MEMPHIS, TN -- The legendary Sun Studio in Memphis Tennessee, was founded by Sam Phillips in 1950, and is considered the birthplace of Rock and Roll music. Artists like Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis, got their start in this recording studio. TAPintoTV takes you behind the scenes--literally into the studio control room--to speak to recording engineer Ples Hampton and operations manager Zach Ozburn.
"Sam [Phillips] recorded artists including Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and a lot of blues guys as well," Ozburn said.
Many notable blues and R&B artists including Howlin' Wolf, B.B. King and Rufus Thomas recorded at the original Sun Studio location between 1950 and 1959. The song "Rocket 88" was recorded by the group Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats in March 1951 at Sun Studio, and is widely credited as the first "rock and roll" recording ever.
"Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats" was actually a pseudonym for Ike Turner and his Kings of Rhythm. Ike Turner, who had an influential and controversial career including his marriage to Tina Turner, arrived in Memphis with his band after suffering a flat tire. As legend has it, guitarist Willie Kizart's electric amplifier was dropped while changing the tire, and the damaged amp was stuffed with newspaper as a hasty repair. The resulting "fuzzy" sound caught the ear of Sam Phillips, who later chose to record the song with the damaged amplifier.
The distorted guitar tone captured on "Rocket 88" went on to become a staple of modern rock and roll, often achieved by passing loud audio signals through an amplifier circuit. Phillips' interest in new sounds proved an omen for future groundbreaking recordings as well as scouting talent.
Along with welcoming tourists, Sun Studio continues to be a working recording facility. "We do tours, but at night we record," Hampton said. "Every night of the week we've got someone booked."
Both the historic elements of the building and the vintage recording atmosphere make Sun Studio a popular destination for fans and artists alike. "This place is a church in a lot of ways. It is a temple for musicians, for engineers, for people who like music," said Hampton. "We just really like to make people happy and get people excited."
Sun Studio's founder, Sam Phillips, was born in Alabama in 1923. As a teenager, Phillips developed an interest in radio, which was the most common form of widespread communication after the Great Depression.
Phillips received a degree in broadcasting and worked in radio for a number of years. With an entrepreneurial vision, and inspiration from the African-American culture of Beale Street in Memphis, Phillips originally established his business as the "Memphis Recording Service". Phillips offered recording services for live events, including weddings and funerals, but also offered an open-door policy to capture musical performances by singers and artists for nominal fees.
Although it was often financially difficult, Phillips kept the studio afloat, and in 1956 a young man named Elvis Aron Presley stopped into the studio to record a song for his mother. Presley's initial recording sessions were not remarkable, but during a moment of downtime levity, Phillips captured Elvis and the studio musicians performing "That's All Right Mama". Phillips recognized and recorded the magic of the performance, which eventually launched Elvis' multi-platinum selling career.
Along with its musical legacy, Sun Studio's history echoes the social changes of the 1960s in the United States. "A little bit of civil rights, a little bit of rock and roll, I think this place is timeless. I don't think that interest will ever decline," Ozburn said. "Because not only is it an important part of music history, it's an important part of world history."
We wouldn't have had the Beatles without Elvis Presley, and we wouldn't have had Elvis Presley without Sun Studio. Without the blueprint established by Sam Phillips and his legendary recording studio, the music we know and love today just wouldn't be the same.
For more information about Sun Studio, visit www.SunStudio.com
Editor's Note: At the time of this writing, masks and temperature checks are required by all visitors to Sun Studio due to the COVID-19 pandemic.