The Story of Sun Records


March 27, 1952 (Memphis, TN) by Sam Phillips (born Samuel Cornelius Phillips, January 5, 1923, Florence, AL; died July 30, 2003, Memphis, TN)


Rockabilly, Blues, Rock and Roll, Country and Western, R&B

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

Contributions to music:

  • Owner and producer Sam Phillips recorded 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
  • The label that helped 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 DJing 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).


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.

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 the Eighties he was inducted into the very first class of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Sun Studios is now a museum and a US National Historic Landmark.

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


706 Union Ave. Memphis, TN (Sun Studios), 639 Madison Avenue, Memphis, TN (Phillips Recording Studio)

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:
Sun Records movies: