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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 February 2019

From Elvis Presley to Johnny Cash: the studio that started rock 'n' roll

Dubai’s QE2 will host Sun Records: Where Rock n’ Roll Was Born, an authorised ­musical tribute to the Sun Studio story

The musical revue that celebrates the heyday of Sun Records tells the stories of Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley. Alex Shansky / Memphis Tourism
The musical revue that celebrates the heyday of Sun Records tells the stories of Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley. Alex Shansky / Memphis Tourism

If rock ‘n’ roll has a spiritual home, it’s at 706 Union ­Avenue, Memphis, Tennessee – the address of an unassuming, ­garage-sized recording studio where Jerry Lee Lewis ­conjured Great Balls of Fire, Carl Perkins polished his Blue Suede Shoes, Johnny Cash walked the line and Elvis Presley hopped on board the Mystery Train.

Legend has it that rock’s fuse was lit one day in 1954, when a 19-year-old Presley spontaneously broke into a rendition of bluesman Arthur Crudup’s That’s All Right at the shoebox Sun Studio, and handed founder Sam Phillips a hit record. Within a year pop music would be changed forever – and Elvis would be the world’s first rock star.

It’s surprising that the Sun ­­Records story was not ­serialised until 2017, by American television channel CMT. The tale of how a small, independent label created the ­latter-20th century’s ­greatest cultural movement appeared on the small screen but it deserves to be told more widely and on a grander stage.

Dubai’s QE2 will provide that opportunity in this country, with Sun Records: Where Rock n’ Roll Was Born, an authorised ­musical tribute to the Sun Studio story, playing from Wednesday until Friday. “It’s enough to say that ­without Sam Phillips and Sun Records, there would not be rock ‘n’ roll,” says Pete Tobit, who ­produces the show.

“Everything you listen to today, in some way, is linked or ­influenced by the magic of Sam ­Phillips and Sun Records.”

The Sun saga may soon appear on the silver screen, too. Interest in a planned Paramount biopic of ­Phillips, a project that will ­star Leonardo ­DiCaprio, was ­reignited last summer when co-­producer Mick ­Jagger stopped by Sun Studios, where he was ­welcomed by Lewis shortly before his 83rd birthday.

Of course, the Rolling Stones frontman may merely have been paying homage to the studio. “I can’t say for sure what pop music would sound like today without a Sun Records in the ’50s, but there may not have been a Beatles or Rolling Stones,” Sun Records president John Singleton told The National. “I believe it would be hard to find a successful rock artist who was not a fan of Sun.”

Bob Dylan can be counted among their number after he paid tribute to the label in his best-selling ­memoir Chronicles. “I’d always thought that Sun Records and Sam Phillips himself ­created the most crucial, uplifting and powerful records ever made,” said the ­Nobel Prize-winning songwriter.

Crossing the tracks

The Sun story begins, and ends, with Phillips. He was a 20-something radio engineer when he opened the modest Memphis Recording Service ­studio in 1950, with an earnest goal to capture the burgeoning rhythm ‘n’ blues scene of the American South – a rough, groovy sound that was largely unfamiliar to white ­audiences.

Phillips first became an admirer of rhythm ‘n’ blues during his formative years, when he picked cotton alongside African-American families in Alabama.

The man behind the rock ‘n’ roll movement, Sam Phillips. Getty
The man behind the rock ‘n’ roll movement, Sam Phillips. Getty

“We believe the catalyst that sparked the kindling, that ignited his gift, was the spiritual emotion he felt hearing the black farm workers sing old hymns while toiling the soil,”says John Singleton, whose late brother, Shelby, bought the label from Phillips in 1969, and set about distributing its music worldwide.

In March 1951, Phillips recorded what most historians have anointed the first rock ‘n’ roll record – Rocket 88, a turbocharged 12-bar credited to Ike Turner’s saxophonist ­Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats – and he ­founded his own imprint, Sun, a year later. Phillips made early recordings of local blues greats including BB King, Howlin Wolf, Rufus Thomas, Little Milton and Roscoe Gordon.

But Phillips knew he needed a white face to spread this sonic dynamite beyond the African-American community. Enter Elvis, straight out of high school, who sought out ­Phillips’ services to record a ballad for his mother, only to turn into a firecracker for fast-paced R&B when his boyish croon and acoustic strumming were paired with boppy local upright bassist Bill Black and electric guitar virtuoso Scotty Moore.

They recorded five double-sided singles for Sun within a year – ten ­immortal rockabilly songs such as Good Rockin’ Tonight and Blue Moon of Kentucky – before Presley was sold to big-budget RCA for $35,000 (Dh129,000), a princely sum at the time. Popular music would never be the same again.

The professor in the laboratory

After Elvis, Phillips’s continued to work his magic and within the space of a few years he signed seminal ­figures including Roy Orbison and Charlie Rich. He also recruited ­Perkins, Lewis and Cash – who, alongside Presley, were dubbed the Million Dollar Quartet after an impromptu four-way jam at Sun in December 1956.

“If there hadn’t been a Sam ­Phillips, I might still be working a cotton field,” Cash wrote in his 1997 book, Cash: The Autobiography.

Phillips’s skill was not only about spotting talent, but bottling it. The restless producer, who died in 2003, nicknamed his studio “the ­laboratory” – and he was always experimenting within its walls. With such a small space to work in, he experimented with putting instruments in the waiting area, or even the washroom. Cash’s trademark percussive backbone was conjured by shoving a dollar bill between the singer’s guitar strings, creating a spooky rhythmic thwick-a-thwack.

Perhaps most influentially, Phillips used his primitive equipment to pioneer the distinctive use of organic, roomy “slapback echo”, employed to almost absurd levels on tracks such as Presley’s ballad Blue Moon. The ­effect it has on the singer’s voice makes it sound as though it is coming from across a bay, rocking on a ­spectral blur of muted underwater guitar.

“Sun Studio is a tiny space, particularly for an entire band, and that cavernous echo you hear on those records is part of the genius of Sam Phillips,” says Eric Moya, a former music journalist and self-confessed ‘Elvis nut’.

Defining an era

It is difficult these days to ­appreciate fully how revelatory those records sounded at the time. In the mid-1950s, American radio was strictly segregated, and the mainstream pop songs of the day were largely syrupy orchestral affairs – big band swing, lightweight ballads and crooners dominated the post-war period.

Elvis became a superstar with Sun Studio after first stepping through the door to record a song for his mother. Courtesy Brand USA 
Elvis became a superstar with Sun Studio after first stepping through the door to record a song for his mother. Courtesy Brand USA 

Early rock ‘n’ roll, or rockabilly, channelled the primal beat, syncopated swagger and scruffy harmonic attack of wrong-side-of-the-tracks rhythm ‘n’ blues, astride the ­chiming guitar lines and big melodies of ­country music (or “hillbilly”) to ­produce an intoxicating, intuitive sound. Songs were short, sharp and effortlessly catchy, employing hipster jargon (“go, cat, go”) and imploring listeners to dance and let loose (“I said shake it, baby, shake it”). Parents didn’t get it, much less approve, but slick-haired, newly-monied, jukebox-punching teenagers found their first freedom.

At the core of this ­intergenerational revolution was the guitar, an ­instrument seldom heard outside of country music in the 1940s. It is no ­coincidence that the first mass-­produced electric six strings were shipped in the early 1950s, iconic Fender and Gibson models that are still ubiquitous today. But few observers at the mid-point of the 20th century could have predicted the ­instrument would become the ­defining sound of mainstream music for the next four decades, driving artists as diverse as The Beatles to Metallica to Radiohead.

For tickets and more, priced from Dh180, see www.qe2.com/offers/sun-records-concert

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Updated: January 21, 2019 04:55 PM

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