Samuel Cornelius Phillips was born Jan. 5, 1923 in
Florence, Alabama. He is better known to world as Sam Phillips - The Father of
Rock 'n' Roll. The youngest of 8 children, he was raised on a 300-acre tenant
farm near the Tennessee River. It was his father's determination to succeed
after the stock market crash of 1929 that inspired him to develop a strong sense
of character. He attended Coffee High School in Florence, where he was the band
captain. He said that he wasn't a good musician but he was a good conductor. He
was able to recognize the talent in others and he could coax the best out of
In 1941 he was forced to leave high school to go to work. Due to his father's death, Sam had to support his mother and his deaf-mute aunt, Emma. It was in order to communicate with Aunt Emma that Sam learned sign language. At first he worked at a grocery store and then at a funeral parlor where he learned people skills.
He had wanted to study law, but the finances weren't there. In his youth he was musically influenced by an old black sharecropper named Silas Payne. He developed an interest in music and Sam often said that "music moves the soul." He also loved the radio and how it allowed him "to travel in his mind." He got into the radio business and studied audio engineering at Alabama Polytechnical Institute in Auburn.
Traveling through Memphis in 1939, Sam wanted to stop and see Beale Street. He said he immediately fell in love with Beale's life and vitality. On every street corner was someone playing and singing.
He married Rebecca "Becky" Burns from Sheffield, Alabama in 1942, and hey had two sons, Knox and Jerry. He worked for radio stations in Alabama and in Nashville, TN before moving to Memphis and going to work for WREC in June of 1945. There, working under the radio name "Pardner," he hosted a daily show. He also hosted the "Saturday Afternoon Tea Dance" from the Skyway Room of the Peabody Hotel where he played jazz, blues and pop records for the broadcasts, which aired nationally over the
By January 1950, 27-year-old Sam leased an auto upholstery shop and opened Memphis Recording Service. His business card read "We Record Any Thing Any Where Any Time." After recording many weddings, funerals and other events, he quit the radio station and decided to devote himself full-time to making a go of the recording studio. There he often recorded local blues singers for other record labels.
In March of 1951, Sam recorded Jackie Brenston's "Rocket 88" for the Chess label. Many consider this the first rock 'n' roll record. Ike Turner helped him find more talent and soon he also recorded Chester "Howlin' Wolf" Burnett as well as Rufus Thomas and many others. Samstarted the Sun label in 1953 and recorded The Prisonaires, a group of inmates from the Tennessee State Penitentiary in Nashville. It was an article about this unusual recording session that drew the attention of a young Elvis Presley, who soon showed up at Memphis Recording Service to record his voice for the first time.
In 1955, Sam started WHER, an "all girl" radio station (which will be covered in more detail in a future "Fact of the Week.") It was also that year that he sold his contract with Elvis to RCA. He used those funds to invest in other artists, in radio stations and in very lucrative stock in a locally based company - Holiday Inn.
Among the many artists Sam recorded are Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. In fact, by 1957 the audition tapes were arriving by the mail sackful. In 1958 he formed a new label, Phillips International. His first hit on that label was "Raunchy" by Bill Justis. He also recorded "Lonely Weekend" with Charlie Rich. Later, large labels lured some of his artists away, causing Sam to feel betrayed by the corporate world. He founded a short-lived association ARMADA in 1959 to champion the cause of independent labels. He still relied on recording music by "the feel" rather than by big business.
In September 1960, he opened a new studio on Madison Avenue in Memphis, which he let his sons mainly run. He sold the Sun label to Shelby Singleton in 1969 and kept busy with his radio stations, his investments in a zinc mine and his airplane.
Sam Phillips was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a non-performer in 1986. In 1997 he was honored by Ole Miss (The University of Mississippi) with the honorary degree of Professor of Southern Studies, thus becoming Dr. Phillips.
On Wednesday, July 30, 2003, 80-year-old Sam Phillips died in Memphis of respiratory failure. It was just two days short of a planned ceremony in Washington, D.C. that was held n August 1, 2003. At that ceremony Interior Secretary Gale Norton officially designated Sam's beloved Sun Studio (a.k.a. Memphis Recording Service) a National Historic Landmark. It is the first recording studio to be granted this status.
Sam Phillips and Sun Studio will forever be synonymous with the birth of rock 'n' roll.