- Historic Sites
A gracious antebellum city of stern-wheelers and cotton money; a restless, violent city with a hot grain of genius at its heart; a city of calamity, desolation, and rebirth; a city that changed the way the whole world hears music. It’s all the same city, and it is this year’s Great American Place. Thomas Childers answers a summons to Memphis, Tennessee.
October 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 6
On March 5, 1951, Ike Turner, a nineteen-year-old deejay from Clarksdale, Mississippi, arrived at the studio on Union Avenue with his five-man band. Turner had learned from B. B. King, at the time a deejay on WDIA, that Sam Phillips was interested in recording “race music.” That night, with Turner playing piano and saxophonist Jackie Brenston doing the vocal, the Kings of Rhythm launched into a jumping number that was not quite blues, not quite R & B, and certainly not pop. It sizzled, it rocked, and Phillips loved it. “Rocket 88” was exactly the sort of innovative music that he had been looking for, and he leased the recording he made that night to Chess Records in Chicago. “Rocket 88” began a climb up the national R & B charts, where it eventually reached number one.
Many view “Rocket 88” as the first rock ’n’ roll record, and its success inspired Sam Phillips to create his own record company, recording and pressing the records in Memphis. He had already recorded B. B. King and Howlin’ Wolf at 706 Union, only to see them signed by the larger labels, and in 1952 he scraped together the necessary financing to found Sun Records. The label scored its first major hit with Rufus Thomas’s “Bearcat” in 1953, but most of its recordings over the next sixteen years, reflecting Phillips’s eclectic interests, fizzled.
An audience was out there, he believed, a large white teenage audience that was simply too bound by tradition and fear to cross the color line musically and embrace the sort of R & B mutation he had in mind. In Memphis white kids were already listening to black R & B on “Red, Hot and Blue” and inviting black bands to perform at their parties, while the more adventurous were attending the black musical revues at the Palace, sitting in the roped-off sections for whites in the balcony. Although he is often quoted as saying, “If I could only find a white singer who sings like a Negro, I could make a million dollars,” Phillips wasn’t looking for a white artist trying to sound black. He wanted someone who felt the music, as he did, who came to it naturally and who could project it with genuine emotion.
He found that person in a shy eighteen-year-old graduate of Humes High in Memphis who was working at Crown Electric Company when he walked into Sun Records for the first time in 1953. Elvis Aron Presley and his parents had arrived in the city flat broke in 1948 from Tupelo, Mississippi, and by 1953 they were living in a fifty-dollar-a-month apartment. Elvis listened to WDIA and, of course, to Dewey Phillips, and he regularly attended the All-Night Gospel Singings at the Ellis Auditorium. He knew all sorts of music, blues, R & B, pop, hillbilly, and especially gospel, and they flowed together in the first serious record he cut for Sam Phillips on July 5 and 6, 1954. It is characteristic of the cultural cross-fertilization that came to define Memphis music that the two sides of that first record were Arthur (“Big Boy”) Crudup’s blues tune “That’s All Right, Mama” and Bill Monroe’s country hit “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” The choice of songs was a spontaneous expression of the music Elvis knew, and as Phillips realized instantly, the sound in the studio was neither pure country nor pure blues. They had been fused magically together, transformed into something entirely different.
“That’s All Right, Mama” premiered on Dewey Phillips’s “Red, Hot and Blue” and was an instant sensation. Elvis’s audience quickly spread from Memphis across the South and then the nation. As his fame mounted, more hits followed in 1955—“Mystery Train,” “Baby, Let’s Play House,” “I’m Right, You’re Left, She’s Gone”—leaving the record industry, the national media, and even the fans puzzled. How should they classify Elvis and the music now erupting out of Sun Records? Was he country? A white R & B artist? “Rockabilly,” some called the music, but attempts at classification seemed increasingly irrelevant. Sun Records had broken the mold and launched the rock ’n’ roll revolution.
Following in Elvis’s wake, other voices roared from the tiny studio at 706 Union Avenue. Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Roy Orbison, all, like Elvis, young white Southerners from poor rural backgrounds and strong gospel roots, scored major rock hits on the Sun label between 1956 and 1958. Meanwhile, another Sun discovery, Johnny Cash, brought a distinctly different sound to the hillbilly genre, emerging as a towering force in country music at the same time. In what was a striking vindication of Sam Phillips’s creative vision, Carl Perkins’s “Blue Suede Shoes,” recorded at Sun Records in 1956, became the first song to be a hit on the pop, hillbilly, and R & B charts.