Phillips would have turned 100 on January 5th. The fact that he would one day write music history was not something he was born with. in the US-state Alabama, he grew up in modest circumstances, was involved in the school band and later came to Memphis as a radio host. He set up a small studio and made recordings of local musical talent. In 1952 Phillips founded his record label Sun Records, the cornerstone of his career – and the careers of many stars.
Thomas Mania, curator at the Rock’n’Popmuseum in Gronau, says that with Sun Records Philipps has developed the prototype of an independent label, i.e. a discoverer and supplier of young talent to large record companies. “This requires close contact with the young musicians’ scene and a “nose” for future public tastes.”
One of Sam Phillips’ most famous discoveries: Elvis Presley. In 1954, this lanky, slightly awkward fellow from Tupelo, Mississippi, walked into the studio to record a song for his mother. Phillips immediately recognized his potential, as he told Rolling Stone magazine in 1986: “He had exactly what I was looking for.” And further: “He was obsessed with music, had this special voice, and he had sideburns like I’ve never seen them before. He was cool.”
Elvis started his world career with the song “That’s All Right”, which was released in the same year. Located in a nondescript, unadorned corner building, the Sun Studio became the navel of the music world over the next few years. In addition to Elvis and country icon Johnny Cash, a number of other music greats started their careers here, such as Roy Orbison, country star Charlie Rich and rock ‘n’ roll legends Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins.
But one shouldn’t forget, according to Mania, that despite all his artistic vision, Phillips was also concerned with face value. In Elvis Presley he found the musician who brought him a significant transfer fee for his label after only a few releases.
Although Phillips became famous for his rock ‘n’ roll and rockabilly productions, his first love was the blues. “I grew up on a farm in the 1920s,” Phillips said in the Rolling Stone interview. “The blues were omnipresent among our black neighbors. They sang it while they were doing housework, hanging out the laundry, in the fields, just about everywhere.”
He himself not only heard the music, there was more to it than that. «I felt it deep down and felt this spirituality. That never let me go.”
With Sun Records, Phillips had the right vehicle from the early 1950s to give blues musicians – like B.B. King and Howlin’ Wolf – to help them on their career path. Not easy at the time: “Many people were hostile to me because of that,” he said. “But the music was stronger. She has done so much for us. She helped us break down racial barriers.”
With Elvis, Phillips “discovered the white man who represented the feeling and voice of a black man, who was able to build a musical bridge between white country music and black blues,” says music expert Mania. That was important at a time when racism was rampant USA and beyond that have thrown up deep trenches.
In this sense, Sam Phillips also stands for the social power of pop music through the back door. “Without the musical input from the background of visionaries such as producers and label operators, pop music and with it the western community of values would remain less varied and diverse,” is Mania’s assessment.
Phillips died in 2003 at the age of 80. “He made stars, but didn’t want to be one himself,” says tourism expert Wolfgang Streitbörger, who met Sam Phillips in Memphis in the mid-1990s and found him to be a very modest person. Not only in Memphis, where, among other things, a street is named after the producer, his achievements are recognized.
The music manager is among other things in the Ruhmeshalle des Rock’n’Roll been included, in that of the blues and in that Hall of Fame der Country Music. It says about him that he is “one of the most important creators of American music”. No more and no less.