Sam Phillips didn’t know his ass from his elbow when it came to recording music. He winged it. And he made mistakes. And those mistakes gave birth to Rock’n’ Roll. Phillips was a radio engineer who, in January 1950, started up the Memphis Recording Service on Union Avenue. He recorded anything from weddings to funerals, and would travel anywhere the customer wanted him to go. For just $4, anyone could walk in off the street and cut their own record. Just as Elvis Presley did in 1953.
Phillips made one recording of Jackie Brenston’s Rocket 88 which went on to make Chess Records a small fortune. This was when he cottoned on to the fact that had he had his own label, he could have released that single. Famously, Brenston’s amplifier fell off the car on the way to Memphis and he’d plugged it with some paper. That rustlin’ sound was later to become the unique sound of R&R. And Sun Studio was born.
Our tour guide was good. She looked the part and were she to give the same tour 100 times a day, I have the feeling that her passion would never wane. The Sun is like that…relentless. It’s an institution that has been left untouched since the 1950s. I doubt it’s even been painted.
As we entered the studio itself (which is still used most nights of the week to record today) and saw the black-taped X on the floor marking the spot where Elvis stood to record his first hit, I was more taken with the fact that Johnny Cash had also stood in this same room. I’d never done the math – never put the two together, never heard of the million-dollar quartet – Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley – all of whom happened to drop by the studios on the same day and have an impromptu jam session that Phillips recorded unbeknownst to them, a recording that was released in 2003 under the title ‘Bits and Pieces’ (it’s on my Christmas list). The photo he had the local paper take is probably the most famous photo I’d never seen.
As I stood there and half-listened to what was being said, I fixated on this photo and wondered, not for the first time, how much musicians enrich our lives. (Maybe the Serbs have something we all could learn from.) I never knew Carl Perkins, don’t care much for Jerry Lee, only discovered Elvis when he died, but I’ve had a thing for Johnny Cash since I first saw him live, on stage, in Dublin , a lifetime ago. For me, Sun Studio wasn’t about Elvis – it was about Johnny.
I sat on his stool and wondered what I’d have said to him, had I ever had the chance to meet him. Would I have been dumbstruck in the presence of such greatness or would I have talked to him as if he were some ordinary man? I then tried to imagine life without Hurt – his cover of the Nine Inch Nails song. I remember when it came out in 2005 I watched it over and over and over and over again and still get goosebumps when I hear the song now.
Memphis may belong to Elvis, but for my money, Sun Studio … that’s Johnny’s domain.