SUN Records – Gary

This will be the story of Sun Records in it’s early days.
It will be about blues and the Birth of Rock and Roll.


It will NOT be about Elvis, that’s another story altogether.

Both Russ and I hope you enjoy our efforts.


And Now…
Sun Studios is now a museum and a US National Historic Landmark.


706 Union Ave. Memphis, TN (Sun Studios)

639 Madison Avenue, Memphis, TN (Phillips Recording Studio)

Sun Records Logo

Unchanged since it’s birth

Some of the many famous Artists:

Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Rufus Thomas, Charlie Rich, Bill Justis, Little Milton, Charlie Feathers, The Prisonaires, Little Junior, James Cotton, Rosco Gordon, Billy “The Kid” Emerson, Billy Riley, Sonny Burgess, Warren Smith


This is the best Documentary I have seen in a long time.  It appears that the British have more interest in the Birth and Origin of Rock and Roll than we or the US has. 

The Documentary is based on Sun Records and Sam Phillips.  I am not a big fan of him in later life, he became full of himself, but in the early 50’s he was a white engineer, who knew what he wanted and sacrificed everything to get it. 

If you love Rock and Roll as I do, without Sam it may not have existed in it’s raw form.  Thank you to the late Sam Phillips.

Sam Phillips, the man who invented Rock and Roll
Part 1 /
Part 2 /

Sun’s Contributions to Music:

  • Owner and producer Sam Phillips recorded both Jackie Brenston’s “Rocket 88” and Elvis Presley’s “That’s All Right, Mama“, two records often cited as the first Rock and Roll records
  • This label that helped the birth Rockabilly, almost by itself
  • Discovered at least a half-dozen of rock’s first big stars and important artists
  • One of the first non-segregated recording studios
  • Phillips was a visionary leader who often brought the best out in his artists
  • A pioneering label in the Memphis blues scene

Early Years:

When would-be lawyer Phillips dropped out of law school to support his family, he began taking jobs in radio, having developed a love of music from hearing workers on his family’s plantation as a child. After a stint at Muscle Shoals, Alabama’s WLAY, he eventually gravitated to Memphis and WREC. There, between DJ’ing and hosting dances on the side, Phillips saved enough to open a “recording service,” specifically, Memphis Recording Service, whose motto was “We Record Anything – Anywhere – Anytime” and who would indeed put anyone on record for four dollars (which would get you two songs on one double-sided acetate).

Many Successes:

Originally, Phillips recorded blues artists for Modern Records, and also for Chess in Chicago. In 1951, a young Ike Turner drove to Memphis from Clarksville, Mississippi, with his band, to record a song called “Rocket ’88.” A car song with a big beat and a distorted guitar, it is cited by many historians as the first rock and roll record. It was a huge hit at the time, but subsequent struggles with Modern and a blues scene that was rapidly migrating to Chicago left him with no labels to record for. So Phillips opened Sun, for which he recorded local boy Elvis Presley and a host of other future rock stars.

(Above photo courtesy of James Roy, from Scotty Moore web site)

Later years:

Presley’s explosion into the mainstream gave Sun all the boost it would ever need. But Phillips was often unwilling to give his acts the musical freedom they needed, and when the major record labels started getting into rock and roll, Sam was squeezed out. (Fortunately, he had also invested in a local hotel chain called the Holiday Inn.)

When the label finally folded in the late Sixties, Phillips expanded into regional television, mining, and other investments.

In 1986 he was inducted into the very first class of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; his pioneering contribution to the genre has also been recognized by the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. He was the first ever non-performer inducted.

In 1987, he was inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame.

He received a Grammy Trustees Award for his lifetime achievements in 1991.

In 1998, he was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.

In October 2001 he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Other facts:

  • Before Sun, Phillips also recorded Howlin’ Wolf and B.B. King
  • Sun’s first hit was “Bear Cat“, Rufus Thomas’ answer to Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog
  • Phillips created Memphis radio station WHER, where nearly every single job, on and off-air, was done by women
  • The Lovin’ Spoonful’s 1966 hit “Nashville Cats” is, despite its title, a tribute to Sun Records
  • Sun sold Elvis to RCA for $25,000, then considered a ridiculously high amount to pay for an unknown
  • Columbia, Capitol, Mercury and Atlantic all offered to buy out or distribute Sun at one time

Songs, Albums, and Artists:

  • First record issued: Johnny London, “Drivin’ Slow” b/w “Flat Tire” (Sun #175, April 1952)
  • Last record issued: Load Of Mischief, “Back In My Arms Again” b/w “I’m A Lover” (Sun #407, January 1968)
  • Subsidiary labels: Flip, Phillips International

Biggest hits:
“That’s All Right,” “Blue Moon Of Kentucky,” “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” “Baby, Let’s Play House,” “Mystery Train,” Elvis Presley; “Crazy Arms,” “Great Balls Of Fire,” “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” “High School Confidential,” “It’ll Be Me,” “You Win Again,” Jerry Lee Lewis; “I Walk The Line,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Hey Porter,” “Get Rhythm,” “Ballad Of A Teenage Queen,” “Guess Things Happen That Way,” “Big River,” Johnny Cash; “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Honey Don’t!” “Matchbox,” “Boppin’ The Blues,” “Dixie Fried,” Carl Perkins; “Ooby Dooby,” Roy Orbison; “Just Walkin’ In The Rain,” The Prisonaires; “Tiger Man,” Rufus Thomas; “My Baby,” James Cotton; “Ubangi Stomp,” Warren Smith, “Cheese And Crackers,” Rosco Gordon, “Flyin’ Saucers Rock & Roll,” “Red Hot,” Billy Lee Riley

Essential albums:

  • With His Hot & Blue Guitar (1957), Sings The Songs That Made Him Famous (1958), Johnny Cash
  • Jerry Lee Lewis (1958), Jerry Lee Lewis

Other artists on the Sun label:

Johnny London, Walter Bradford & the Big City Four, Handy Jackson, Joe Hill Louis, Willie Nix, Jimmy & Walter, Dusty Brooks & his Tones, D.A. Hunt, Big Memphis Marainey, Jimmy DeBerry, Ripley Cotton Choppers, Doctor Ross, Hot Shot Love, Earl Peterson, Howard Seratt, Hardrock Gunter, Doug Poindexter & Starlite Wranglers, Raymond Hill, Harmonica Frank, Buddy Cunningham, Malcolm Yelvington & Star Rhythm Boys, The Jones Brothers, Slim Rhodes, Sammy Lewis, The Five Tinos, Slim Rhodes, Eddie Snow, Smokey Joe, Maggie Sue Wimberly, The Miller Sisters, Jimmy Haggett, Jack Earls & the Jimbos, Jean Chapel, Rhythm Rockers, Barbara Pittman, Ray Harris, Ernie Chaffin, Glenn Honeycutt, Wade & Dick, Jim Williams, Rudi Richardson, Mack Self, Edwin Bruce, Tommy Blake & The Rhythm Rebels, Dickey Lee & The Collegiates, Dick Penner, Rudy Grayzell, Jack Clement, The Sunrays, Magel Priesman, Gene Simmons, Jimmy Isle, Vernon Taylor, Onie Wheeler, Alton & Jimmy, Vernon Taylor, Jerry McGill & The Topcoats, Johnny Powers, Sherry Crane, Will Mercer, Ray B. Anthony, Tracy Pendarvis & The Swampers

Sun Records movies:

    • Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock’n’Roll” (2000


  • Good Rockin’ Tonight“(2001)

Phillips died of respiratory failure at St. Francis Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee on July 30, 2003, only one day before the original Sun Studio was designated a National Historic Landmark. He is interred in the Memorial Park Cemetery in Memphis.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

Joe Hill Louis:

We all gotta go Sometime: Sun Single # 173/53 Recorded December 29, 1952

Hydramatic Woman: Unreleased/recorded May/53

One of the greatest, though most obscure Sun records acts, Joe Hill Louis, the Be-Bop Boy was one of the One Man Band giants! Unlike some of the more refined, ambidexterous One Man band Blues artists, Louis was a raw, wild performer who didn’t display particular expertise on the drums, guitar or harmonica, but displayed an amazing talent to make the wild mess of his simultaneous playing hold together just enough to get through the song. He is much more of a father of raucous contemporary acts like Bob Log III and King Louie than the more contained Dr. Ross or Jesse Fuller.

Leslie Hill was born in Raines, TN in 1921. As a youth of 14 he left home to hobo around, busking with harmonica and Jew’s harp before settling with a well-heeled Memphis family. A spirited kid, his brawling earned him the”Joe Louis” nickname. From his busking street serenades he developed his One Man Band act, and renamed himself “Joe Hill Louis The Be-Bop Boy And His One Man Band.”

By the late ’40s, he was a popular attraction in Handy Park and he got his own 15 minute radio show on WDIA, the groundbreaking Memphis radio station where he was billed as The Pepticon Boy. He also cut some sides for Columbia in 1949. In 1950 Louis was signed by Sun records founder Sam Phillips, when his label was still called Phillips. He recorded with him until Sam sold Louis’ contract to RPM-Modern, where he remained through ’53, recording raw, primitive Blues and boogie records. He had cups of coffee with Checker, Meteor, Big Town and House of Sound. He returned to Sun where he recorded as solo artist and session man, and at his best he recorded blistering, ugly music as wild as the best Sun hits.

Louis was only 35 when he tragically died of tetanus, contracted when a deep gash on his thumb became infected in 1957. Had he lived to a ripe-old age, imagine the Louis-Adkins Battle Of The One Man Bands live Norton LPs we could have enjoyed in the 80s!

– – – – – – – – – – – –

Rufus “Hound Dog” Thomas:

Rufus “Houndog” Thomas

Bear Cat: The answer to Hound Dog/Sun #181/recorded/March 8, 1953

Tiger Man (King of the Jungle): Sun/188/recorded/June 30,1953

Born a sharecropper’s son in the rural community of Cayce, Mississippi, Thomas moved to Memphis with his family at age 2. His mother was “a church woman.” Thomas made his artistic debut at the age of 6 playing a frog in a school theatrical production. Much later in life, he would impersonate all kinds of animals: screeching cats, funky chickens and penguins, and mournful dogs. By age 10, he was a tap dancer, performing in amateur productions at Memphis’ Booker T. Washington High School.

He made his professional singing debut at the Elks Club on Beale Street in Memphis, filling in for another singer at the last minute. He made his first 78 rpm record in 1943 for the Star Talent label in Texas, “I’ll Be a Good Boy“, backed with “I’m So Worried“.

He also became a long-standing on-air personality with WDIA, one of the first radio stations in the US to feature an all-black staff and programming geared toward blacks. His celebrity was such that in 1953 he recorded an “answer record” to Big Mama Thornton’s hit, “Hound Dog” called “Bear Cat” released on Sun Records. Although the song was the label’s first hit, a copyright-infringement suit ensued and nearly bankrupted Sam Phillips’ record label. Later, Rufus was one of the African American artists released by Sam Phillips as he oriented his label more toward white audiences and signed the likes of Elvis Presley.

The prime of Rufus’s recording career came in the 1960s and early 1970s, when he was on the roster of Memphis label, Stax, having one of the first hit sides at the historic soul and blues label, “Walking the Dog“, (#5 R&B, #10 Pop) in 1963. At Stax, he recorded songs when he had something to record. He was often backed by Booker T. and the MG’s or the Bar-Kays.

Thomas was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2001. He was interviewed by the public radio program American Routes in February, 2002. His last appearance was in the D.A. Pennebaker-directed documentary Only the Strong Survive (2003) in which he co-stars with daughter Carla.

He died of heart failure in 2001, at the age of 84, at St. Francis Hospital in Memphis. A street is named in his honor, just off Beale Street in Memphis.


I have taken a brief look at the early days of Sun Records.  It was not recognized at the time, but History would point out that the early SUN recordings may have been some of the most influential the world of Rock and Roll  would ever see.

In the Same venue, SUN Records would be recognized as one of the biggest influences of Rock and Roll.  You see, at the time, none of us knew that; all we could recognize was a new music that got us out of our chairs, and it was so different and exciting.  Yes, that would be the Birth of Rock and Roll and I was there.

I am sure that I have missed some early SUN favourites, I do apologize for that, but I had a small time constraint. 😉

– Gary


5 responses to “SUN Records – Gary

  1. Russ & Gary: this is the deepest dive into the roots of rock & R&B that I’ve ever seen on the blogosphere. Great job. I’ve learned a lot. Thanks for giving Sun its props. I had the opportunity to share the stage with a lot of the blues greats in the 60s/70s – the James Cotton Band, Howling Wolf, Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, Willie Dixon, Muddy – when they were fairly unknown to white audiences.

  2. Very interesting, well done.

  3. Sorry to be critical but 78s were made from shellac, not acetate. Ike Turner drove from his home town Clarksdale, not Clarksville and RCA paid $35,000 to Sam Phillips for Elvis’ contract plus $5,000 back royalties, not $25,000
    I’ll keep reading from there as soon as I have time

  4. Awesome post gentlemen. Thanks

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