In February 1952, Sam Phillips launched his new company Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee. The use of the word “sun” was symbolic of a new day and a new beginning.
Memphis in 1952 was home to many kinds of musicians - country, gospel, pop, blues, hillbilly, swing, jazz. Both black and white musicians, playing all styles of music, came to Memphis.
One of Sam Phillips’ goals was to get black musicians recorded for a white audience. He recorded Rufus Thomas, Little Junior Parker, Billy “the Kid” Emerson, Little Milton Campbell and Johnny London. Phillips treated all musicians, according to the Sun Records Company, “with respect and honesty.”
Phillips wanted to give people who had nowhere else to record, or people walking in off the street, or the many blues musicians who lived in Memphis, a chance to record their songs. Sun recorded weddings, funerals, bar mitzvahs, anything. In fact, the slogan of his new company became "We Record Anything-Anywhere-Anytime." $3.98 was all it cost to record two songs.
Elvis Presley was one of the people who walked in off the street. He claimed he wanted to record a song for his mother’s birthday. The Sun Records manager recorded his song and later played it for Phillips.
Months later when Phillips was looking for a singer, he brought Elvis in to record. In one recording session, Elvis began playing his guitar singing, “That’s All Right, Mama,” an old blues song by Arthur Crudup. Phillips found what he had been seeking, a white singer, “with the Negro sound and the Negro feel.” Elvis and his musicians blended white country music with black rhythm and blues.
Phillips took Elvis’ song to the radio station WHBQ. Listeners loved it. The DJ emphasized that Elvis graduated from Humes High School, an all white school, so people would know for certain that Elvis was not black.
Elvis made five singles for Sun Records and each one was a bigger hit than the last. However, Presley’s new manager, Colonel Tom Parker, wanted Elvis to move to a bigger record company. Phillips knew Elvis’ days with Sun Records were limited. Consequently, he sold Presley’s contract to RCA for $35,000 in 1955.
More Artists come to the Sun
Elvis’ success brought more artists to Sun Records. Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Charlie Rich, Conway Twitty, Ray Harris, Charlie Feathers, Warren Smith, B. B. King, Joe Hill Louis, Howlin’ Wolf and Jerry Lee Lewis were some of the musicians who recorded for Sun.
Phillips encouraged creativity in his musicians and experimented with recording techniques. His use of flutter echo and over-amplification in recording helped create the new sound of rockabilly music. Rockabilly was a combination of country music with rhythm and blues. Usually with only a guitar, bass fiddle and piano, rockabilly music made country (also called hillbilly music) really swing. Carl Perkins’ hit song “Blue Suede Shoes” brought rockabilly to the forefront of the music business. It sold a million copies in the United States and England, making Sun Records an international success.