Last Updated on June 27, 2023

Do you know what Ike Turner, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash have in common? They all launched their careers at Sun Studio in Memphis, The recording studio was owned by the legendary Sam Phillips.

Phillips grew up in Florence, AL listening to blues songs sung by African American workers in the fields. He heard gospel music in churches and country music on the radio. He began his career as a disc jockey and radio engineer for WLAY in Muscle Shoals, AL, and WREC in Memphis, but wanted to be a record producer with his own studio and label.

Phillips opened Memphis Recording Service in 1950 using the slogan, “We Record Anything, Anywhere, Anytime.” For just $3.25, anyone could walk in off the street and make a record; Phillips sold the recordings to larger labels.

In 1952, he launched Sun Studio in Memphis, and eventually Sun Records, and over the next 16 years produced 226 singles – more than any other record label.

Standing where so many musical greats got their start was mind-blowing, but I was particularly interested to hear stories of how they made it big and, in some cases, almost didn’t make it.

Sun Studio Memphis History

Broken Amp Produces a New Sound  

If an amplifier broke on the way to an audition, most bands would reschedule so to fix or replace it. One band didn’t, resulting in a hit record and a new sound.

When Ike Turner (yes, THAT Ike Turner) was a teenager, he formed a band called Kings of Rhythm that played at clubs throughout the South. In early 1951, BB King heard them and called Phillips to schedule a recording session for “Rocket 88,” their signature song.

The band had a flat tire on the way to Memphis. When they removed the spare from the trunk, their guitar amplifier fell on the ground, damaging the woofer and the diaphragm cone. Phillips didn’t have a spare amplifier so he “fixed” the existing one by stuffing it with newspaper to hold the components in place.

This produced a loud buzzing tone; instead of being disappointed, he loved it, and insisted that the band record their song as planned.

Billboard listed “Rocket 88” as the third-biggest rhythm and blues single in 1951, and it ranked ninth in record sales. It introduced the ‘guitar distortion’ sound to rhythm and blues, and music writers say it was the song that launched rock and roll.

The story doesn’t end here, though, because there was (and still is) some doubt about who recorded the song.

Phillips licensed “Rocket 88” to Chicago-based Chess Records on behalf of the Kings of Rhythm, but Chess credited it to Jackie Brenston and the Delta Cats. The Delta Cats were former members of Kings of Rhythm, but the group had separated into two bands because the members wanted to go in different directions.

It may have been a clerical error by Chess, or something more underhanded. No one knows for sure. However, Turner and Brenston never trusted each other again, even though they continued to work together on several projects.

As for Phillips, “Rocket 88’s” success meant he had the funds to launch his own label, and Sun Records was born.

The King Who Almost Wasn’t

Original Equipment including Elvis's Microphone in the 50s Recording Studio at Sun Studio in Memphis.
Original Equipment including Elvis’s Microphone in the 50s Recording Studio at Sun Studio in Memphis. Photo by Marni Patterson

Elvis Presley is acknowledged as the King of Rock and Roll, but Phillips almost didn’t sign him to a contract with Sun Studio.

On July 18, 1953, a young Elvis paid $4.00 (approximately $35 today) to record “My Happiness” and “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin” at Memphis Recording Service. Marion Keisker, Phillip’s secretary, was alone in the Sun Studio office, also the Memphis Recording Service’s office.

She loved what she heard and urged Phillips to schedule an audition for Elvis. Phillips listened to the recording, but didn’t agree. He wanted rock and blues songs with a driving beat, and Elvis’s songs were ballads.

Keisker may have been “just a secretary,” but she wielded a lot of influence with Phillips. So, Elvis did get an audition. It didn’t go well. Phillips told Elvis to “take a break,” which was a nice way of saying, “no thanks.”

However, instead of packing up and leaving, Elvis started playing “That’s All Right,” and Phillips stopped dead in his tracks.

Phillips recorded different styles of music, but was mainly interested in Blues. This was a difficult sell because music was as segregated as society, and whites associated the Blues sound with ‘Negroes.’ Phillips needed a white artist who could sing Blues, and he’d finally found one.

Phillips recorded “That’s All Right” on the spot, released it the next day and gave copies to three local disc jockeys—Dewey Philips of WHBQ, Uncle Richard of WMPS and Sleepy-Eyed John Lepley of WHHM.

Dewey Phillips had a nightly radio show called “Red, Hot & Blue” with around 100,000 avid listeners. If he didn’t like a new song, he’d smash the record on the side of his desk while on the air. If he liked a song, he played it over and over again. He played “That’s All Right” 14 times in a single hour and received over 40 calls from listeners.

Phillips signed Elvis and he recorded over 25 songs with Sun Studio in Memphis during the next two years until RCA Victor bought his contract in November 1955.

Jamming With the “Right” People

Jerry Lee Lewis started playing piano with his cousins when he was nine. His parents saw his talent and mortgaged their farm to buy him one. He developed a unique style by blending the sounds he heard from a Black roadhouse “across the tracks” with rhythm and blues, boogie-woogie, gospel, and country music, and was soon playing professionally.

Sun Studio producer and engineer Jack Clement discovered and recorded Lewis for the Sun label and he became a session musician (i.e., performs during recording sessions and live performances) for various Sun artists like Billy Lee Riley and Carl Perkins. 

On December 4, 1956, Perkins was in the studio cutting new tracks to follow up his success with “Blue Suede Shoes.” Lewis was accompanying him on piano, and Johnny Cash was there listening.

Elvis’ contract with Sun Studios had been bought out by RCA Victor the previous year and he’d stopped by to visit with Phillips. Elvis joined Perkins, Lewis and Cash in the studio, and the four held an impromptu jam session singing excerpts of gospel songs they’d grown up with.

Jerry Lee Lewis was virtually unknown outside Memphis and he was suddenly in a recording session with Carl Perkins, the “King of Rockabilly,” Elvis Pressley, the “King of Rock & Roll,” and Johnny Cash, the “King of Outlaw Country.”  

Phillips recorded the entire session and called the entertainment editor of the local newspaper. An article headlined “Million Dollar Quartet” ran the following day with a picture of Elvis seated at the piano surrounded by Lewis, Perkins and Cash.

This gave Lewis the exposure he needed. Within a few months, he released “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and “Great Balls of Fire.” The rest is history.

If You Can’t Afford a Drummer…

Johnny Cash guitar with dollar bill to simulate percussion.
Johnny Cash guitar with dollar bill to simulate percussion. Photo by Marni Patterson

When Johnny Cash began his music career, drums weren’t typically used in country music. Country artists thought a loud drum set would disrupt the stories they told through their songs and felt percussion was only appropriate for rock and roll. In fact, drums weren’t allowed on stage at The Grand Ole Opry until the 1970s.

The rules began relaxing during the 1930s and early 1940s, but old ideas die hard, and even during the 1950s, many people thought ‘newfangled music’ with drums wasn’t ‘real country.’

Many artists broke the rules, including Cash. He couldn’t afford a drummer. So, he wrapped a dollar bill around the neck of his guitar to create a percussion effect when he recorded “I Walk the Line,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” and other hits.

The result is a sound similar to light snare drum riffs that add rhythm, but don’t detract from the music.

Visiting Sun Studios in Memphis

Visit Sun Studio in Memphis for a taste of what it felt like to be back in the 1950s witness where rock and roll and R&B legends got their start. You’ll see their equipment and have the opportunity to hold a microphone Elvis used during his recording sessions.

Sun Studio in Memphis is open seven days a week and is closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas. Tours are offered every hour.

In Memphis, Rovology prefers staying at ARRIVE Memphis.

Author

  • Marni Patterson

    Marni is a freelance journalist writing about destination travel, local customs and cultures, and history. She’s lived all over the U.S., spent a year in Belgium as an exchange student, and now calls Phoenix, AZ home.