Today, it’s hard to imagine, but Memphis was THE place to be if you wanted to make your mark in 1950s music – the times they were a’changin. The most popular records of the time (country music and blues) copied a great deal from one another, and shared much of the same history, but they were marketed very specifically.
So-called “race records” featuring black artists were marketed solely to blacks, while whites were mostly offered only white artists and “white” music. Whites listened to these “race records,” but only in the privacy of their homes, but made up a substantial portion of the race records sales.
But, in Memphis, in a recently established studio called Sun Records, an inexperienced music producer named Sam Phillips would inadvertently create an entirely new sensation. From 1952-1962, Sun Record’s very first decade of production, the studio would introduce a line of future legends utilizing a unique under-produced sound and a first-of-its-kind mix of white and black music.
After introducing the world to an unknown crooner named Elvis Presley, Sun was off and running, but establishing a studio is not cheap and Sam was debt-strapped. When the opportunity arose, he sold the future King of Rock n’ Roll’s contract to RCA for a measly $35,000. Considering that Elvis would go on to sell X records (40% of which were international), have at least 150 top 40 hits, and become “The King”, it would appear this was a horrible transaction.
But, the cash infusion allowed Sam to discover, develop and promote future legends Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash in the following five years alone. With this crew he would end up establishing the “Rockabilly” sound for which Tennessee would become known.
Hundreds of musicians still record at Sun each year hoping to recapture the raw sound that has earned it the nickname of “the birthplace of rock and roll.” It’s even been the subject of tribute albums. Today, the studio exists primarily as a museum and the tours are a must for any real music fan. The building’s interior has remained pretty much the same as it was in 1954 when Perkins, Lewis, Cash and Elvis sat down at the piano for a jam that would later be billed (and the recordings sold) as “The Million Dollar Quartet,” and it still oozes magic.
The guided tour features important compositions, music samples and cool stories. From the original recording equipment and studio sign, to classic records, stage costumes and hand-written lyrics, there are too many souvenirs and artifacts to count. Plus, Kimmer channeled Elvis and got a sweet belt buckle out of the deal.