Thursday, August 2, 2012

Cosmic Ceiling Tiles, Elvis Presley, And The Abiding Genius Of Sam Phillips: What Made Sun The Crucible of Rock'n'Roll?

Inside Sun at 706 Union

The Sun studio, at 706 Union Avenue, Memphis, Tennessee, has many special qualities, some of which remain mysterious. It is possible to analyse them in terms of engineering, and the way that the sound bounces around the room. You might also consider history and coincidence, and the fact that an extraordinary array of talent dropped into Sam Phillips’ Memphis Recording Service between 1950 and 1960. Not just the now-fabled, Broadway-celebrated, Million Dollar Quartet of Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins. Roy Orbison got his start there, as did Howlin’ Wolf and Charlie Rich. Ike Turner may even have invented rock’n’roll within the walls of this fabled space.
But T Bone Burnett, whose affection for Sun is such that he plans to build a replica in Los Angeles, believes that Sun’s success may also be a matter of geography; specifically, the meanderings of the Mississippi.  “That river system is the lifeblood of this country,” Burnett says. “Most things that come in and out of this country go up and down the Mississippi and through that river system. The river starts right where Bob Dylan was born, up in Minnesota, and it gets big by about St Paul, Minneapolis. I find it very interesting that Dylan was up at the top of it, and Louis Armstrong was down at the bottom (in New Orleans). That is the axis, definitely, and Memphis was right in the middle.”
The first record on the Sun label was released exactly 60 years ago. Johnny London’s “Drivin’ Slow” had a rolling blues piano, and a haunting saxophone sound. It was recorded on 1 March, 1952, and delivered on acetate to DJ Dewey Phillips on the same day. The 78rpm record was pressed on 27 March, with a rooster label designed by a commercial artist on Beale Street.
As beginnings go, “Drivin’ Slow” was decidedly low-key. But listen closely to the way the sax seems to exist in its own hollow space, and you may detect the first inkling of what has become known as the Sun sound.
Sam Phillips’ studio was a no-frills affair, housed in a building first built as a bakery, and latterly-used as a radiator repair shop. “I hadn’t been to many studios, so my first impression was great,” says Roland Janes, who played guitar in the Sun band, accompanying Jerry Lee Lewis, as well as being a member of Billy Lee Riley’s Little Green Men. “I didn’t know what a studio was supposed to look like, really. I thought it was a small building, and I was amazed at the sound that we got out of it, but I didn’t think anything but good thoughts.
“The first part of the building, there was a small office. You’d go through a door, directly into the studio, and you’d go through the studio up to the control room. So the entire building was not real big.”
“Man, the office in Sun, that’s about 10’ x 10’, and they had two or three desks, so you could get a crowd in there real quick” says house drummer JM Van Eaton. “Most people hung out at Sun because it was the premier local label, plus it had a nice little restaurant right next door to it, Taylor’s Café. That’s where all the musicians would come and hang out, because Sun was so small. They’d sit around there and drink coffee, talk about their gigs and write songs.”
“Marshall Grant and Luther Perkins (the Tennessee Two) worked right across the street at a garage,” says rockabilly bandleader Sonny Burgess, “and they’d walk over there to that café and eat lunch every day. Marshall told me: ‘We didn’t even know there was a music studio there until (Johnny) Cash took us in there to record.’”
Commercially, Sun’s breakthrough came in March 1953, with Rufus Thomas’s “Bear Cat”; a novelty response to Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog”.
“It was mainly blues bands at first,” says musician and Memphis cultural historian Tav Falco. “They didn’t have the term rock’n’roll at the time. They had rhythm and blues, but that encompassed jump blues, jazz blues, r’n’b sounding bands. Ike Turner was pretty important. Who knows what Sam would have recorded without Ike? Who knows if those people would have come in like they did?”
Ike Turner had showed up on 3 March, 1951 to record the supercharged, fuzzy “Rocket 88”, with singer Jackie Brenston. To some, the distorted guitar on the record marked the birth of rock’n’roll. But in those early, pre-Sun years, Phillips also made some extraordinary blues recordings. “The first major breakthrough Sam made was with Howlin’ Wolf,” argues T Bone Burnett. “That’s when he started bringing the bass and drums up loud. Back in those days the bass and drums were background instruments; it was all about the horns and the piano, the melody instruments, and Sam brought the rhythm section right up front, and that became rock’n’roll. That was a big shift.
“In some ways “How Many More Years” by Wolf would be the first rock’n’roll song because that has the guitar lick that became the central guitar lick in rock’n’roll, and that’s the first time we heard that played on a distorted guitar. It was an old big band lick, turned into something completely fresh.”
But Sun’s reputation rests largely on what happened when happened when Phillips managed to fuse hillbilly music with the energy of rhythm and blues. Famously, Phillips’s grand ambition was to find a white singer who could replicate the energy found in black r’n’b. That singer was Elvis Presley, who also added a dash of gospel.
The 18 year-old Presley first entered the studio in July 1953, to record two songs - “My Happiness” and “That’s When Your Heartaches Began”. “You could pay a few dollars and they let you cut two acetate dubs, one song on each side,” recalls Van Eaton, who did the same thing. “The first time I went in there, Sam was doing the engineering.”
Phillips wasn’t present on 18 July, 1953, when Presley first visited, but the singer made enough of an impression on his assistant Marion Keisker for their brief conversation to become part of Elvis lore. “Who do you sound like?” Keisker asked. More out of humility than boastfulness, Presley replied: “I don’t sound like nobody.” The truth of this statement was evident when Phillips finally got round to recording Elvis, along with guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black. Their version of “Blue Moon,” says Burnett, “is psychedelic for sure. Elvis was being Bing Crosby, right? And the Inkspots. He was synthesising all this stuff.”
“The recordings that Elvis and Scotty and Bill made are out of another world,” says Chris Isaak, whose current album was recorded at 706 Union. “That voice and that echo and that guitar… and Bill Black: even his bass doesn’t sound like it’s a bass. It’s like a click and a clack, like some guy walking in the background. It’s an otherworldly sound. Carl Perkins told me, he could listen to a record and if it was cut at Sun, he could hear the room.
“Sam Phillips was Thomas Edison with music. He was light years ahead of the rest of us.”
Presley’s first single, “That’s All Right” was issued on 19 July, 1954. JM Van Eaton is in no doubt about the importance of the moment. “When Elvis came out,” he says, “man, it changed everything.”
Certainly, after Elvis, it became possible to talk of a Sun sound. Presley’s Sun recordings – around 20 songs in just over a year – crystallised a musical revolution. It started with the untutored energy of what became known as rockabilly, and matured into rock’n’roll. “What was going on at Sun records was outside of the mainstream,” says Falco. “Nobody was touching this stuff with a 30 foot pole except for race records and blues labels. Sam said: ‘People didn’t know what to call this music, they didn’t know whether it was fish or fowl.’”
It’s tempting to imagine that Phillips was a man who was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. But such an analysis ignores the technical brilliance of his work.
“Sam looks like a lucky hillbilly who started a little studio and all this talent was just here, and all he did was turn the lights on,” says Sun’s current engineer, Matt Ross-Spang. “But Sam had his electrical engineering license, and that’s a tough test. He came into this room, he put in a hardwood floor and he designed the tile for certain frequencies. That’s not hit or miss – acoustics is one of the hardest things in the world. He always talked about how he had this sound in his head that no one else was recording.”
“His greatest talent was in being able to spot unusual talent and get the most out of them,” says Janes. “He was a great engineer. He had a great ear, a great imagination. He was smart enough to let people do what they did best and then he kind of loaded it.”
“When we were in that studio, playing that first session, Sam was our audience,” says Burgess. “Only one person – it didn’t matter, as long as somebody wanted to hear us play. So we were playing like we were in front of a huge crowd. That’s why it’s so wild.”
“He didn’t have a lot of equipment,” says Janes, “but he put it together wisely, and he was one of the first people that I knew of that used slapback echo. He had three tape recorders in the control room. He had one, the main recorder that he cut the sound on, and he had another one that he used to transfer tapes from. Then he had a third machine that was rack-mounted. He fed a portion of the signal, as it came into the room, into that machine, then he played that back through the board, and added it to the original recording machine; by increasing or decreasing the volume, he was able to get, and control, the slapback echo.”
Phillips was also a master of microphone placement. “Even during a session,” Janes continues, “he might move the microphone further or closer, but once he got it to where it was sounding good to him he left it alone. And he came up with a brilliant thing with Johnny Cash – he took thin paper, and put it over one string and under the next one, over the next string, under the next one, on his guitar, and then he had that little bit of slapback on that, and that’s how he got that boom-chicka sound, along with Luther’s guitar playing to have sort of a snare drum sound. They were recording with just three instruments. He got a big sound.”
For all that rock’n’roll was decried as the devil’s work, there was a spiritual side to the revolution which took place at Sun. “Gospel and rock and roll were cut from the same cloth,” says Falco, “even though one is considered by some the devil’s music, and the other sanctified music. It was played by the same people, and appealed to the same audience.”
Sun even pitched to the same marketplace. Sam’s brother Jud Phillips – who pioneered record promotion - was a former gospel performer, and he hawked the records to the DJs he knew in Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana and Tennessee.
“It gets to a point where musically it’s not so easy to distinguish,” says Falco. “The lyrics, yeah, and the content, but if you listen to Roebuck Staples playing the guitar in sanctified music, you hear hill-country blues coming out of the guitar.”
If this conflict could be located in the body of one individual, that person was Jerry Lee Lewis. JM Van Eaton vividly recalls his first meeting with the piano player from Ferriday, Louisiana. “The first time I ever saw him he had a goatee, and JW, his uncle, was with him, and he had his arm in a cast. And I’m thinking, ‘Man, they called me in to do this with this crazy looking piano player and a guy with his arm in a cast trying to make music? Man, this is strange.’ But I’m going to tell you, man, Jerry Lee was awesome. He could make any record his own.”
Lewis’s ability to synthesise faith and devilment in the same phrase was evident in the ferocity of his recordings, which were delivered with the untamed passion of a hellfire preacher. And it wasn’t an act. As luck would have it, the tapes were rolling in 1957 when Phillips tried to coax Jerry Lee into recording “Great Balls of Fire”. What ensued was a furious spat, in which Lewis wrestled with the notion of sin, and Phillips tried to counter with the suggestion that a rock’n’roll singer might, in some way, be able to save souls.
“I had experienced it before, so it wasn’t a total shock to me,” says Van Eaton. “I thought it was kinda funny because I could see both of them: Sam’s as serious as he could be, and Jerry’s as heated as he could be.”
“It’s an argument that went on for almost 50 years,” says Burnett. “I think it’s finally been resolved: music is a good thing, it doesn’t need any particular name put on it to make it good; like writing ‘Jesus’ on a flower doesn’t make it more beautiful.”
“I think Sun was a God thing,” concludes Van Eaton. “Certain things happen, man, in life, and that was one of them. Sam Phillips being there and opening that studio at the right time, and the people came to him. It wasn’t like he was out discovering these people. It wasn’t like a record producer going to a venue and saying ‘Hey, I’d like to sign that band.’ These people came knocking on his door. How strange is that, that you’ve got Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Charlie Rich, Billy Riley – all of these guys coming in asking you to make records on them? That’s phenomenal, you know? There is something more to it – that just doesn’t happen every day.  To me, that’s amazing.”
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