Sam Phillips

Sam Phillips. (Photo courtesy of Dick Cooper.)

Sam Phillips

624 Sam Phillips Street, Florence

The legendary founder of Sun Records, Shoals native Sam Phillips helped create rock and roll by discovering Elvis Presley and producing timeless recordings by Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and others.

Shoals native Sam Phillips (1923-2003) was a key figure in the development of rock and roll music. During the 1950s, as the founder and owner of Sun Records, Phillips produced such legendary artists as Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash, but he is perhaps best known for his role in launching the career of Elvis Presley. 

Phillips was born and grew up on his parents’ 200-acre farm near Florence, Alabama, where the singing of black laborers inspired an early interest in music.

"When I was growing up, we heard it all... In the fields we heard the black man’s blues, in the churches we heard black spirituals and white gospel, and on the radio we heard the Grand Ole Opry... Out of that we created a sound that’s hard to define, hard to pigeonhole, because it includes the best elements of all those tremendous sources."

     —Sam Phillips

Sam Phillips and Jerry Wexler. (Photo courtesy of Jimmy Johnson.)

As a student at Coffee High School, Phillips conducted the marching band and aspired to go to law school. However, the hardships of the Great Depression and the death of his father in 1941 forced Phillips to abandon his education and work to support his mother and siblings. A job as a disk jockey at the WLAY radio station in Muscle Shoals marked the beginning of his music career, and it was there that he met his future wife Rebecca “Becky” Burns. 

In the mid-1940s, Phillips moved to Memphis to work as an announcer and sound engineer at WREC. Eventually, in 1950, he opened the Memphis Recording Service, where he produced such blues artists as B.B. King and Howlin’ Wolf. Drawing inspiration from the “raw and unadorned... black man’s music” he had heard while growing up in Florence, Phillips aspired to create recordings that would appeal to black and white audiences alike.

"Rock ‘N’ Roll is the freedom of the rhythm of the soul. And I was looking for that little piece of soul magic."

     —Sam Phillips

His first hit as a producer was “Rocket 88,” performed by Jackie Brenston with backing from Ike Turner’s band. Released in 1951, the song quickly rose to number one on the R&B chart and is considered by many to be the very first rock n’ roll record. Following the single’s success, Phillips established his own label, Sun Records.

"Singing River" sculpture near the site of Elvis Presley's mid-1950s performances in Sheffield.

Elvis Presley first came to Sun Records when he was just 19 years old, hoping to record a song for his mother. Phillips instantly recognized that Elvis had a good ballad voice, but a year passed before he called Elvis back into the studio to record for the Sun label. Presley did not stay at Sun for more than a couple of years, but during that time, he cut a number of his most iconic sides, including “That’s All Right” and “Blue Suede Shoes.” Phillips also brought Presley to the Shoals in 1954, and again in 1955, to perform at the Sheffield Community Center.

Phillips had largely abandoned his recording work by the mid-1960s, and after selling Sun Records in 1969, he returned to the radio business. In 1973, Phillips and his family founded Big River Broadcasting, and purchased Shoals-based station WQLT-FM later that year. The Phillips family continues to own and operate WQLT and other local stations, including WSBM and WXFL.

In 1986, Phillips was part of the first class of inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and he was inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame the following year. He has also been inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame, the Country Music Hall of Fame, and the Memphis Music Hall of Fame. Additionally, he was the first non-performer inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.

"Sam Phillips had a vision. It sprang from the land. It sprang from the river. Long after he had achieved fame and worldwide recognition he always spoke of Florence as the birthplace of his inspiration. He pointed towards the people he had grown up with, the family upbringing he had enjoyed, the freedom he had learned to cherish in Alabama. His greatest heroes were from the place of his birth and often of the humblest origins. He loved, as he always said, ‘the soil, the water, the trees, and the beautiful Tennessee River.’ He learned from his father how to plow behind a mule, but he told the world to always seek that unplowed row."

     —Peter Guralnick