Sam Phillips

Jerry Lee Lewis & Sam Phillips

Jerry Lee Lewis & Sam Phillips

I am sure by now you must have heard the sad news about the passing of Sam Phillips, the owner and founder of the legendary SUN label. Sam passed away 7 o'clock Wednesday night, July 30, 2003 at St. Frances Hospital in Memphis Tennessee.

To the general public he will always be the man who discovered Elvis Presley but there was much more to Sam Phillips. Most European music lovers and record collectors learned about Sam and his Sun Recording studio during the mid sixties when records on the now famous yellow label appeared on various auction lists. I believe I bought my first Sun singles from "Breathless" Dan Coffey and they included such gems as "Rock Boppin' Baby" by Ed Bruce, "With Your Love With Your Kiss" by Johnny Powers, "Slow Down" by Jack Earls, "Red Hot" by Billy Lee Riley, "Rock & Roll Ruby" by Warren Smith, "Right Behind You Baby" by Ray Smith, "Red Headed Woman" by Sonny Burgess.

Then one weekend a friend came by with an album which made me dig even deeper and further back into the Sun catalogue "The Blues Came Down From Memphis" featured some of the blues material Sam recorded prior to his discovery of Elvis and his ventures into Rockabilly. The album stayed on the record player all weekend as we listened and critiqued "The Boogie Disease" by Dr. Ross, "Baker Shop Boogie" by Willie Nix, "Cotton Crop Blues" by James Cotton and "Bear Cat" and "Tiger Man" by Rufus Thomas. It eventually lead to the discovery of "Rocket 88" by Jackie Brenston (with Ike Turner on piano), the great Chess sides of Howlin' Wolf as well as Junior Parker's "Mystery Train" and "Red Hot" by Billy "The Kid" Emerson.

In the early seventies I had the good fortune of being able to make two trips to Memphis. I never did meet Sam but I spent several days in the backroom of his brother Tom's "Selecto Hits" record store, digging through stacks of boxes with original Sun singles. The real great stuff, like albums by Charlie Rich, Carl Perkins and Frank Frost were gone but lots of Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins material was still readily available.

Around that same time Sam struck a deal with Shelby Singleton in Nashville which resulted in the release of many albums with Sun recordings. Mostly reissues of previously released material but every now and then an unreleased track would appear. Then when Charly Records in England obtained the rights to the Sun catalogue the flood gates opened. Compilations like "Sun Rockabillies Vol. 1 -3" and box sets covering the complete recordings of Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins showed the world how much great music was recorded at 706 Union during the late fifties. This barrage of unreleased material continued, on the new CD medium, into the eighties and nineties.

It must have filled Sam with great pride to have the Sun Records building at 706 Union in Memphis declared a National Landmark recently. A tourist attraction by day, the studio is still used at night time to record any artist who is willing to pay for studio time. Billy Swan recorded his highly acclaimed Elvis tribute CD "Like Elvis Used To Do" as well as "Bop To Be" at Sun Studios during the nineties and also original Sun rockabilly cats Billy Lee Riley and Jimmy Van Eaton returned to 706 Union to record.

Sam Phillips, through the music recorded on his labels, touched the hearts of millions of people all around the world. The Sun catalogue is without equal in the world of the independent labels and fans of Rockabilly, Country and Blues music will always be thankful to Sam for providing the opportunity to record to so many artists who knocked on his door.
May He Rest In Peace!

Adriaan Sturm