70 Years Ago: Sun Studio Opens in Memphis, Tenn.
Seventy years ago today (Jan. 3, 1950) was an historic day for country music, although no one was aware of it at the time: It was on that date that the famous Sun Studio -- home of future recordings from Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis, among others -- opened in Memphis, Tenn.
Sam Phillips, a radio engineer at Memphis radio station WREC-AM, opened Sun Studio -- originally named Memphis Recording Service -- at 706 Union Ave., along with his good friend and assistant, Marion Keister. Phillips also opened Phillips Records with his friend DJ Dewey Phillips (no relation), but they failed to produce any hit records.
Following the failure of Phillips Records, Sam Phillips began providing recordings for other labels, including Chess Records and Modern Records. But in 1952, Phillips again launched his own label, this time calling it Sun Records, with much more success. The label recorded then-up-and-coming artists such as BB King and Rufus Thomas, the latter of whom gave the label its first big hit with "Bearcat" (although a copyright infringement lawsuit over the song and its similarity to Presley's "Hound Dog" took all of the proceeds from the single).
By 1953, the Prisonaires, a group that had received permission to leave prison to record "Just Walkin' in the Rain," helped Phillips gain notoriety and led an 18-year-old Presley to head to Sun Studio to record two songs: "My Happiness" and "That's When Your Heartaches Begin." The story differs on why Presley recorded the songs -- some say that they were a gift for his mother, while others say that he wanted to hear what his voice sounded like when recorded -- but either way, he got the attention of Phillips, who invited Presley back to his studio, this time to record "I'll Never Stand in Your Way" and "It Wouldn't Be the Same Without You."
After taping an impromptu jam session with Presley singing "That's All Right," Phillips played the tape on his radio show, Red, Hot and Blue, kicking off Presley's career as one of music's biggest stars. But as Presley's popularity soared, Phillips realized that his small record label was insufficient to market the up-and-coming star, and he sold Presley's contract to RCA Records, where Presley stayed for his entire career.
Although Sun Records lost Presley, the money from the sale of Presley's contract (reportedly $35,000), helped Phillips launch the careers of several other artists, including Carl Perkins, Lewis, Roy Orbison and Cash, who released more than two dozen albums on Sun Records.
Sun Studio closed in the '70s but reopened in 1987. Today, it operates as a recording studio and tourist attraction; more information can be found at SunStudio.com.
This story was originally written by Gayle Thompson, and revised by Annie Zaleski.