- For the female singer by the same name, see Sam Phillips (singer)
Sam Phillips, born Samuel Cornelius Phillips (January 5, 1923 – July 30, 2003), was a record producer and the man responsible for the emergence of rock and roll as the major form of popular music in the 1950s. A native of Florence, Alabama, and a graduate of Coffee High School, Phillips is, perhaps, most notably attributed with the discovery of music legend Elvis Presley.
On January 3, 1950, Sam Phillips opened the doors at 706 Union Avenue in Memphis, Tennessee, to what would become one of the more famous recording studios in the world, the Sun Records label studio. Originally known as "Memphis Recording Service" throughout the 1950s when the building also housed the Sun Records label, the studio was later redubbed "Sun Studio" when the building reopened to the public in 1987. The studio had previously moved to a larger facility on Madison Avenue in 1960, and the Sun Records label had been sold in 1969 to Shelby Singleton's Sun International group.
According to some, notably, music historian Peter Guralnick, the first rock and roll record was "Rocket 88," recorded by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats, a band led by 19-year-old Ike Turner. Turner also wrote the song, which was recorded by Sam Phillips and released on the Chess/Checker record label in Chicago, in 1951. From 1950 to 1954 Phillips recorded the music of black rhythm and blues artists such as James Cotton, Rufus Thomas, Rosco Gordon, Little Milton, Bobby Blue Bland and others. Blues legends like B.B. King and Howlin' Wolf made their first recordings at his studio.
Throughout this same period, Sam Phillips was looking for a white singer with a special "sound." Phillips soon changed the face of popular music when he brought together the diverse elements that created rock and roll. When Elvis Presley played his version of "That's All Right Mama" at his studio, a whole new era in music began.
Presley's success would be a drawing card for Sun Records as singing hopefuls soon arrived from all over the Southern USA. White singers such as Sonny Burgess ("My Bucket's Got A Hole In It"), Charlie Rich and Billy Lee Riley recorded for Sun with reasonable success while others such as Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, and Carl Perkins would become superstars.
In late 1955, Sam Phillips studio was in need of money and he had little choice but to accept an offer for Presley's contract. Atlantic Records tendered $25,000, but the powerful RCA Records secured Presley's services with an offer of $35,000.
On December 4, 1956, Jerry Lee Lewis was playing piano for a Carl Perkins recording session at Sun Records studio. While Johnny Cash stood by watching, Elvis walked in, and the impromptu jam session was soon nicknamed the "Million Dollar Quartet".
In 1986 Sam Phillips was part of the first group inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 1998, he was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame, and in October 2001 he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.