The Early History of Sun Studio

U.S. National Historic Landmark

In January 1950, WREC radio engineer Sam Phillips opened the Memphis Recording Service with his assistant and long-time friend, Marion Keisker. Phillips had dreamed of opening his own recording studio since he was a young man, and now that it was a reality he was overjoyed. However, getting the company off the ground was not an easy task. To create revenue at the beginning, Phillips would record conventions, weddings, choirs, and even funerals. He also held an open-door policy, allowing anybody to walk in and, for a small fee, record their own record. Phillips’ slogan for his studio was “We Record Anything, Anywhere, Anytime.” The purpose of the label was to record “negro artists of the South” who wanted to make a recording but had no place to do so. The label failed to make an impact and folded after just one release; “Boogie in the Park” by Joe Hill Louis.

It was during this time that Phillips recorded what many consider to be the first rock and roll song, Jackie Brenston’s “Rocket 88”. Some biographers have suggested that it was Phillips’ inventive creativeness that led to the song’s unique sound, but others put it down to the fact that the amplifier used on the record was broken, leading to a “fuzzy” sound. The Sun Studio tour lends credence to the latter, with the tour guide saying the amplifier was stuffed with wads of newspaper.

In early 1952, he recorded several artists who would go on to have successful careers. Among them were B.B. King, Joe Hill Louis, Rufus Thomas, and Howlin’ Wolf. Despite the number of singers who recorded there, Phillips found it increasingly difficult to keep profits up. He reportedly drove over 60,000 miles in one year to promote his artists with radio stations and distributors. To keep costs down, he would pay his artists 3% royalties instead of the usual 5% that was more common at the time.

Rufus Thomas’ “Bearcat”, a recording that was similar to “Hound Dog”, was the first real hit for Sun in 1953. Although the song was the label’s first hit, a copyright-infringement suit ensued and nearly bankrupted Phillips’ record label. Despite this, Phillips was able to keep his business afloat by recording several other acts, including the Prisonaires; a black quartet who were given permission to leave prison in June 1953 to record their single, “Just Walkin’ in the Rain”, later a hit for Johnnie Ray in 1956. The song was a big enough hit that the local newspaper took an interest in the story of its recording. A few biographers have said that this article, influenced Elvis Presley to seek out Sun to record a demo record.

In August 1953, fresh out of his high school graduation the previous June, the 18½ year old Presley walked into the offices of Sun. He aimed to pay for a few minutes of studio time to record a two-sided acetate disc he intended as a gift for his mother or was merely interested in what he “sounded like”, though there was a much cheaper, amateur record-making service at a nearby general store.

Phillips, meanwhile, was always on the lookout for someone who could bring the sound of the black musicians on whom Sun focused to a broader audience. As Keisker reported, “Over and over I remember Sam saying, ‘If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.’

In July, Phillips invited Presley into the studio to sing as many numbers as he knew. The seszion proved unfruitful. As they were about to go home, Presley took his guitar and launched into a 1949 blues number, Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right”, jumping around and acting the fool. Sam, had the door to the control booth open … he stuck his head out and said, ‘What are you doing?’ Back up, find a place to start, and do it again.'” Phillips quickly began taping; that was the sound he had been looking for.