If Sam Phillips had discovered only Elvis Presley, he would have earned his rightful place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
But his Sun Records label was also an early home to Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins and more of rock and roll’s greatest talents. Sun's recordings included many songs that served as the foundation for rock and roll, such as Elvis Presley’s first five singles (beginning with “That’s All Right” b/w “Blue Moon of Kentucky” in 1954), Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes,” Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On” and Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line.”
But there was much, much more: Bill Justis’ aptly titled sax instrumental “Raunchy,” a national Top Three hit; some of Roy Orbison’s earliest recordings, including “Ooby Dooby”; the rockabilly classic “Flying Saucers Rock and Roll,” by Billy Lee Riley; the first pop hit, “Lonely Weekends,” for pianist Charlie Rich; and such high-charting R&B entries as Rufus Thomas’s “Bear Cat.” It is a testimony to Phillips’ ecumenical, color-blind vision of American music that a song like “Breathless,” by Jerry Lee Lewis, could make the Top Ten on the pop, country and R&B charts alike.
Phillips not only recorded the varied streams of ethnic music that flowed throughout the South in the Fifties - from blues and R&B to country and gospel music - but was convinced he could bring them together in one irresistible package. As a producer, label owner and talent scout, Phillips pioneered a new style of music called rockabilly. He commenced operations in 1950, abandoning his career as a radio announcer and renting space at 706 Union Avenue for his Memphis Recording Service. Among many music scholars, “Rocket 88,” by Jackie Brenston - the singer and sax player in Ike Turner’s Band - is regarded as the first rock and roll record. It was produced by Phillips at Sun in March 1951 and released on the Chess label.
In 1952, Phillips launched Sun Records on its 16-year, 226-single run. (That figure doesn’t include the 71 singles released on Sun’s sister label, Phillips International!) Those 45s and 78s with the familiar Sun logo amount to a treasure of music whose greatest moments mark the spot where rock and roll originated and thrived in all its frantic, wild-eyed abandon. “We’re all crazy,” Phillips has said of himself and his charges at Sun. “But it’s a type of insanity that borders on genius. I really feel that. To be as free as you have to be for any kind of music, you almost have to be in another dimension. And to do the broad expanse of rock and roll takes an element of mind expansion that people less creative would term insanity.