Lots of cities claim to be the “birthplace” of Rock ‘n’ Roll. But, Memphis seems to trump them with the starts of careers of some of Rock’s earliest stars.
It’s largely believed that Memphis Recording Services – later known as Sun Studio – launched the first Rock ‘n’ Roll song in 1951. “Rocket 88,” featuring Ike Turner on keyboard, is considered the first Rock song.
Sun Studio is synonymous with Rock ‘n’ Roll. It was the launching pad for the careers of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins.
You may scoff at that – only four real stars? But, when you consider how small the studio was and that Sam Phillips was near bankruptcy as its owner, its impact of music history was ginormous.
The studio actually recorded some artists that would become famous fast – BB King, Charlie Rich and Roy Orbison. Some great blues performers recorded there as well – Junior Parker, Little Milton, James Cotton and Rosco Gordon.
Sun Studio offers public tours during the day. They continue to record at night. Some artists who have recorded there include U2, Brian Setzer and Chris Izaak.
The tour was fantastic! It starts with a second-level view of a variety of exhibits. Some of Sam Phillips’ early recording equipment, when it was Memphis Recording Service, is on display. He was willing to record acts in studio or on the road.
Phillips was known for loving up tempo music. He disliked ballads and hymns. He wanted something that made people want to dance.
Among the items on display are a BB King-used guitar, a speaker, horns and albums.
The actual radio studio that played Elvis’ first song and interviewed him the same day is on display. WHBQ’s DJ Dewey Phillips (no relation to Sam) made or destroyed careers. If he loved a song, he played it until it was worn out. If he didn’t like a song, the record often ended up broken in pieces on the floor.
Sun Studio was told that the building that once housed the radio studio was being renovated and Phillips’ studio was going to be tossed out. The Sun staff took the pieces and rebuilt the radio studio as it was in the early 1950s.
The actual studio where Elvis, Johnny and the others recorded is the same as it was in 1953, when a young Elvis walked into to try his hand at singing. When he first auditioned, he sang a gospel. Sam Phillips wasn’t impressed. He wanted fast songs.
As the back-up musicians were packing up after being told to “take a break,” Elvis made one last attempt. He grabbed the mic and started singing “That’s All Right.” Phillips put the song on tape. The rest, as they say, is history. Phillips cut a record and got it to Dewey the same day. Elvis was interviewed then.
Elvis’ spot is marked with black tape on the studio floor.
Instruments in the studio are actually used during recording sessions, including a drum set provided by U2.
Johnny Cash was the most consistent hit maker for Sun Studio during his time there. Phillips had sold Elvis’ contract to another studio, in order to stay in business.
Later, Elvis, Johnny, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins met with Phillips at the studio. They recorded a song while jamming together one night.
That night in the studio was dubbed “The Million Dollar Quartet,” because someone told Sam those four were probably worth a million dollars in hits back then.
For more information on Sun Studio, please visit its website at www.sunstudio.com.
Disclaimer: Thanks to the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau for the complimentary tickets. However, all opinions and views are ours.