As the founder of Sun Records, Sam Phillips was one of the architects of rock & roll, producing groundbreaking records that fused R&B, country, and pop into a world-shaking new style. The artists he discovered included Howlin’ Wolf, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, and more. A native of Florence, Ala., Phillips built his business and reputation in Memphis, Tenn., but few know of Nashville’s role in his story, as detailed in Peter Guralnick’s outstanding new biography, Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ’n’ Roll.
In 1944, Phillips was a 21-year-old announcer and production manager at radio station WMSL in Decatur, Ala. Recently married, Phillips divided his time between his job, his new bride, Becky, and regular trips to Florence to help his widowed mother. Phillips had been prone to anxiety attacks for a number of years, and in 1944, they overwhelmed him.
“Sam had what you could call a nervous breakdown,” Guralnick says. “He was just unable to function. The doctors had just about given up on him. Finally, he found a sanitarium in Birmingham that gave electroshock treatments, and he determined that was what he needed.” After eight shock treatments and several weeks of hospitalization, Phillips was ready to get back to work. He returned to his job at WMSL only to find out his services were no longer needed because of his illness.
“Sam was a very positive man, but felt this was a cruel thing to do,” Guralnick says. “All of his life, he considered mental illness to be no different from physical illness, and he was not at all reluctant to tell you about his experiences.”
Fortunately, Phillips’ longtime friend and brother-in-law Jimmy Connolly had recently started working at radio station WLAC in Nashville. When WLAC announcer John Richbourg joined the U.S. Navy, Connolly called his brother-in-law about the job opening.
In the first week of January 1945, Phillips headed north to sell himself to the management of WLAC. Always ambitious, Phillips first stopped at WSM, Nashville’s most well-known station, and introduced himself to WSM Artists Service Bureau head Jim Bulleit. The two hit it off immediately, but there simply were no openings at the station. Satisfied that he had given WSM his best shot, Phillips headed for WLAC.
“He was over the moon about getting a job at WLAC,” Guralnick says. “He had been at a 250-watt station in Decatur and here he was coming into a 50,000-watt clear channel station with the most modern facilities.”
Relocating to Nashville, Sam and Becky Phillips moved into a house on Scott Avenue in South Inglewood. At first, Phillips’ duties at WLAC were limited to announcing news, but he soon expanded his responsibilities into deejaying and radio engineering. Becky Phillips, who also had experience as a DJ and announcer, began to fill in for vacationing announcers
Although Phillips became friends with many of his coworkers, he had a special affinity with nighttime DJ Gene Nobles. A fast-talking, eccentric ex-carny, Nobles became one of the most popular DJs in Nashville through his effusive personality and his personal brand of slanguage.
Atlthough Phillips loved his job at WLAC, in June 1945 he heard about an opening at WREC, Memphis’ top radio station. With World War II winding down, Phillips knew that John Richbourg would be returning to WLAC soon, and there were other reasons calling him to Memphis.
“Sam had wanted to live in Memphis since he had visited Beale Street when he was 16 with a bunch of his high school classmates on their way to a revival meeting in Dallas,” Guralnick says. “Sam had insisted they drive down Beale Street. His classmates were amused by it to say it politely, but Sam was inspired. He said, ‘Broadway could have never shown as bright.’ He saw people of color from every class, and had a vision of freedom that he wished the rest of the world could see. From that moment, he was absolutely determined that he would live in Memphis one day. It was his destiny.”
Phillips started work at WREC during the last week of June 1945, and a few weeks later he and Becky moved to their new home in Memphis. Although their time in Nashville was short, the connections Phillips made proved to be valuable.
After working at WREC throughout the late 1940s, Phillips founded the Memphis Recording Service in 1950 with the express purpose of recording the vast pool of black musical talent in Memphis. For the next two years, Phillips recorded local R&B talent for Modern Records in Los Angeles and Chess Records in Chicago. After the song “Rocket 88” by Ike Turner and his Kings of Rhythm (released as Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats) became the biggest R&B hit of 1951, Phillips decided to launch his own label. His business partner in the newly formed Sun Records was his old Nashville friend Jim Bulleit. After leaving WSM in 1946, Bulleit had founded Bullet Records, Nashville’s first independent record label. Phillips and Bulleit remained business partners through the first two years of Sun Record’s existence.
Phillips’ best friend in Nashville proved to be WLAC’s Nobles. About a year after Phillips left Nashville, Nobles launched a nightly program of rhythm & blues music. Although a few scattered stations had programmed R&B shows before Nobles, WLAC became the first major Southern radio station to do so. With its powerful clear channel signal, Nobles’ show was heard across most of the Eastern U.S. and into Canada. Nobles (along with the other nighttime WLAC DJs — “John R” Richbourg, “Hoss” Allen and Herman Grizzard) became instrumental in the birth of rock & roll and soul music. Phillips made sure the first copies of each new Sun release went directly to Gene Nobles and WLAC.
Phillips continued to maintain ties to Nashville even while forging a new musical style in Memphis. In 1962, he opened a Nashville studio and hired future superstar producer Billy Sherrill to manage it. In 1969, Phillips sold Sun Records to Nashville-based independent record man Shelby Singleton, who moved the label to its current headquarters on Belmont Boulevard. Although the story of Sam Phillips and Sun Records primarily unfolded in Memphis, the roots of Sun’s success and the music that changed the world wound their way back through the Tennessee soil to Nashville and that short but vital period when Sam Phillips was an East Nashvillian.