Sam Phillips, Recording Pioneer, Dead at 80

Sam Phillips, the Memphis recording engineer who was acclaimed by many as one of rock and roll's inventors, died of respiratory failure July 30. He was 80.

Phillips was probably best known for being the first to record Elvis Presley, who walked into his Memphis storefront recording studio at 706 Union Avenue one day in 1953, intent on recording a disc as a birthday present for his mother, Gladys.

The 10 songs Presley recorded for Phillips' independent Sun Records label, which became known as the "Sun Sessions," vaulted Presley to stardom. In a move many people have second-guessed over the years, Phillips sold Presley's recording contract to RCA for $35,000—an amount that armchair historians dismiss as almost insultingly paltry considering Presley's success at RCA. Phillips was irritated by such conjecture, pointing out that no regional independent label ever got a fair financial shake from a national "big-time" label.

And, he would observe, it's not as though he didn't put the money to good use: It financed a series of epochal recordings by Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Charlie Rich, Billy Lee Riley, and Sonny Burgess.

Phillips was born on January 5, 1923 in Florence, AL. He played sousaphone, trombone, and drums in his high school band and began work as a Muscle Shoals, AL disc jockey while still a student. In 1942 he married Rebecca Burns, who survives him, and, in 1949, he leased the Union Avenue storefront and opened the Memphis Recording Service, whose motto was "We record anything—anywhere—anytime."

His first paying job was recording Ike Turner's blues band for the Arkansas Rural Electrification Program. Among his other early recordings were sides by B. B. King and Joe Louis Hill. The song "Rocket 88" by Jackie Brentson and the Delta Cats is frequently cited as the first rock and roll single. Phillips recorded other blues material in a deal with Chess records, including the first songs Howlin' Wolf put on tape.

Encouraged by the success of his blues recordings, Phillips established his own label, Sun Records, in 1952. It was Presley's 1953 arrival in the studio that gave Phillips his big commercial break. After Presley recorded two songs for his mother, Phillips set up a recording session for him with session guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black, with whom Presley was already performing.

According to legend, Phillips was not all that keen on the trio while they were recording the ballads Presley had prepared. But when Presley began fooling around with Arthur Cruddup's "That's All Right" during a break, Phillips paid attention. "What are you boys doing?" he later recalled asking. The musicians responded that they weren't sure.

"Well, back it up . . . and do it again." Two nights later, the song aired on local radio and Presleymania was unleashed on the world.

Phillips sold Sun Studios to Shelby Singleton in 1969 and operated radio stations in Alabama and Memphis over the years. He was an early investor in the Holiday Inn chain, among other successful business ventures.

He always resented one thing, however. It was widely reported that he had once said, "If I could find a white singer who sounded black, I could be a millionaire. "That quote is an injustice both to the whites and the blacks," Mr. Phillips told The New York Times in 1978. "I was trying to establish an identity in music, and black and white had nothing to do with it."

Few musical entrepreneurs have achieved as resounding a success at establishing a musical legacy that transcended racial stereotypes as Sam Phillips. Whether or not he invented rock and roll, it is unassailably true that he was present at the creation.