Landmarks   

 
Sun Studio :
A Retrospective
By Robert L. Hall
© 2000, All Rights Reserved

Expected at four o'clock to interview Mike Conway, the "History Man," for Sun Studio in Memphis, I arrive early.  

In front of me are photos of musicians. One I love: of B.B. King in a chair, with his eyes closed and sweat beaded on his face. He's working out his blues over "Lucille" (the name he gives his guitar) and I can imagine him singing about his thrill bein' gone, "Lucille" filling in the other half of their blues duet. 

Next, a picture of Elvis is displayed with a quote underneath it: "He has a White voice, sings with a Negro Rhythm and borrows mood from country style." (Sam Phillips, Sun Studio founder, on Elvis Presley).  

A cavalcade of great artists follow: Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and many others; their faces looking down at me from the wall.

Walking downstairs, I meet Mike in a room in front of the studio.

I announce my presence.

Mike starts to talk. He does so in sporadic, energetic gusts. I counter his exuberant tempo of conversation by slowing him down and asking pointed questions. Only in that way am I able to write down much of what he says. Here are some highlights:

Mike, how did Sun Studio begin?

Mike: It was first called "Memphis Recording Service" by Sam Phillips, who started it in 1950. He took out a 10 year lease on the building at 706 Union Avenue, which consisted of just one studio and one control room; that's it. Phillips was a radio engineer, and got into the business with the intention of promoting race music from this area.

What was the most important thing that Sun Studios did for music?

Mike: Most significant was the integration of Memphis. It was unheard of for black and white artists to record at the same studio at the same time. But Sam didn't care!

How did Sam Phillips promote his artists back then?

Mike: Sam started strictly in the regional market. He would 'press up' a couple hundred copies of a record, see if they sold and then come back to the studio and 'press up' some more. 

Sam had the help of friends such as Dewey Phillips, (no relation), who he used as a tester of his releases. Dewey worked with WHBQ radio from about 1950 till 1963, encompassing the most productive years of the studio's existence.  

Also, very important was the invention of the transistor. That reduced the size of phonograph players from that of a huge machine that sat in the living room and was controlled by adults only, to a table-sized phonograph that kids and teenagers could play in their own rooms! 

So they could collect their favorite artist's songs and hear them over and over? 

Mike: Exactly. Would you like to stay for the tour? It takes about 30 minutes.

Thank you. I'd like that very much.

A couple of tourists come into the room and Mike leads us back to the studio, which consists of just a small room of white pressed tiles in the walls and ceiling. One wall and the ceiling had diagonal protrusions in them to cut out reverb. (Remember that Phillips was an engineer and did know something about acoustics even back in the 50's!). Mike mans a reel-to-reel tape player and begins to play excerpts from different tracks that were recorded at the studio.

Mike turns on the machine and Rufus Thomas wails out "Bearcat", the first hit on the Sun Record label in February, 1952. The music is undeniably taken from "Hound Dog."  Mike explains that the song was meant to be a companion piece to "Hound Dog."  

An original 1953 recording of Elvis is played next. The day he dropped by Sun to get Sam Phillips to listen to him sing, Sam wasn't there. But his secretary was and she needled Sam about listening to Elvis. Phillips was so 'unimpressed' that it wasn't until 1954 that he consented to hear Elvis. The song Elvis did that memorable day was "My Happiness." 

The song was too slow, and Elvis ran out of breath at the end of his phrases. He even slipped into a falsetto note when the song went out of his range once. But the sound of the smooth wavering, gently inflected tone was unmistakably Elvis. I stood astounded at the maturity of the voice -- a voice that belied the young years of the eighteen-year old boy who had sung it nearly half a century ago.  

Lastly, a Johnny Cash song: Mike related that Cash was just an unknown appliance salesman before he came to the studio. As the song evolved, Mike picked up a guitar which had a dollar bill stuffed between the strings. He bounced his hand off the fret board and produced a chuffing sound that he said was the method that Cash had used to reproduced the 'train sound' of his recordings.  

In 1960 Sun closed its doors under the leadership of Sam Phillips, who is now 77 and still resides in Memphis. Today it is a studio for hire where other labels may be used and where artists such as Ringo Starr or the group U-2 come by and record, because it is a Mecca for musicians. It is the place where Elvis started and the South found its voice.

The studio he began fifty years ago is still impacting the music of today that we hear. He is responsible for giving black musicians an outlet for blues, white singers country sounds, and providing an atmosphere where the genesis of both gave birth to rock n' roll.  


Visit the Sun Studio web site at http://www.sunstudio.com

You may contact Michael Conway, Tour Director at Sun Studio, by e-mail at: sun@wspice.com    

Sun Studio logo used with permission of Sun Studio.


Robert L. Hall, raised in and currently living outside Memphis, TN, writes crime mysteries and tales of a youth with adventures in horsemanship. His books are Mid-South based.  Mr. Hall also is a contributing writer for the on-line journal, When Falls the Coliseum , a self-described “Journal of American Culture (or the lack thereof)” at www.wfthecoliseum.com.

A trained musician with a Bachelor of Music degree from the University of Memphis and Master of Music degree from Florida State University, he is staff pianist at Trinity Baptist Church in West Memphis and has taught music courses at three institutions of higher learning.  


| Home | News  Community Resources  |  Shop  | Contact |