Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Remembering Sam Phillips January 5, 1923 - July 30, 2003

When most think of rock and roll, the names of Elvis Presley, Chubby Checker, and numerous other rock and roll artists come to mind.  There are those names that we may have never heard of but play a major part in the history of rock and roll.

One such name is Sam Phillips.  Sam had many titles but is remembered as a record producer and executive as well as a talent scout and DJ.  What many people don't know about him is that he is the man responsible for names like Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and others.

Sam Phillips founded Sun Studios and Sun Records in Memphis and through his company, many of the known stars of today were born.  He was a big advocate of racial equality and often recorded little known names and made them big stars.

Phillips was born on a farm in Florence, Alabama and was one of eight children.  As a child, Phillips assisted in supporting his family by picking corn and working odd jobs.  While working in the fields, Phillips was fascinated by the workers that would sing as they worked.  It is said that one day while traveling with his family to see a preacher in Dallas, they passed thru Memphis, Tennessee and happened to make it to Beale Street that, at that time, was the heart of the music scene.  He recalls that he totally fell in love with music.  During high school, Phillips conducted the school band and at that time had dreams of becoming an attorney.  Unfortunately, the great depression hit and it bankrupted his father and soon thereafter, his father died.  Phillips was forced to leave high school to support his family.  His jobs included working at a grocery store and then a funeral parlor.  While working at the funeral home, Phillips learned how to handle people tactfully in emotional situations that would soon pay off for him.

Sam Phillips then decided to spin records and work as a DJ and radio engineer for a local radio station that would become the start of Phillips successful career in the entertainment industry.  He recorded amateur talent that included the likes of BB King, Junior Parker and Howlin Wolf.  He would record them and then sell their music to major record labels.  Many authorities would say that Sam Phillips is considered to have recorded the first rock and roll record.  Sun Records produced more Rock and Roll records than any other record label during its 16 year run having produced 226 singles.  Phillips is credited with teaching Elvis Presley his knowledge that would lead him to his career with RCA Victor.  When Presley auditioned for Phillips, he had no band.  Sam Phillips put together a couple of musicians to accompany Elvis and was the start of Elvis' career.  He was also a major influence of the success of Johnny Cash.

He was also a major investor in the Holiday Inn franchise and amassed a fortune.

Sam Phillips was a member of the first group of musicians to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and was the first ever non-performer to be inducted.  He is also a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame as well as the Blues Hall of Fame and was a recipient of the Grammy Trustees Award for his lifetime achievement.

Sam has been portrayed in several movies including the 1979 film, "Elvis", 2005 film, "Walk the Line"and the 1989 movie, "Great Balls of Fire"

Sam Phillips died of respiratory failure on July 30, 2003 at the age of 80.  Coincidentally, he died one day before the original Sun Studio was designated a national landmark.

Sam Phillips funeral was held on August 7, 2003 in the Cannon Center for the Performing Arts in Memphis (funeral program pictured).  Among his honorary pallbearers were Isaac Hayes, B.B. King, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash.  It was said of Phillips "He was a man of vision and principle-both social and aesthetic-who by dint of personality sought to overcome the ingrained prejudice of his time and place.  He always said "if you're not doing something different, you're not doing anything."

A favorite of Sam Phillips were the words of Bob Dylan's Forever Young that were printed in his funeral program.

Sam Phillips rests in the Garden of Trees Mausoleum in Memphis Park Cemetery in Memphis, Tennessee.

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