it must have been five o’clock in the morning, and believe me, this street was busy. And I got to see how the blacks lived in their uptown social way. We drove up and down Beale half a dozen times, and God, it was so active and vibrant and alive. They were having a good time. To hell with what your head felt like the next day. Then I saw the Mississippi River. I was born and raised on the Tennessee, a beautiful river, but here was this untamed damned river. Nice and muddy. And its bank, man, was where it wanted to be at that particular time. You know? You didn’t tell it what to do. So I fell in love with this old river town.
When you set up Sun in 1950, were you trying to attract a youth market?
Absolutely. From the beginning. There was just no music for young people then except for a few little kiddy records put out by the major labels.
And when you started recording black bluesmen, were you recording for young black record buyers?
I was recording to survive, honey. And I knew that my primary target would have to be black people. But Leonard Chess [owner of Chicago’s Chess Records] and the Bihari boys [three brothers who ran the Los Angeles-based Modern Records] and I all talked to each other back then about the white youth market. And believe me, this is taking nothing away from anybody, but it hadn’t occurred to too many people that white people would listen to black singers. But I wasn’t in it just to record black music for black people alone. I was in it to record something I loved, something I felt, something I thought other people ought to have an opportunity to render a judgment on. And most especially young whites, young blacks and then thirdly the older blacks.
You got the idea for making very simple recordings when you were engineering broadcasts of big bands, like the Dorseys and Glenn Miller. How did that come about?Because the rhythm section sounded better than the whole rest of them. Bass, drums, you know, piano and the few bands that had guitars. Hell, yeah. And I’d always mix the rhythm section a little hotter than the horns. I kept it hot. I had fights with some of the bandleaders, but they all liked it after they heard it. And I’ll tell you, every bandleader, when they heard my mix, they were a little surprised that the rhythm section was kind of pushing a little more than they wanted. They wanted the blend of their instruments to do the pushing, you know? And the accents of the arrangements. And hey, there’s nothing wrong with that. But what I gave them was that plus. Because it felt natural.
One of the people you discovered at Sun was Ike Turner. What do you remember about him?
Ike was such a fantastic musician. But the only thing is, I had problems with Ike, because early on he wanted to get a little more sophistication into the music. See, he was a piano player when he came to me. And up to that time I never heard a piano player who could play with as much damn soul and feel in my life. Of course, later he switched to the guitar. And he had a good band. But I had to hold them down from trying to sound just a little bit too complicated, because his mind ran that way.
What part did he play in the recording of “Rocket 88,” a song many people believe was the first rock & roll record?
Jackie Brenston [Turner’s lead vocalist] had this song. And God, when I heard that thing, man. . .I have no doubt in my mind that this was the first true rock & roll record. Not because I cut it.
What do you remember about the session?
Well, when Ike and them were coming up to do the session, the bass amplifier fell off the car. And when we got in the studio, the woofer had burst; the cone had burst. So I stuck the newspaper and some sack paper in it, and that’s where we got that sound.
Were you intentionally trying to create a new sound?
I would have been totally unfulfilled if I had just cut a good, conventional, beautiful hit record. I certainly could have used the money. But that type of music wasn’t my interest at all. The more unconventional it sounded, the more interested I would become in it.
Of all the blues artists you worked with at Sun, who was your favorite?
Chester Burnett, the Howlin Wolf. He was always so, quote unquote, unprepared. But so damn well prepared. No song was ever ready, and the closest analogy I can give to a white man would be a Jerry Lee Lewis. There ain’t no way he’s going to sing the song the same way twice. And Wolf had the most god-awful voice that could be classified as a set of vocal cords I ever heard in my life. And that I knew had to draw attention. And if you get attention, hell, you can’t ask for a better opportunity, can you?
One of the most interesting groups you worked with were the Prisonaires. What do you remember about their recording of “Just Walkin’ in the Rain”?
The whole quartet was in prison, and so was Robert Riley, who wrote “Walkin’ in the Rain.” One of them, Johnny Bragg, had four 99-year sentences, and he went in there at 16 years old, convicted for all the rapes in some county in East Tennessee that they couldn’t solve or something. But I got this thing worked out with the warden to bring them over to Sun. And everybody was concerned with what precedent this would set. So we recorded the song, but then of course Johnnie Ray covered us, and that sure didn’t help any. Later, they sang at the governor’s mansion for President Truman. Sassy little dude. Loved him to death. And Truman told the governor after it was over, “Governor, pardon every one of them.” And so every one of them are our taxpaying citizens now.
All the black men you worked with in the early days at Sun were poor men who had been taught to keep their place. What were the special problems of working with men like that?
When people are by tradition emotionally enslaved, they are looking for everything that might say you don’t care about them. That was never my feeling, and I think they could feel that in me. I think they believed in me.
You once said that Elvis’ sense of inferiority was markedly like a black person’s.
Absolutely. That was true of all of the guys. Even Jerry Lee, except Jerry had something that I really like about him. He had that basic sureness about what he was doing. And he believed that what he was doing was good.
Jerry Lee once said that you and the other founders of rockabilly were nutty as fox squirrels. Is that a fair assessment?
We’re all crazy. I’ll admit to that. But it’s a type of insanity that almost borders on. . .honestly, I believe it’s on genius. I really feel that. To be as free as you have to be for any kind of music, you almost have to be in another dimension. And to do the broad expanse of rock & roll, it takes an element of mind expansion that people less creative would term insanity.
Do you remember when you first heard Jerry Lee?
It was the day after I first heard “Don’t Be Cruel.” Jerry had come to Memphis with his cousin, staying at his house. He was a pretty determined person, and he made up his mind he was going to see Sam Phillips. Jack Clement [Sun’s producer] was at the studio, and Jerry didn’t even want to audition for him. But they cut this little audition tape. And when I went to the studio, Jack says, “Man, I got a cat I want you to hear.” Well, I had been looking for somebody that could do tricks on the piano as a lead instrument. Lo and behold, man, I hear this guy and his total spontaneity.
Then, when you met Jerry Lee and he played for you, you’re supposed to have told him, “You are a rich man.”
I probably did. Not in the connotation of money, but of talent.
You’ve said that Jerry Lee was the most talented person you ever worked with but that you don’t think he could have been bigger than Elvis. Why is that?
That gets into the thing of the total effect of the person. There is no question that the most talented person I ever worked with is Jerry Lee Lewis. Black or white. But Elvis had a certain type of total charisma that was just almost untouchable by any other human that I know of or have ever seen. But this is a tough comparison for me to make. It looks like I’m drawing lines between two of the most talented people in the world, and I don’t like to do that. But I would say that if they were both at their peak, and Elvis was booked for a show but Jerry Lee showed up, no one would be disappointed. Is there a better answer you can think of than that?
What do you remember about recording “Great Balls of Fire”?
That was the toughest record I ever recorded in my life. Otis Blackwell had done the demo. When I heard it, I said, “What in the hell are they doing sending me a record like this? It ought to be out.” He’d written the damn thing on a napkin in a bar he owed a lot of money to. And we worked our ass off because those breaks. . .with Jerry having to do his piano, it had to be exactly synced with his voice.
You didn’t do any overdubbing on it?
Hell, no. We didn’t have nothing to overdub with.
It’s been said that you were very tight-fisted with money. For instance, Jerry Lee played on sessions where he only got paid 15 dollars.
Well, Jerry Lee was lucky to get to play for 15 dollars when I didn’t need him. I mean, I don’t have a penny that’s not mine, because hell, if I thought I had to cheat to win, forget it, honey. I’d lose everything.
Johnny Cash came to Sun in 1955. What was it about him that interested you?
When Johnny Cash came in, he sang his original country-gospel songs, and I have never been as moved in my life by anything to this day. But I was very honest with him. I told him, “Man, I love this, but God, I can’t sell it, and if I can’t sell it, you and me can’t be in business.” And I instructed him to use some of that talent in the secular world.
Didn’t you tell him to write “a weeper with a tempo”?
Yeah. And he came back with “Cry! Cry! Cry!”
“I Walk the Line” was one of Sun’s five biggest records, though Cash wrote it as a slow ballad. What made you change it?
Well, with a little tempo, here he was, a modern-day Burl Ives, with a commanding voice and a hell of a song. If I can’t tell that, I mean, I better get out of the business.
It’s an unusually minimalistic recording, with the guitar just playing bass runs. What else made it work so well?
I had a little piece of paper that I wove through Cash’s strings. It had to be just the right width. I don’t know how many times I ran it through those damn strings. And when I got it just right I told him, “Now you chord that damn guitar like you would with no paper in it.” And do you think we didn’t come up with a sound?
What do you remember about “Ballad of a Teenage Queen”?
I hate it to this day. Well, it’s a good song, but we cut it on the wrong artist. I didn’t want to cut it on Cash. I never wanted Cash on the pop charts except with “I Walk the Line.” But there was nobody else I wanted to thrust it on anyway. It was a cute song. It’s really lyrically a standard. But I still hate the damn thing.
Why did you release it?
Well, it was wrong to do, and it turned out all right.
What about “Folsom Prison Blues”?
I didn’t know that that would have real mass appeal. But we got such a dynamic cut on that damn thing. And I got to thinking about it, that we all, in a way, are in prison, you know? I had to stretch my imagination, but I didn’t expect the public to do that. But oh, God, I love that song. Great song, great rendition. Never been a better record made. Thank goodness [laughs].
What do you remember about Roy Orbison?
Basically, he could have been a real good songwriter. It didn’t turn out that he was, but he could have been.
You don’t think the songs he did after he left Sun, songs like “Crying” and “Only the Lonely,” are good?
Oh, yeah, but I don’t think he even scratched the surface. Roy is a very unusual musician. I like the way he picks the guitar. But he’s been through so damn much, and seeing him wind up not as a big artist — even if he didn’t have the most attractive physical appeal in the world, he has that power of communication because he just sings so damn good. I’m sure that if his mind hadn’t been complicated by all the tragedies [the death of his wife and two of his children] maybe he could have written much more.
Who else came to Sun of real interest to you?
Charlie Rich is probably the most underrated musician to ever walk in my doors. His talent is almost boundless. But what he had to do was make himself get off his mind bent of jazz. But if he had had the fervor for rock & roll that he’s got for jazz, this guy would have almost been limitless.
Do you think he was the best musiclan, singer and songwriter you ever recorded?
Without a doubt. The world has missed an awful lot by not having Charlie’s music available to them. And I would have liked to have been the one — because I adore Charlie.
You discovered all these men, and they all left you for bigger labels. You’ve said you were deeply hurt by that.
Well, yes. Because it’s a child-bearing kind of situation, and you also feel you’ve given unselfishly and you’ve gambled on them from the front end with your talent, your time, with your energies. When they left me, I didn’t blame them personally, because I knew the stories they had heard. And the stories were simply — no matter if I had been giving them 10 percent — “Man, is that all you’re getting?” These people were unsuspecting. It was their first contract. Their first adventure into the world of business and a little money. When they got a damned check for $50,000 — can you imagine? They hadn’t seen that much money in their lifetime or in their daddy’s lifetime.
Do you bear them any ill will today?
Not at all. Never had any. I don’t live that way.
Do you think any of the people you worked with at Sun achieved their full potential?
I think all of them missed me, I really do. Because I think eventually we would have had a small stable of artists. And I think they would have done better than they did.
When you were producing, how much control did you exert over your artists?
Fantastic amount. Number one, I didn’t permit drinking at sessions, and I love to drink as much as anybody. I’d let Wolf have a little wine now and then — maybe a whole half pint for a session, ’cause he’d just go get it anyway. But overall, the control was an indirect control, because they knew I was very serious about what I was trying to do, not only for me but for them.
You used to say, “Do it one more time for Sam.”
Oh, good God, I must have said that 100,000 times. And every artist, I don’t care how much they might have cursed me, I think they knew what the hell I knew when I got behind that glass. And when I worked that floor, too.
How do you think your personality affected the creation of rock & roll?
A hell of a lot. Call it what you want, but the unseen factors — the psychological and spiritual factors, that is — always played one of the most important parts in every audition and session I had. You must have confidence in your ability to get the most natural response from artistically inclined people and especially unproven musicians and to be able to transfer this confidence subtly to them, to reassure them, often without actually saying anything. This I believe I did. Maybe I’m a frustrated preacher with a flock I believed I could spot the best in.
Of the four major people you worked with, three became drug addicts and one became an alcoholic. What do you think happened to these guys?
You keep in mind that of all the enemies in the world there is no one potentially of greater harm to you than you yourself. And here we get into the elements of direction. We must never lose a focal point in our lives, regardless of the fame or fortune or adulation that comes forth from our talents and recognition. I think that these young people that came from total poverty, when they got into the big world and began to receive plaudits, they lost sight possibly of some of the basic values that are so necessary for us all to have. I think also that people have to take the time to think, “Who am I, what am I, and I’m still just me.” It’s sad that fame and fortune carries with it the potential for a heavy toll. It should be the other way around.
But since the music business takes so much from people, even as it gives them a lot, were you ambivaient about bringing these young country boys into it?
No. But I wished I could have kept them with me. I honestly believe that they would have drawn strength from the fact that nothing’s ever affected me in the way of losing my center of perspective. The ladder of achievement is made of gold rungs going up, but it can have some very shaky rungs, if any rungs at all, coming down. I guess probably people need, quote unquote, parental advice.
And is that what you think they lost when they left you?
Oh, hell, there’s no question of that. Though, God, you know, maybe I’ll be reincarnated as the same thing I was. And some of these artists — they may be reincarnated as the same thing they were and let me do them over again.
When Elvis died, you said that he died of a broken heart. Can you amplify that?
When you really don’t have something to look forward to with a good, sweet, beautiful attitude, you’re in trouble. I don’t care who you are. You’re also in trouble if you’re in bondage in any way. I’m talking about emotional entrapment. That’s deep stuff. And it’s serious stuff. And no matter what happens to you in this world, if you don’t make it your business to be happy, then you may have gained the whole world and lost your spirit and maybe even your damned soul.
But wasn’t Elvis entrapped by circumstance?
What could he have done differently?
Been hardheaded like me and said, “I will break your damned neck. I don’t care— you can’t scare me. Monetary factors can’t scare me. Starvation can’t scare me. Threats can’t scare me.” I mean, you have to have that attitude. Elvis also knew that success wasn’t enough. It’s like Mac Davis said, man, and I think this is one of the greatest quotes, Bible included: “Stop and smell the roses.” Now that’s where we can all find ourselves if we don’t stop and smell the roses. And the sad thing about it is dying before you actually physically die. I mean, you know, bless his heart.
In 1969, you decided to sell Sun. Why?
I had been approached by I don’t know how many people to buy my masters. When I saw the big companies were going to eat me alive — I didn’t want to face that fact, but I saw what was coming. Not that they could out-produce me, but they were buying all the artists from the independent companies. I knew this was going to make the structure of distribution very unhealthy. They had the ability to do it. They had that glamour over you. And artists had felt for many years that if you weren’t on a major label, you just weren’t very good. And that’s sad, because there should be room for the majors, room for the independents, but the independents are just about extinct now. And unfortunately, without the independent labels, a lot of the real initiative gets taken out of people. That may not sit so well with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame board, but it’s the truth. So I saw the writing on the wall. I knew it was time to sell, and Shelby Singleton [who had once been the head of production for Mercury Records] approached me on buying. Shelby loved the old Sun records, and I just wanted the Sun label to be bought by somebody who would take it under his wing and love it like I had loved it. I sold to Shelby for way less than half of what I could have gotten.
Who are the people you admire now?
You remember Creedence and Fogerty, don’t you? And listen, I never liked “Born in the U.S.A.,” but have you heard “My Hometown,” by Springsteen? You think that cat can’t sing? He doesn’t have to holler all the time, does he? And the Del Fuegos and the Blasters. And of course, Bob Dylan is doing better stuff now than he’s ever done. And Willie Nelson is a total classic. And Merle Haggard. And have you heard “Lost in the Fifties Tonight,” by Ronnie Milsap? I want to tell you something, honey, all that shit is classic. None of it is overly complicated. None of it is synthesized.
You’ve said you think Willie Nelson is the greatest entertainer of our time. What sets him apart?
It’s that he’s always kept his music right to the point. Totally uncomplicated. So uncomplicated, it’s complicated.
What do you think of sexually explicit performers who could be called the heirs of Elvis? Now wait just a goddamn minute. Jesus Christ! What they are doing versus what Elvis was doing — you bring him up here today and he’d look like a virgin. Now I understand that what Elvis did, shake his hips, man, probably had the same connotation then as what’s going on today. But when you substitute just the sexuality of individuals — I mean, explicit sex has a place, I like it. But not with my damn music.
Why do you think people do it?
It’s total M-O-N-E-Y.
Do you think rock & roll is dead?
Rock & roll has just been asleep too damn long. I think if we don’t begin to create that true atmosphere of experimentation, things are going to suffer greatly. Or if the people in the industry don’t take a chance on things that are not what the last thing they released is like, or what this label over here is doing. I think we run a real risk of losing that beautiful thing called creativity.
Who would you most like to work with?
Bob Dylan. There are very few originals, and certainly Bob was one of the original originals. Dylan is a true free spirit. I would have loved to work with him. And Bob has written me how many letters, and I ain’t answered a damn one of them.
If Dylan wanted to do an album with you, would that get you out of retirement?
It wouldn’t take me out of retirement. I might take a little time out of retirement.
What do you think the legacy of rock & roll has been?
I said many years ago that all the diplomats in the world could not do more than rock & roll has done to bring us closer together. Rock & roll played an important part in the way we think about each other. We didn’t go across the waters and try to sell them rock & roll. The State Department didn’t do that. It was just the sheer simplicity of communication and the freedom they felt in those records that made them know there was a bunch of damn hillbillies, thinking, feeling people — and made them say that America sounds free. Have you ever seen an influence in your life like rock & roll?
It’s been said that you perceive yourself as a prophet. Is that a fair estimate of you?
I think prophet is an awfully strong word. Let’s just make it messiah. [Laughs] No, I think highly intuitional is a more accurate description. I think that I was able to see probably further down the road, and as it worked out in most cases, I was right.
Do you have any regrets?
I seriously regret not spending time with Elvis in the later years. I’m not a doctor, I’m just an individual who’s believable and sincere and has experienced an awful lot of things. And I feel that there was an awful lot I learned through those processes that I could have shared, mainly in an indirect way, with Elvis, and that might have been helpful.
How would you like to be remembered?
I’d like to be remembered as the sexiest. . .no, I actually don’t want a lot of remembrance on a person as such. I want a remembrance on the fact that maybe I brought a little pleasure to people, and even probably more than that: gave people an opportunity to be themselves just a little bit more. I want a remembrance on the fact that maybe I was one of the people who dared. That would give me the greatest marker I could have.
Some people say you’re America’s real Uncle Sam. What do you think of that?
Well, now, that’s an awfully high compliment. I think in a way that I am. I guess I really do think that I did an awful lot — not alone — but an awful lot to help people become better acquainted through an international type of language: music.