Rainbow Puddle Psychedelic Lightshow Projections
THE BIRTH OF ROCK `N' ROLL
[Unable to display image]
by Barbara Schultz/Mix Magazine
When a baby is born, everything kick-starts in that first
breath: heart thumping, lungs pumping, feet kicking, voice howling. Rock 'n'
roll got its first gulp of air in 1951 when a young engineer named Sam
Phillips--proprietor of the town's first studio, the Memphis Recording
Service--recorded an artist suggested to him by Ike Turner. Jackie Brenston's
Chess Records single "Rocket 88" had a contagious, driving beat and a raw
sound that set it apart from other records of the time. "And that takes
nothing away from Bill Haley or anybody that came later," Phillips says.
"It's because you're talking about automobiles, and everybody--and I'm
talking about young people--everybody wanted one. And the rocket age was
coming in, so the subject matter is right, the sound is right, and in my
opinion it is the first rock 'n' roll record." "Rocket 88" went to Number One
on the R&B chart. Later that year, Phillips made the first recordings by
unknowns B.B. King and Howlin' Wolf. But, of course, that was only the
Born in Florence, Ala., in 1923, Phillips was the youngest of eight children
in a family of tenant farmers. "I probably didn't really know it then," he
says, "but my being associated with black people and other poor white people
who didn't have much in the way of worldly goods was, I think, one of the
reasons I became so interested in what could be done with so little.
"I was also impressed with preachers in the South, both black and white," he
recalls. "And by courtroom tactics, which, of course, in the old days
involved unbelievable speeches to the jury, and the ring and the sound you'd
have in some of the old courthouses with the hard benches. Sound is something
I've been fascinated with as far back as I could remember."
Phillips began his professional career as a radio engineer and DJ, which
eventually landed him at CBS affiliate WREC in Memphis. The more he heard of
local talent, the hotter he got to capture it. In the liner notes to Rhino
Records' Sun Records Collection box, he says, "I didn't set out to
revolutionize the world. I wanted to see if what I had thought all of my
life--that there was something very profound in the life of people with less
means when it came to money, less means when it came to social
acceptance--was right or wrong. When I opened the studio, the main thing I
wanted to do was keep it open until I had the opportunity to do some of these
things that I had in my mind since I was a child in Alabama."
Was he ever right. This year, Phillips is being inducted into the TEC Awards
Hall of Fame in recognition for an engineering and production career that is
arguably the most critical in the history of popular music. What would any of
our jobs be now if Phillips had never sent his artists' raw blues to Chess?
Never started Sun Records and signed and recorded Elvis Presley or Jerry Lee
Lewis or Johnny Cash? In his 1997 autobiography, Cash, Johnny Cash writes "I
have so much respect for Sam. He worked so hard and did so much good for
people like me. If there hadn't been a Sam Phillips, I might still be working
in a cotton field."
I want to talk about how you became a recording engineer and a producer. How
did you know how to do it?
Instinctively. I started out in radio in 1942 in Florence, in Muscle Shoals,
Alabama. There was only one station there at that time, and I went from there
to a little town 40 miles east of the Shoals area in Decatur, to another
250-watt station, from there to WLAC in Nashville, as an engineer and an
So, you knew about audio equipment from your experience in radio?
Yeah, mainly, and I took an extension course during the war from Alabama
Polytechnic Institute, which is in Auburn. Really it was over my head, but I
passed. It was an advanced electrical course, but so much hung on that for me
and my family that somehow or the other I got through it.
I don't classify myself as a real technical engineer in terms of knowing the
actual makeup of the electronic gear, but I do know quite a bit about that,
and I am an expert in what I hear. So, I came to Memphis--that was in
'45--and the WREC studios were in the Peabody Hotel, and here I am 22 years
old, and I'm mixing the bands that go on the CBS Network every night, six
nights a week, and I never thought two years before that I'd ever see a big
What was a typical day like for you at that time?
I never thought of it as being a work day, although it was sometimes hard
getting up in the morning. I was at the studio every morning by 7:30, because
I had to record a program off of the CBS network, a news program, and that
was before we had tape. This was on the 16-inch disc.
Then I had to be there until 11 at night. By the time I got home it was close
to midnight, so the hours weren't what you'd call optimum, but I loved every
minute of it. I loved the big bands. And the bands seemed to really like what
I was doing in the way of a mix. Everybody has a different notion of what
they want a band to sound like. A lot of times, I would play around with it
just a little bit. I got fussed at sometimes, but most of the times I was
complimented on how I would be able to hear what they wanted to be emphasized
in the recording, so I became known as one of the better mixers. I also
learned a lot about microphones, because I had to set up the microphones, and
we only had four for the whole 12-, or 16- or 17-piece bands.
So, what did you do with them?
One of the most fascinating things is setting up microphones. I mean, you
might think, "Grab a mic, take it over here, get some sound," but I could
never do that in my life. Whether my boss was looking over my shoulder or
not, I couldn't do that, because I was fascinated with how, for example, I
could get woodwinds with the brass and rhythm and piano and this sort of
thing, and that was a challenge. I did that for six-and-a-half years.
Was that unusual at that time, do you think, to spend a lot of time on mic
Yeah. People usually had a standard setup on programs like that, but if there
was anything unusual about a particular band that I found out, I would always
make a note of that, and at the time I was ahead of the game.
It sounds like a lot of what you learned about mic placement was from working
with it on your own.
That's right, because I never had a course in any kind of audio. The
engineering course that I passed in Alabama was more about the electrical
circuits--light bulbs and transmission lines and transformers and that sort
of thing. But I needed to take it. It was a good basis for understanding
When did you make the break and stop working in radio to focus on the studio
That was in the middle of '51. I had been at WREC since June of '45, and I
quit in June of '51. That was after I had a nervous breakdown. I opened the
studio on January the 2nd, 1950. I had worked on it with saw and hammer and
nails and paint for almost three months before we actually were in position
to start recording.
I loved radio and I loved the big bands, but when I saw all the potential
here in the Delta region, I was totally amazed at the confirmation of all the
things I had heard on a small basis in Alabama. I heard all the great rhythms
that the black musicians seemed to have in abundance, without having any
formal training whatsoever, and so I thought you just didn't hear that [on
the radio]. Black people [on the radio] were people like Duke Ellington, and
they had to do the stuff that white people wanted to hear in order to sell
records. Count Basie, Nat King Cole...there's nothing wrong with that--they
did what they did so fabulously. But there were so many people that had such
a great, great feel for the life that many people lived. I knew this, and I
just said to myself, "Man, I've got little enough sense to start fooling
around with this."
I did both jobs for a year-and-a-half before it got so hard on me that I just
couldn't do everything. I had been run down for some time, because I was a
hard worker. I don't mean to brag, but I never thought of anything but giving
a full day's work for a full day's pay, but then I got into something I
really loved, and I was going to do that regardless. So, I guess it all hit
me, and I was given electric shock treatment. I don't guess I was ever crazy
[laughs], but I just knew I had to have some help.
When I came back on the job, I went to [my boss] Mr. Wootten and told him
that I had the toughest decision I had ever had to make. That was to either
give up my little studio--I wasn't making any money out there to speak of--or
my job at WREC. I had two very young children, and a deaf aunt who was also
blind in one eye and my mother to take care of, and I hope I never have a
decision that tough to make again, but I did make it, and it worked out.
You must have been scared.
It was a scary thing, but I had so much confidence in my ability, and I
really don't mean that bragging. I just believed in sound so much, and I had
such a devotion to what I was doing. I loved what I knew black and poor white
people in the South could do with music if only they were heard, and I loved
the close kinship between the two, between country music and blues music.
There's not much difference there. It's such honest music. Each can be very
different, but really back then when you got down to a fantastic Jimmie
Rodgers' country record and some of the later things from Lightnin' Hopkins
and people like that, it was just an amazing inspiration to see what these
people had experienced and would write.
And I wasn't just an engineer. I had to be a psychologist, a business person,
a family man and totally devoted to sound, and I knew I had to do something
different in the way of sound. If I was trying to do the same thing as the
records that were on the radio at that time, everybody could do something as
good or better, because they probably had better equipment and facilities
than I had at 706 Union. But I knew what I had, and that if I did the things
that I should do, I could get what I was looking for. I just hoped and prayed
that it was what the people would want, if I could get distribution on it.
So this was when you were making records for people in your studio and then
leasing the records to a label?
Yes. I really did not want to go into the label business because of the
monetary [risks], and you couldn't have just a little regional record label.
You had to have a national label. You might not have the power of
distribution that the majors had, but you definitely had to get out of a
region and expose the records to enough people--north and south, east and
west--to find out whether what you're doing was going to be accepted
generally or not. If your dog is barking up a tree and there's no possum up
there, you got a dog that ain't no good, you know?
So, [when I started Sun] I had to set up 38 distributors, and I drove before
we had interstates to do that. We did a great job of distribution, and that
was very important but also tough, because we were so different in what we
were doing. Even our blues was different because it was more of what I call
gutbucket. It was more down-to-earth-type blues. There were some good record
labels: Atlantic and Specialty and Chess and Checker, but very few of them
had any artists that were right down where I thought the grass should grow.
That really made me stick by what I felt I had to do to give it a fair trial.
The point was that I really wanted to do something different and give an
opportunity to some people that didn't have an opportunity. I was right in
the middle of what was happening, and I recognized that. I wanted to prove
that there was a market out there for these people and that these people
deserved to be heard. I'm not a good guy, or a sweet guy or anything like
that, but you have to be honest to yourself.
Tell me about the studio at 706 Union.
I used the old 1-foot-square acoustic tiles, and I knew there were a lot of
ways to approach it to make a live-er studio or deader studio. I never truly
liked a dead room for what was I going to do with a very sparse number of
people on the session--maybe two to four or five was a big band--so all that
was taken into account.
I designed some angles in the little studio, about 18 by 32 or 33 feet long,
and I designed a V-type ceiling with horizontal and vertical Vs on either end
of the studio, and I just kind of played with it. I would go in and clap my
hands. It sounds kind of crude, but that was the way a lot of people felt the
vibe of a studio. I wanted to have a good sound that I felt was natural.
I never used EQ. I'd reset the mics or exchange mics. I never used EQ until
we got to the mastering stage. I had very little limiting and compression. I
had a homemade compressor that I made so if something got out of hand it
would get it. I never complained about equipment then, even though I had to
make quite a bit of it myself. I had an old, used RCA 70D board that I'd
reworked that I got from a little station up in South Carolina, and I just
had all I needed. I had six inputs.
I also knew that I had to use the right type of microphones. I couldn't buy
some of the more expensive microphones, but I knew what I was doing with what
I had. I worked with how each different vocalist would work the microphone.
Some I'd work directly in front, maybe six inches back, some I would have
work across the mic.
Can you give me some examples? For instance, how did Howlin' Wolf approach a
mic? How did Elvis Presley approach a mic?
Well, the Wolf sat down, and he played the harmonica, too. He never liked to
stand except when he was onstage. The Wolf liked to have a microphone that
was more or less nondirectional, because he was going to wiggle his head
regardless. He had played these little spots over in Arkansas trying to grind
out a few pennies on the weekend; he always played like he was in a show. So
I knew working a directional mic was not going to work on the Wolf. You would
lose some of those overtones of his voice, which are just amazing to this day
On Elvis, in most cases I would use a Shure 56S or, on occasion, I would use
a [RCA] 77D, which is an excellent microphone if you use it right. It's just
great for voice; it's just great for just about any instrument and was one of
the most versatile microphones then.
I had three different microphones that I normally used on vocals, and it
depended on who it was. One was the Shure, one was the RCA 77D, and the
other, if you can believe this, was the old RCA 44D. It was bidirectional,
but surprisingly, on a few people, it worked to get a sound that was most
complementary. It made your pickups elsewhere more difficult because it's
bidirectional and the vocal wouldn't be as loud as instruments normally, but
I was very much intrigued by some of the things I could do with the 44D. I
was experimenting all the time.
I just want to say that the "noise" that people make with their voices are
the most beautiful things. I've never heard a bad voice. I've heard the worst
voices in the world. The Wolf is one of them, okay? But I never heard a bad
voice. There's music in voice. If you feel it and it's a part of your
spirituality, there is nothing as beautiful as the human voice.
A lot of people you recorded probably had never been in a recording studio
That's a fact. You go back 50 years in Memphis, Tennessee, and tell me how
many black people had ever even thought about walking inside a recording
studio to get a record made. It was almost out of the book for them.
How did you set them at ease to get good performances?
I'm a psychologist. I just know how to handle people. I'm certainly no
genius, but God gave me a few talents, and dealing with people is one of
them. That don't mean we have perfect harmony all the time, but I don't
believe anybody ever left my studio because we couldn't get in the groove. I
had a type of sound fixed in my mind and tried to convey it to the artist as
we went along. If we weren't successful as we went along, I'd tell them why I
thought that, and we'd play it back and listen to it, but one thing I never
did was get in a hurry. I never made people feel like they were threatened or
rushed. That never occurred. I knew what they were going through, and I knew
what I was looking for, and together, we were going to get it. If it was
there, we were going to get it.
But weren't there times when you just had to say, "It's not happening today,
let's come back tomorrow."?
Oh, yeah, but there's a lot of different ways to say that. And did you know,
I didn't even have a talkback microphone in the control room until maybe the
last year or so? I'd get up from behind the board and open the door and go in
there and we'd talk. And I never had a light to say "Watch the light." And so
you might say, "Well, were you that poor?" Well, I was poor, but I could have
gotten me a light bulb. I just did things different.
SAM PHILLIPS ON THE MASTERING AND REMASTERING OF THE SUN CATALOG
Who did your mastering early on?
I did some of the mastering myself early on, but the one deep-cutting head on
the Presto lathe that I had just wasn't adequate to get the level that I
needed, so I decided to go ahead and get them done in Chicago. I sent them to
Bill Putnam, who was just a great operator, and he and his wife actually did
most of the acetate mastering. He had some old Scully lathes, though I don't
recall exactly the heads that he used.
Everybody that has anything to do with sound knows that you can lose a lot in
the mastering if you're not careful. I wouldn't let them use a hot stylus on
mine for a while after the hot stylus became popular, because the presence of
certain sounds could just be so easily lost.
Have you been happy with the remastered versions of your recordings?
I would say that [on the remastered vinyl] overall they did a good job, but
in some cases they maybe didn't devote enough time to the remastering. But
you have to keep in mind that we did lose some things on tape at that time
with the type of oxides that we were using. We went from black oxide to red
oxide to you name it. They would stay rolled up a long time, and you would
get a little shadow distortion that came about by magnetism from the piece of
tape that was closest to the last one you just wound. So, I think they've
done a pretty good job overall, because they did have to deal with a lot.
However, I would have been a little harder to please on some things, and I
think they didn't know how to handle the bottom end a lot. I didn't have a
strong bottom end in the way of a bulky bottom, but I had one that would
sting you pretty good. I would also have spent more time to straighten out
the presence of the voice. You just have to love it to do it like it should
One thing I do want to do is see how they master CDs. I think we've got a
little ways to go, as good as stuff sounds today, because I know that the Sun
stuff that was transferred to CD, in many instances, was made a little edgy.
It wasn't necessarily that the process was bad, but it was bad for what they
had to work with. The frequency response was so much better than you could
get on any acetate, so you have to be real careful not to abuse that.
SAM PHILLIPS ON THE SUN ROSTER
Volumes could be written (and have been) about the artists whose careers
started with Sam Phillips at Sun, but we asked Phillips to give us some
nuggets about the strengths of some of the greats.
Howlin' Wolf: The Wolf had the most potential of any black artist I ever had.
If I hadn't lost him, I just think he probably could have been one of the
biggest artists I ever had. I know that sounds odd, but that's true.
Jerry Lee Lewis: Jerry Lee Lewis is one of the greatest talents of all time,
but you had to watch his timing. With his enthusiasm for doing things live
and doing them instinctively, which I love dearly, he tended to rush time a
little bit, and I had to watch that but not kill his spirit.
Roy Orbison: Roy was naturally a ballad singer, and I knew that, but at that
time, you have to take into account what was taking place. If I hadn't done
this silly little "Ooby Dooby," a huge song, and gotten Roy to where he was
recognized by the younger people, I honestly don't know whether Roy would
have been around or not. But, of course, nobody could do a ballad much better
Carl Perkins: Carl was one of those bare-bones, raw-bones-type persons that
absolutely could have been one of the biggest country singers ever. That song
"Turn Around" is a country song that I did on Carl before we cut "Blue Suede
Shoes." I didn't like converting people--I wanted them to stay in whatever
instinctively they felt, but by that time, everybody who came into the studio
that had heard Elvis really wanted to rock.
Johnny Cash: The most distinctive voice outside of maybe The Wolf; certainly
the most distinctive white voice. His songwriting is so to-the-point. You're
going to follow Johnny Cash's narrative on any song that he sings, especially
the ones that he writes.
Elvis Presley: Somebody I truly loved as an individual. I wish more people
could have experienced the real Elvis. When I heard his voice, it was the
sweetest thing I'd ever heard in my life. It was not only pretty, it made you
wanna cry, it made you wanna be happy. Elvis knew that the thing that he
loved better than anything else in this world outside of his family was
music, and it showed in everything that he did.
The Sun Space
Inside Sun Studios and Phillips Recording
Memphis is the home of rock 'n' roll and the blues, thanks in large part to
the recordings that Sam Phillips made of Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry
Lee Lewis, Charlie Rich, Howlin' Wolf, Rufus Thomas, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash
and many others.
Besides the legendary artists who have recorded there at 706 Union Avenue,
Sun Studio has attracted artists from all over the world who have wanted to
catch the vibe of that space. A short list includes U2, Ringo Starr, Def
Leppard, John Fogerty, Tom Petty, Paul Simon and Bonnie Raitt.
"The major thing about 706 Union to remember is that when Sam Phillips had
it, all the great recordings were literally made with five microphones," says
producer Jim Dickinson, who has worked at both Sun and Phillips Recording
studios, and whose credits include Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Ry Cooder,
The Replacements and more. "So even when Sam was using the RCA as a vocal
mic, it was a room mic, if you get my point. The instruments were clustered
around them, so the major character that you hear in those recordings is the
room, or sometimes the room with slapback added.
"Beyond a question of a doubt, the room is really the thing with 706 Union
Avenue," Dickinson continues. "The room sound, even with the gear they have
in there now, is still special. It has to do with that old asbestos square
acoustic tile, which covers everything but the floor. The ceiling is no
longer flat. Sam made it into these kind of V-shaped rows with the acoustic
tile and straight pins. When you speak, you can feel the air pressure in the
room. The more volume that you put into that room, the more the midrange
compresses. It is sort of like the Phil Spector principle of putting in too
much in too small of a space, and the whole room becomes a compressor."
In 1958, Phillips began constructing Phillips Recording at 639 Madison
Avenue, just a few blocks down from the old Sun Studio. After the move to
Phillips Recording, the 706 Union Avenue address turned into a scuba shop,
and then into a garage where sports cars were stored, until it was reopened
as a studio in the mid-'80s.
At the time Phillips Recording was built, it was designed to be a stereo
facility with a custom-made console, and it had an Ampex 3-track recorder.
There were also three live echo chambers. The tracking space had an isolation
booth and stair-stepped risers that were designed for setting up guitar amps.
Phillips had also custom-built reversible acoustical wall panels that are
reflective on one side, absorptive on the other.
"Sam was very much involved in every detail of the design of this studio. He
put a lot of thought into it, and he's still very proud of it today," says
studio manager and chief engineer Roland Janes. Music history buffs might
note that Janes was the guitarist on many of the Sun classics, including
Jerry Lee Lewis' "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" and "Great Balls of Fire,"
Billy Lee Riley's "Red Hot" and "Flying Saucer Rock & Roll" and Charlie
Rich's "Lonely Weekends," among others. He has been at Phillips since 1982.
"This was probably one of the best-built studios in the world when it was
built," says Janes. "It was state-of-the-art."
Over the years, classic hits were recorded at Phillips, including the Amazing
Rhythm Aces' "Third Rate Romance," Jerry Jeff Walker's "Mr. Bojangles," Sam
the Sham & The Pharoahs' "Wooly Bully," as well as more arcane cool sessions,
like John Prine's album Pink Cadillac and The Yardbirds' "Train Kept A
Rollin'" and "Mister, You're a Better Man Than I." The studio is still an
analog facility with a Studer A80 multitrack and a DDA 36-in/24-out console.
"We totally retooled the studio about five years ago, and we labored over
whether to take the studio digital or not, and we finally determined to stay
analog," says Janes. "We did get a new Dolby SR noise reduction unit, which I
don't always use." Today, both Phillips and Sun are active studios, and
artists come from all over the world to experience some of the historic
- Rick Clark
Copyright ©2000 Intertec Publishing
Syosset Home Page