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Sam Phillips, who introduced the world to Elvis and Johnny Cash, would be 100 today

Sun Records founder Sam Phillips speaks at an event in New York City in August 2002, a year before his death.
Getty Images
Sun Records founder Sam Phillips speaks at an event in New York City in August 2002, a year before his death.

Updated January 5, 2023 at 12:06 PM ET

The man who brought the world Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and B.B. King — among others — would be turning 100 today.

Record producer Sam Phillips is best known as the founder of legendary Memphis label Sun Records and a key architect of rock and roll.

He discovered Elvis, made the earliest recordings of several 20th-century music greats and helped bring the genre to prominence. In turn, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll, Blues, Rockabilly and Country Halls of Fame, joined the inaugural class of the Memphis Music Hall of Fame and won a Grammy Trustees lifetime achievement award.

Phillips spoke with longtime former Morning Edition host Bob Edwards about his career — and era-defining discoveries — in an interview in 1993, a decade before Phillips' death.

When asked, he said he was not necessarily conscious of "creating a new kind of music."

"I think I was conscious of letting out the insides, emotional insides, of people. And that was the challenge, to a great extent," Phillips added. "Oh man, I loved the music ... I dearly loved it. So this was a beautiful experience — it still is, to see the influence that it's had around the world."

Sun Records memorabilia sits on display at Sun Studio in Memphis, Tenn., in 2005.
Mike Brown / AP
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AP
Sun Records memorabilia sits on display at Sun Studio in Memphis, Tenn., in 2005.

Sun Records began as a blues label (mostly)

Phillips grew up in Florence, Ala., and moved to Memphis by way of Nashville in 1945.

He had worked as a DJ and engineer for a local Alabama radio station that played music from both Black and white musicians.

And he saved enough money to move to Tennessee and get into the recording business — where he would go on to shape the future of rock and roll.

In 1950, Phillips opened the Memphis Recording Service, which would also serve as the studios for Sun Records when it was founded two years later.

It began as a rhythm and blues label, giving Black musicians a place to record without having to travel north to Chicago.

"People at that time, and no disrespect for any human being on this Earth, but people didn't look upon this as real artistry," Phillips told Morning Edition. "So, I just felt that knowing that these people, just based on hardships and things that I had been through as a child coming through the 1930s Depression, and I knew my life wasn't nearly as bad as theirs, and these people had something to say, something real, and I kind of liked that."

Blues legends like B.B. King and Howlin' Wolf made their early recordings at Phillips' studio.

Phillips recorded what some music historians consider the first rock and roll song, and Sun Studio went on to make more rock and roll music than any other label at the time — 226 singles during its 16-year run, according to Graceland.

But in its early days the business also had to "do a number of different things in order to keep the wolf away from the door, so to speak," as Phillips later put it.

So he also recorded events like weddings and funerals, and let customers make their own records for a fee of $1.99.

Enter young Elvis Presley.

A sign details Elvis Presley's history with Sun Studio outside the site in Memphis, Tenn.
Jewel Samad / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
A sign details Elvis Presley's history with Sun Studio outside the site in Memphis, Tenn.

A brief partnership with a lasting legacy

In 1953, Presley was 18 years old and making $1.25 an hour as a truck driver. He was shy but passionate about singing.

As the story goes, he summoned the courage to go to Sun Records and make his own recording — covering the ballads "My Happiness" and "That's When Your Heartaches Begin" — as a birthday gift for his mother.

Their partnership is legendary, but when exactly Presley and Phillips first met is the subject of some dispute.

Phillips' secretary, Marion Keisker, said before her death that her boss was not in the studio during that fateful first visit. By her account, she made a note of Elvis for potential future opportunities, because she liked what she was hearing and Phillips had been "saying he wanted to find a white man who sounded Black."

"I wrote down on a little slip of paper, 'Elvis Presley, good ballad singer' and a telephone number he could reach, and I wrote 'save' on it and put it under my desk," Keisker recalled, adding that it was she who encouraged Phillips to record him again.

Phillips, however, told NPR that he remembers noticing Presley's arrival (since Crown Electric, the company Elvis drove trucks for, did a lot of business in the area but he had never seen him before), being introduced to him by Keisker, stopping what he was doing to help him make the record and seeing something special in him.

"I had no problem at all in distinguishing this man from just a good singer," he said. "He was an excellent singer, but he had that little something that none of us know what is, that I liked, and we went from there."

Months later, Phillips invited Presley back to the studio to record "That's All Right (Mama)" alongside guitarist Scotty Moore (who was "in a country band that we were kind of playing around with at that time") and bassist Bill Black. The rest is history.

That record went on to jump-start Presley's career. And his success gave Sun Records a boost, too. Hopefuls from across the region came to Memphis to record, including future superstars like Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins.

Phillips had plenty of stories about his famous acts, as NPR has reported.

When Cash came to him saying he wanted to record gospel music, Phillips said he replied, "'Johnny, go sin a little bit, (then) come back and sing me some songs." (Phillips added: "You didn't have to say that to Jerry Lee Lewis.")

Phillips also said that Presley admired his hair, which he offered to trade him in exchange for the singer's good looks.

"Elvis kind of liked my hair," Phillips said. "His hair was just a mess. "[There] was actually a lot of it, but I've never seen hair in my life growing in every different direction."

Phillips is credited with teaching Presley how to produce records, but also to value emotion over technical perfection. Those lessons stuck with Presley even after he moved away from Sun Records.

Phillips' life after Presley

Sam Phillips signs autographs in Memphis, Tenn., in June 1992.
Chris Wilkins / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Sam Phillips signs autographs in Memphis, Tenn., in June 1992.

Despite Sun Records' prominence in the region, it started experiencing financial difficulties in the mid-1950s. Phillips sold Presley's contract to RCA Records at the end of 1955.

That same year Phillips launched WHER, the country's first all-female radio station (reportedly with the money he made from selling Presley's contract).

"At the time, stations had at most one girl announcer. Each woman who interviewed for a job at WHER thought she would be that girl," NPR reported in 2005. "It wasn't until the day before the station went on the air that the girls themselves found out the station would be all female."

Phillips remained on the music scene — he famously orchestrated what is now known as the "Million Dollar Quartet," in which Lewis, Perkins, Presley and Cash held an impromptu jam session at his studio.

But over the years he focused less on recording and more on opening radio stations and pursuing other investments (he was one of the first investors in the Holiday Inn chain).

He ultimately sold Sun Records to producer Shelby Singleton in 1969. The label remains in business today, albeit under new ownership.

The audio for this story was produced by Phil Harrell and edited by Olivia Hampton.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.