“If you are not doing something different, you are not doing anything at all”
– Sam Phillips.
In our segment, World’s Greatest Sound Engineers, we feature the man hailed as the sound engineer who invented Rock’n’Roll, Sam Phillips. Some of the artists discovered and raised by Phillips includes legends like Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and Carl Perkins. He is often regarded as the man who changed the history of music, the recording techniques and the music business itself.
In the 40s, while working at radio stations, Phillips recorded and broadcasted the performances of various. After gaining experience, he decided to open his own recording studio in Memphis, at 706 Union Avenue, the Memphis Recording Service, in 1949. It was here that he allowed the then amateur artists like B.B. King, Junior Parker, Howlin’ Wolf and others to record their performances. Phillips then sold the recordings to larger labels.
In 1952, Phillips launched his own label, Sun Record Company and The Memphis Recording Service served as the studio. During its 16 year existence, Sun Records produced 226 Rock’n’ Roll singles, records than any other record label that time.
The unorthodox sound engineer
Phillips’ broad-mindedness and guidance allowed musicians to dig into their creative mould which would result in a performance beyond Phillips’ and their own expectations. He had an uncanny knack of understanding how to stretch the artists out of their comfort zone and get things done his way.
Phillips was never interested in technical perfection but in sensing the vibes while keeping the sound as natural as possible. He would run around the recording room, clapping to figure out the reverb and echo in every inch and corner of the room. Seeking what he called the perfect/imperfect cut, meant that it was not technically perfect yet perfectly conveyed the feeling and emotion of the song.
An example of his impulsiveness is audible in Jimmy DeBerry’s “Time Made a Change”. During its recording the phone rang and its sound got recorded too. The listeners can hear the phone ring in the song and despite of the artist’s insistence to take it out from the master, Phillips left it in.
Elvis Presley and Sam Phillips make ‘Rockabilly’
Just a year after he founded his label a teenager walked in to record a couple of songs for his mother for four dollars. Phillips and the young man would go on to create the music that came to be known as rockabilly. The teenager was later dubbed as the ‘King of Rock’n’Roll’ – Elvis Presley.
To bring out Presley’s talent, he ensured the recordings are kept raw which would showcase the singer’s voice. Phillips not only gave more volume to his vocals but also blended it more with the instrumental performances. He also used tape delay to get an echo into the Elvis recordings by running the tape through a second recorder head.
Phillips was so confident of the superstar’s and his own abilities that he often recorded the songs in a single take did one take and even mixed them live. To produce the rattling and muffled sound Elvis is known for, Phillips put cardboard boxes over the amplifiers, turned them around to face a wall and mic’d the amplifiers from behind.
Phillips told Elvis that the worst thing he could go for was perfection, a tip Elvis followed even after leaving Phillips’ label and signing for RCA Victor.
The Million Dollar Quartet
Phillips’ pivotal role in the early days of rock and roll was exemplified by a celebrated jam session on December 4, 1956 which came to be known as the ‘Million Dollar Quartet.’ Jerry Lee Lewis was playing piano for a Carl Perkins recording session at Phillips’ studio and unexpectedly Elvis Presley walked in. Johnny Cash was asked to come to the studio by Phillips, leading to an impromptu session featuring the four musicians.
Phillips challenged the four to achieve gold record sales, offering a free Cadillac to the first. The contest is commemorated in the song ‘Carl Perkins’ Cadillac‘ by the Drive-By Truckers.
Sam Phillips was part of the first group inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986 and is also in the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. Phillips has also been inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, the Blues Hall of Fame and the Country Music Hall of Fame.
In 1998, he was inducted into and in October 2001 he was inducted into. His Sun Records was one of the most successful independent record labels in history.
Phillips died of respiratory failure at St. Francis Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee on July 30, 2003.