Sun Records

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Sun Studio (2002)

Sun Records is an American independent label that was founded in 1952 by hobby musician Sam Phillips in Memphis (Tennessee) . The label set trends in the development of rhythm and blues , rockabilly and rock 'n' roll music.

Productions for other record labels

Before self-taught Samuel Cornelius Phillips put the idea of ​​his own record label into practice, he opened the Memphis Recording Service recording studio on January 3, 1950 in a former heating repair shop at 706 Union Avenue. In this studio, only recordings for third-party record labels were made with a portable direct recording device Presto PT900 and 6N, which recorded directly on vinyl.

Joe Hill Louis made the first recordings in the new studio in July 1950 with Gotta Let You Go / Boogie in the Park , which was released in August 1950. The first commercial order for a recording came from Modern Records , for which the still unknown blues singer B. B. King visited the studios in July 1950. He recorded four tracks that were split into two singles as Mistreated Woman / BB Boogie (RPM # 304) and The Other Night Blues / Walkin 'And Cryin' (RPM # 311). I Feel Like A Million / Heartache Baby was created for Joe Hill Louis (Modern # 795) on July 27, 1950 .

From then on, the young recording studio's order books were full. In the following period Phillips initially oriented himself strongly towards rhythm and blues; his artists were almost exclusively black, which was not easy in the social climate of the southern states of that time .

On August 5, 1950, Cool Down Mamma / Schoolboy by Lost John Hunter & His Blind Bats (FourStar # 3726) and Save a Little Love for Me / Skunk Hollow Boogie by white country musician Slim Rhodes (Gilt-Edge # 5015) were created. Modern Records remained the recording studio's main customer with BB King, Rosco Gordon and Big Walter Horton . On January 8, 1951, King was in the studio again to record Don't You Want a Man Like Me / My Baby's Gone (RPM # 318). In February 1951, Rosco recorded Gordon City Women / Roscoe's Boogie (RPM # 322); the single was released in April 1951.

On March 5, 1951 there also regarded as the first rock 'n' roll recording was Rocket "88" by Jackie Brenston with composer Ike Turner on piano. The record was distributed by Chess Records (# 1458).

King recorded B B Blues / She's Dynamite (RPM # 323) in January and May 1951 . However, B. B. King barely acted as a blues singer in his early Sun sessions, as his and Calvin Newborn's guitars drowned out King's voice. On April 30, 1951, Joe Hill Louis expanded the studio schedule to include Gotta Go Baby / Big Legged Woman (Modern # 839). On May 14, 1951, Howlin 'Wolf came to the studios to record Moanin' at Midnight / How Many More Years (Chess # 1479, August 1951). Some of the previous recordings were characterized by two recording-related peculiarities. On the one hand, the voices were often accompanied by an excessive amount of echo, on the other hand, the sound level was slightly overdriven, resulting in a distorted hearing impression.

Own record label

On March 27, 1952, Phillips founded his own record label, Sun Records. In this way, both production and sales revenues remained in one hand. The first record in the catalog (Sun # 174) was the single Blues in My Condition / Sellin 'My Whiskey for "Little" Walter Horton , which was made on March 1, 1952, but remained unpublished due to criticism from radio stations. It wasn't until Sun # 175 with Johnny London and the tracks Drivin 'Slow / Flat Tire officially appeared in record stores in March 1952. On March 8, 1953, Phillips and local radio DJ Rufus Thomas produced the track Bear Cat (# 181, released April 4, 1953), which was conceived as the answer song to Big Mama Thornton's previously released record Hound Dog . Phillips had changed the text of the original slightly and was registered as a composer. Due to the striking similarity of the melody to Hound Dog , Sun Records was sued by Peacock Records for copyright infringement in August 1953 and Peacock won. As a result, Sam Phillips had to pay Peacock Records two cents for each record sold and ultimately transferred a sum of around 20,000 US dollars in damages, which leads to about a million record sales. Bear Cat was the first track to hit a hit parade from Sun Records (number three on the Rhythm & Blues charts).

On June 1, 1953, Phillips took up the singing of five prisoners who called themselves The Prisonaires according to their situation and presented their self-composed title Just Walking in the Rain , which was released on July 8, 1953 and sold over 250,000 times. The governor gave them permission to leave the prison and record in the recording studio. A later cover version by Johnnie Ray generated sales of two million copies. In 1954 the studio was upgraded with two Ampex 350 devices.

The discovery of Presley

In August 1953 Elvis Presley came to the recording studio to sing about a record for private purposes with My Happiness and That's When Your Heartaches Begin . On January 4, 1954, Presley recorded Casual Love Affair and I'll Never Stand in Your Way and met Sam Phillips. On June 27, 1954, Presley met his accompanists Scotty Moore and Bill Black , who practiced a few songs together for the following week.

On July 5, 1954, Presley's first commercial recording session was held at Sun Records. The first recording was Harbor Lights , then I Love You Because and That's All Right . The next day Blue Moon of Kentucky was recorded. On July 7, 1954, radio DJ Dewey Phillips, who was not related to Sam Phillips, was the first to present a record by Elvis Presley, namely the demo recording of That's All Right , on the Memphis broadcaster WHBQ . When That's All Right / Blue Moon Of Kentucky was released on Sun # 209 on July 19, 1954 , Elvis Presley's career began - but rather modestly with just under 20,000 copies sold. Presley kept the predominantly regional character as long as he stayed under contract with Sun Records.

Other well-known Sun artists

Sun Records Plaque

“I was looking for people who were disenfranchised. They were politically and economically disenfranchised, and - to tell the truth - they were also disenfranchised musically, ”said Phillips in an interview about the direction in which his talents were being sought. After being noticed by the still modest success of Elvis Presley, some talent was drawn to Memphis.

Of the later big stars, Johnny Cash was the first to come to the studios to first play gospel music. On March 22, 1955, Hey! Porter and in May 1955 after 35 takes Cry, Cry, Cry (# 221). The latter title reached number 14 on the country charts after publication on June 21, 1955 . In late July, Cash recorded the track Folsom Prison Blues , which was released in December 1955 and rose to number four on the country charts. Johnny Cash exceeded Elvis Presley's record sales by far while he was under contract with Sun Records.

Next up was Carl Perkins , who recorded Let The Jukebox Keep On Playing / Gone, Gone, Gone (# 224) on July 11, 1955 . On March 27, 1956 Roy Orbison created Ooby Dooby , which with Go! Go! Go! published on Sun # 242 in May 1956 and sold 350,000 times. The song was written in February 1955 by Dick Penner and Wade Moore, who released the single Bop Bop Baby in April 1957 as Wade & Dick under Sun # 269 . Orbison's success at Sun Records was limited, however, as he could not agree with Sam Phillips on the song material to be used or the style of his music. Under the supervision of Jack Clement , Jerry Lee Lewis was first recorded on November 14, 1956 , and Crazy Arms / End Of the Road was released on December 1, 1956 as Sun # 259.

A spontaneous jam session with the tapes playing is retrospectively referred to as a " Million Dollar Quartet ". Participants in this session on December 4, 1956 were Elvis Presley, who still appeared occasionally in the Sun Studios, who had switched to RCA in late 1955 , Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins.

Million seller

The first million-selling hit was Blue Suede Shoes / Honey Don't , composed and sung by Carl Perkins and published under Sun # 234 on January 1, 1956. The second million-seller was I Walk the Line / Get Rhythm , published on May 1, 1956 by Johnny Cash (# 241).

With Whole Lotta Shakin 'Goin' On / It'll Be Me (# 267) by Jerry Lee Lewis, after its release on May 27, 1957, the first two million sellers were clearly exceeded with sales of three million at the beginning. It was Lewis who brought Sun Records the fourth million seller with Great Balls of Fire / You Win Again (November 3, 1957, # 281) . Than in September 1957 Raunchy by Bill Justis was come to the list of Sun-million seller, Sun Records for the most successful independent label had risen the US and also got international recognition. Breathless / Down the Line (# 288) by Jerry Lee Lewis was released in 1958 and sold 500,000 copies. Overall, the Lewis records brought the label nine gold records .

The "Sun Sound"

In the first few years there were hardly any studio musicians for the label at Sun Records. Phillips focused on rhythm and blues musicians who either had their own band or were accompanied by groups of musician friends. Some musicians like Joe Hill Louis didn't even need a backing band.

Despite heterogeneous recordings and different singing styles, commonalities can be found in many of the Sun Records label's titles. From 1955 onwards, Phillips increasingly used session musicians who participated in almost all of the recordings. The sound was determined by a mixture of country and rhythm & blues elements, which were referred to as " rockabilly ".

With the arrival of Billy Lee Riley at Sun, the later studio band, the "Little Green Men", also appeared. The line-up of the group varied, but its core consisted of musicians who provided the typical "Sun sound".

The following list provides an overview of Sun's studio musicians of the 1950s:

Recording technology

To generate a clearly audible echo, the so-called "slapback" method of a back wall echo of the tape delay was used, which was used in many Sun Records recordings. The sound recorded here is recorded again on a second tape with a slight time delay. In addition, many recordings are slightly overdriven, which makes them appear distorted. In addition, the relatively small studio was so well insulated with an asbestos covering that it created compression-like acoustics. Phillips himself defined the Sun sound as sparse instrumentation combined with the correct use of the microphones. Echo and reverb served here as effects to simulate larger rooms or were used as timbre. The change to two Ampex 350 tape recorders in 1954 did not change the effect of the sound.

The rockabilly arises

Rockabilly was initially the transition phase to rock 'n' roll , but was able to establish itself as an independent musical style during the rock & roll era. It was a mixture of blues , bluegrass and country music elements. Many of the lesser known artists such as Sonny Burgess , Warren Smith , Charlie Feathers , Billy Lee Riley or Malcolm Yelvington were under contract with Sun Records and contributed to the spread of this genre of music. The label was therefore regarded as a “rockabilly catalyst”. "Rarely drums, but echo, a punching bass, man that was a sound!"

Consolidation phase

When Sam Phillips put Elvis Presley's record deal up for sale, he got a feel for the market values ​​of his stars for the first time. Mitch Miller of Columbia Records offered $ 20,000 and Ahmet Ertegün of Atlantic Records even offered $ 25,000. Even these were enormous sums of money for the time, if you consider that Presley was a relatively unknown and less successful interpreter of regional importance. RCA Records was finally accepted for $ 35,000 on November 21, 1955. “The sale gave us the opportunity to expand further, for which we urgently needed capital,” Phillips admitted in an interview.

From January 15, 1956, Sun Records was reinforced by the producer and composer Jack Clement. Clement took over Roy Orbison, who was ahead of his time musically and wanted to work with orchestras; "You will never make it to be a ballad singer," Clement predicted. Next was Jerry Lee Lewis, with whom Clement produced his first and subsequent singles. It was also Clement who hired the tape for the Million Dollar Quartet.

In February 1958, Carl Perkins left the label and switched to Columbia Records. This was followed in August 1958 by Johnny Cash, whose archived records were released by Sun Records until January 1961. Jerry Lee Lewis only left the label in June 1963 after recording over 160 tracks there.

Bill Justis - Raunchy

From now on, million seller sellers were rare. Alto saxophonist Bill Justis wrote together with his guitarist the instrumental title Raunchy (an expression of the youth at that time for "dissolute, naughty, indecent"), which appeared in September 1957 with the newly founded subsidiary label Phillips International. The optimal success was not granted to him, as a version by Ernie Freeman was also released at the same time, which was listed one place better in the R&B charts than the original with rank 2.

The great successes did not come, and Phillips could not find an adequate replacement for the emigrated stars. In 1958 Charlie Rich joined the label. From February 1960, Phillips bought a new recording studio with stereo technology at 639 Madison Avenue, which acted as a replacement for his previous studio. In February 1961 he also opened a studio in Nashville. With the emergence of girl groups and later beat music , Sun Records was no longer able to convince the young buyers with rockabilly. From 1961, the time intervals between the release of Sun singles increased significantly, in 1964 only six singles were released, in 1965 there were four, the last single was released in January 1968 with Sun # 407. In the meantime, a new Memphis sound was created in Memphis with the Stax Studios , which had seamlessly replaced the Sun sound. In 1980, the studio itself recorded the songs the Lord Taught Us by The Cramps for Illegal Records .

Sale of the label

Sun Records was a record company specializing in singles, whose catalog consisted of over 300 singles, including the singles created by the subsidiary label Phillips International. Only twelve albums (and eight with subsidiary label Phillips International) were released.

On July 1, 1969, Phillips sold the entire label catalog to the former Mercury producer Shelby Singleton , who had financed the purchase price of one million dollars from the proceeds of his crossover millionaire Harper Valley PTA from Jeannie C. Riley on his Plantation label . Singleton, who had ensured the regular and discographically careful publication of the Sun Records catalog and the previously unpublished recordings, died on October 7th, 2009. "I couldn't keep up with the big record companies and at the same time saw my record label break up", said Phillips to the author Peter Guralnick . “My mission was to get what was inside a person. It was important to recognize the unique inner quality and to find the key to unlock it. "

The Sun Studio reopened as a museum and regular recording studio in 1987, and U2 was one of the first bands to record here.

Artist of the label

Dixie Fried by Carl Perkins


  1. Colin Escott, Martin Hawkins: Good Rockin 'Tonight. Sun Records and the Birth of Rock 'n' Roll . St. Martin's Press, New York 1991, ISBN 0-312-08199-5 .

Web links

Commons : Sun Records  - collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. Sebastian Danchin: BB King , 2003, p. 82.
  2. Rick Kennedy, Randy McNutt: Little Labels - Big Sound , 1999, p. 92.
  3. Richard Kostelanetz, Jesse Reiswig: The BB King Reader - 6 Decades of Commentary , 2005, p 186th
  4. Rick Kennedy, Randy McNutt: Little Labels - Big Sound , 1999, p. 74.
  5. Amanda Petrusich: It Still Moves: Lost Songs, Lost Highways And The Search fort he Next American Music , 2008, p. 40.
  6. Jay Warner: American Singing Groups , 2006, p. 280.
  7. Rick Kennedy, Randy McNutt: Little Labels - Big Sound , 1999, p. 97.
  8. David Halberstam: The fifities , 1993, p 470
  9. Patrick Carr: Johnny Cash , 1998, p. 101
  10. James Dickerson: Going Back to Memphis , 1996, p. 102.
  11. Rick Kennedy, Randy McNutt: Little Labels - Big Sound , 1999, p. 100.
  12. ^ Robert Palmer: Dancing in the Street - A Rock & Roll History , 1996, p. 202.
  13. Jim Cogan, William Clark: Temples of Sound - Inside the Great Recording Studios , 2003, p. 90.
  14. ^ John Shepherd: Continuum Encyclopedia of Popular Music of the World , 2003, p. 675.
  15. Holger Schulze: Sound Studies - TradITIONS, METHODS, DESIDERATES , 2008, p. 105
  16. Interview with Charlie Feathers from 1986 with Randy McNutt, Angeles Times, April 29, 1994.
  17. Rick Kennedy, Randy McNutt: Little Labels - Big Sound , 1999, p. 97.
  18. James Dickerson: Going Back to Memphis , 1996, p. 99.
  19. James Dickerson: Going Back to Memphis , 1996, p. 104.
  20. Billboard Magazine, December 23, 1957, p. 45
  21. ^ A b Peter Guralnick: Lost Highway , 1979, p. 337.