Monday, July 24, 2006

Sam Phillips, cont'd

“I really didn’t want to have anything to do with the record,” he told me, “because it might effect the performers. I was certainly invited, but the only thing I was around for was Matchbox Twenty. The did a cut of “Lonely Weekend” here in Memphis at the old studio at 706 Union. I was totally amazed at what they did.”

Most rockabilly and rhythm and blues aficionados know that address as the site the Sun Studios where, among the musical history that transpired there, Elvis Presley, under Phillips’ guidance, first recorded, and “Rocket 88,” most often singled out as the first true amalgam of bi-racial styles that resulted in the new “sound” of rock and roll was cut on March 5, 1951 at Sun. The rent that former dee-jay and mortuary attendant Phillips paid at “706” was $150 a month. He installed his recording and transcription equipment with the help of a two-year loan in January 1950. Then, operating on the premise that "We Record Anything-Anywhere-Anytime," he opened the doors of the Memphis Recording Service, soon to be known as Sun Records. It was here that such iconic now-blues figures as Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Junior Parker, and Ike Turner, and dozens of arguably lesser figures, also made their first or near-first recordings. Phillips and especially right hand man Turner uncovered talent by scouring the backwoods and fields of Tennessee searching, preferably, for black musicians who had never before seen the inside of a recording studio. Most of the masters that resulted were then leased to Chess Records in Chicago and RPM in Los Angeles.

Today, the “706” location is preserved nearly intact and serves not only as a major Memphis tourist attraction, but in its original function as well. Ringo Starr, Def Leppard, John Fogerty, Tom Petty, U2, The Spin Doctors, Def Leppard, The Tractors, Malcolm Yelvington, Michelle Shocked, Gatemouth Brown, The Indigo Girls, Keith Sykes, Dennis Quaid, Bonnie Raitt, Billy Swan, and The Gibson Brothers are only some of who have come to record at Sun Studio in more recent times.

Matchbox Twenty’s take on Charlie Rich‘s “Lonely Weekend,” on “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” cut at “706 Union” represents a complete rethinking and reharmonizing to which fans of the original might find troubling. However, the forward-looking Phillips found it to be “fairly outstanding. Other performers on the CD tend to go for period authenticity, especially Paul McCartney with a version of Elvis’ seminal 1953 “That’s All Right (Mama)“ that successfully replicates the original right down to the very last reverberating quiver of the slapback bass. It helps that the Beatle had as sidemen, two of Presley’s original sidemen, Scotty Moore on guitar, and D.J. Fontanna playing drums. If it’s a stunt it’s an interesting one. Not one in ten could spot McCartney’s voice. He doesn’t sound like Elvis OR himself.

Other players include: Bob Dylan; Jeff Beck; France’s 50s answer to Elvis, Johnny Halliday; Tom Petty; Sheryl Crow; Chryssie Hynde, Eric Clapton; Elton John; Robert Plant; Van Morrison; and Bryan Ferry. All are heard on the soundtrack CD of “Good Rockin‘ Tonight.“ It’s an interesting assemblage: What other record compilation comes to mind that contains not one but two (!) rockabilly performances by peers of the U.K. realm, i.e. Sirs McCartney and John? Like McCartney’s contribution, the latter’s “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On” is a close approximation of the Sun Sound. In addition, the Japanese issue contains six additional tracks by Ben Folds Five, Mark Knopfler and others not heard on the U.S. release. Most of the recordings were cut especially for the project and are heard and/or seen in the film.

Typical of projects where latter day musicians revisit material from an earlier time, it is the rule-of-thumb for one or more of the tracks to have one foot perhaps a little too securely planted in the present if not indeed the future. Here, the performance likely to rile up the purists, even more so than “Lonely Weekend,” is “Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee” by The Howling Diablos featuring Kid Rock, which in its incarnation here might just as well be called “Rappin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee.” Nearly all other twenty-two tracks aim for at least a degree of period authenticity, especially Chris Isaac’s “It Wouldn’t Be the Same Without You,” a virtual carbon copy of the song from Elvis’ Sun Sessions that only recently came to light of the first time on the compilation “Sunrise.”
After Presley, the ratio of blacks to whites recorded by Phillips shifted almost 180 degrees, causing him to become the target of some criticism of “selling out.“ But he has been quoted elsewhere as saying: “I would love to have kept recording black people, period. And I continued to record some, but not as many. My thinking was that if I could record white people that felt the emotions that were so akin to black people’s emotions---this could broaden the base for the acceptance of that type of that type of feel in music.”

And In fact, the history of U.S. music radio can almost be divided between pre-Elvis and post-Elvis. Before, from the worlds of pop and jazz, there was Nat King Cole and Louis Armstrong and a few other blacks on the mainstream airwaves. That was the extent of it. But after the coming of Phillips and his musical Pygmalion, Presley, the floodgates were opened.

I asked Phillips if, in 1954, after the last chords of “That’s All Right (Mama)“ had stopped ringing in the studio, he sensed that he had witnessed music history in the making.

“Well, I knew I had something different. And sometimes something different is harder to sell in most cases than things that are kind of familiar to people’s ears. People then think that it “broke” everywhere overnight. But it was only a hit here in Memphis. I have not been more depressed than I was when I left Memphis on the first road trip to promote it after it was released. “One dee-jay said, ‘Sam I can’t play this. You oughta cut something like Tennessee Ernie Ford’s ‘Sixteen Tons.’ That was real big at the time. I said, ‘Man, I agree with you. But I’ve got this.’ Just about all I got was, ‘No, no, no, no, no.’”

One r ‘n’ b disc jockey in Shreveport played “That’s All Right (Mama)” under the duress of a five dollar “bribe”---the only time the by now desperate Sam Phillips has ever resorted to payola before or since---but all he received for his time and money was one airplay preceded by the announcement, “I just want to tell my listeners I got Sam Phillips in the studio with me here, and he thinks this is gonna be a hit record, and I’m telling him that this man is not going to be played after the sun comes up in the morning. It‘s so country.”

Phillips says he “prayed that I could stay in business long enough to make sure that people made the judgment on it. I got to Dallas and Alta Hayes, a really great record lady as well as a lovely person, looked at me and saw that I was just worn out on the road not getting a real good response from the distributors as to whether they were going to promote it or not. We went up and had a cup of coffee on the corner. And she ate---I’ll never forget this---a chocolate éclair and I had a cup of coffee. I couldn’t have gotten any food down and she said, ‘You look like hell from exhaustion, Sam.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I know that.’ And she said, ‘You got a hit record, did you know that?’ I thought maybe she felt so sorry for me so she was trying to make me feel better. But sure enough it wasn’t very long after that before we began to see some real signs that we was going to have pretty good crop.”

Indeed! After Phillips launched Presley, he kept right on discovering other whites gifted with the ability to amalgamate various stylistic strands of white and black music. After Elvis caught fire in 1954, those who began beating a path to Sun and Phillips included Jerry Lee Lewis, Charlie Rich, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Warren Smith, Charlie Feathers, Ray Smith and many others. This was in addition to the early 50s during which time he discovered and/or played a major role in the careers of so many black blues musicians. Most agree that would have been enough of a musical contribution for any one person.

At the time Phillips founded Memphis Recording Service (soon to be Sun) in 1950, as difficult as it is to comprehend, it was the lone recording studio in the now boom recording center of Memphis, Tennessee.

“I was just about the only thing in the south. There was Cosimo Matassa in New Orleans, a couple of others and that was it. I did everything I could to make this a record town. This is exactly what I wanted because I knew that the potential of untried, unproved artists was all over---both black and white----and there was room for us all to make a really some impressions, and as we got further into it I could tell that Memphis was going to not be forgotten in history and what it contributed to music around the world.”

In 1960 he had built a new studio, also in Memphis, at 639 Madison, formerly a muffler shop, and a bakery. He gutted the site and built two modern recording studios on the ground floor, placed offices and a tape vault on the second, and designated the top floor for accounting and publishing and, finally, an office of his very own, complete with jukebox and wet bar. It can be seen in all it’s space age glory---including Sputnik door handles in Morgan Neville’s 2000 documentary on Phillips.

Clearly Phillips had intended to carry on in the Sun tradition with Sam Phillips Recording Service, but for reasons mostly having to do with the increasingly corporate ways of the record industry, began leasing it to others and diversify his interests. He sold Sun Records in 1969. When was the last time he had worked hands-on as a producer in the studio? I asked.

“Let’s see. . .it was so long ago, it was one track that I did. . .they just wanted me to do it with John Prine [the Prine track, “Saigon,’ was cut in ’79] . . . Charlie Rich, a couple of things I did on him and then some things on Jerry Lee Lewis that haven’t been released. I haven’t done anything much to speak of since 1970.”

“This cat was a busy boy but, man, I tell you I’d do it all over again under the same circumstances not knowing any more than I did at the time as to what the final results were gonna be. It was a happy time. I had to promote my butt off to the best of my ability in addition to making the records and then shipping them and seeing that they got there on time and all that. I look back on it and I wouldn’t change it for anything in the world.

“The new studio is pretty and it’s great and has fabulous sound, but I can tell you right now, my favorite place in the world is Sun Studios. It’s almost sacred to me because together within those walls we did some very unusual things. We worked with people who didn’t have an opportunity just like myself, and somehow it all came together in that place and I’m a little partial to the old studio that I built with my hands. It’s not just a studio. It’s the feel of how well that place didn’t behave but would behave if you knew how to use it.” Clearly Sam Phillips understood how to coax out secrets from the walls of the former radiator repair shop at 706 Union Avenue, Memphis, Tennessee.