When CMT premieres its new musical drama Sun Records on February 23rd – a look at producer Sam Phillips’ role in the birth of rock & roll – it’ll be the latest footnote in the long history of the iconic Memphis recording facility. Here’s a timeline of pivotal moments and albums recorded at Sun, from 1950 to 2016.
January 3, 1950: Alabama-born DJ Sam Phillips opens his Memphis Recording Service studio at 706 Union Avenue, the precursor to his Sun Records label. Among the first recordings cut there are early blues records by Howlin’ Wolf and B.B. King, including King’s “Mistreated Woman,” “Don’t You Want a Man Like Me” and “B.B. Blues.” Future R&B icons like Bobby Blue Bland, Rufus Thomas and Little Milton were also among the first to record at the studio.
March 1951: The blues rocker “Rocket 88,” credited to Jackie Brenston but actually performed by Ike Turner’s band, is recorded at Memphis Recording Service. The single, released on Chess Records, is considered one of the earliest influential recordings of what would eventually become rock & roll.
April 1952: Sun Record Company is launched with the release of “Drivin’ Slow” by Johnny London.
July 1953: Eighteen-year-old Elvis Presley, who had graduated from Humes High School in Memphis just weeks earlier, paid $3.98 at Memphis Recording Service to cut a disc with two songs: “My Happiness” and “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin.” Asked by Sun Records’ receptionist Marion Keisker who he sounded like, Presley told her, “I don’t sound like nobody.” Phillips asked her to get the singer’s name and she also noted, “Good ballad singer. Hold.”
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July 1954: An entire year after his first recording there, Presley made another attempt to impress Phillips in a session. Finally, everything clicked when Presley, Scotty Moore (on guitar) and Bill Black (bass) took a shot at Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s rocker “That’s All Right (Mama).” Paired with Presley’s distinctive version of the Bill Monroe bluegrass classic “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” the record became a regional smash throughout the South. Presley’s success led to increased airplay and visibility for several of Sun’s future rock and country icons including Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis and Charlie Rich.
June 1955: Sun releases Johnny Cash’s debut single “Cry! Cry! Cry!” It becomes a Top 15 country hit. Later in the year, “Folsom Prison Blues” helps Cash earn a spot on the Louisiana Hayride. Early the next year, “I Walk the Line” was a pop-country crossover smash and Cash a Grand Ole Opry star.
December 4th, 1956: An impromptu Presley, Perkins, Cash and Lewis jam session later known as the “Million Dollar Quartet” takes place. Perkins was recording and Phillips had taken Lewis into the session to play piano. Cash was visiting when Presley, who had already signed to RCA, also stopped by the studio with a girlfriend. Engineer Jack Clement rolled tape on the jam session, which would not be released on record, in part, until 1981. A “complete” collection of 46 tracks was issued in 2006. The session also inspired a hit Broadway musical. Perkins and Cash left Sun in 1958, with Lewis following in 1963.
July 1969: Phillips sells the entire Sun catalog of approximately 7,000 master recordings to Nashville producer/Mercury Records executive Shelby S. Singleton for $1 million. Phillips retained a stake in the company and his music-publishing rights.
September 1985: After several years housing an auto-parts store, a barber shop and a scuba shop, the building at 706 Union became a recording studio again when producer Chips Moman assembled Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins to record the LP Class of 55: Memphis Rock & Roll Homecoming. The bright yellow Sun Records logo, with its 11 sunbeams, would soon become even more iconic and ubiquitous as the building opened to tourists who flocked there from all over the world beginning in 1987.
November 29th, 1987: U2 begin a four-day recording session at Sun Studios, cutting three songs eventually featured on their Rattle & Hum LP and documentary film. They also cut “She’s a Mystery to Me,” which Bono and the Edge wrote for Roy Orbison.
February 10th, 1993: Three hours after their show at Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis, English rockers Def Leppard enter Sun Studios to record an acoustic version of their hit “Tonight.”
March 1994: Beck records a lo-fi cover of Skip James’ classic blues number “Devil Got My Woman” at Sun Studios. The recording later appears as one of six previously unreleased songs on the 1997 “Jack-Ass” single.
July 31, 2003: The National Parks Service designates Sun Studios a National Historic Landmark.
September 2006: Indie-rock band Magnolia Electric Company, fronted by the late Jason Molina, releases its second album Fading Trails, which includes two songs cut at Sun Studios: “Memphis Moon” and “Talk to Me Devil, Again.”
July 2010: John Mellencamp cuts several tracks for his LP No Better Than This at Sun Studios, noting that the X’s Phillips had marked on the floor for Cash and Presley attributed to the excellent results he was able to achieve by recording there.
October 2011: Chris Isaak releases Beyond the Sun, recorded at the studios and featuring his updates of classic hits from one-time Sun artists, including Cash (“Ring of Fire”), Lewis (“Great Balls of Fire”), Perkins (“Dixie Fried”), Orbison (“Oh, Pretty Woman”) and Presley (“I Forgot to Remember to Forget”).
March 2015: Singer-songwriter Elle King releases her debut album Love Stuff, featuring the track “Last Damn Night” recorded at Sun Studios with assistance from Mark Ronson and the Black Keys’ Patrick Carney.
March 2016: Margo Price releases her acclaimed debut, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, recorded at Sun Studios.