From: 69th Birthday Tribute Issue, January 2004
by Phil Arnold
Much heartfelt praise of Sam Phillips has been given in other sections of this journal. His huge contribution to American popular music has been deeply chronicled and generously applauded.
All this achievement has also been recognized by four different music halls of fame. Sam Phillips is comfortably enshrined in The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, The Blues Hall of Fame, The Rockabilly Hall of Fame, and The Country Music Hall of Fame. It is safe to say this achievement is something few other people have any chance of equaling.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame recognized Sam Phillips first. Back in 1986, when the charter members were enshrined, Sam Phillips was one of two inductees in the Non-Performer category. As the Hall’s web-site states, “Sun Records produced more rock and roll records than any other label of its time. They included songs that served as the foundation for rock and roll.”
The other charter member in the Non-Performer category was Alan Freed, the legendary disc jockey who is credited with bringing the phrase Rock and Roll into popular use. Over the years, this category has added more legends like Dick Clark, Phil Spector, and Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, who wrote “Hound Dog”, “Jailhouse Rock”, and eighteen other songs Elvis recorded.
Not only was Sam honored as a charter member of the Rock and Roll Hall of fame, so were two of his famous protégés. Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis were in the elite class of only ten performers selected. The next year, two more Sun Records performers, Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison, joined the group. The circle was completed in 1992 when Johnny Cash became the fifth performer who started with Sam Phillips to join him in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
These five singers who joined Sam in the Rock Hall are with him as well in the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. This is not surprising, because this hall has over 5000 members, all of which were inducted in 1997. The list includes many other Sun Records performers, most notably Charlie Rich, Billy Lee Riley, Charlie Feathers, and Rosco Gordon. Even if the Rockabilly Hall of Fame had a much more exclusive membership, it is safe to say that Sam Phillips and these nine singers would all be included.
The Rockabilly Hall of Fame’s web-site pays special tribute to the sound that Sam Phillips’ recordings produced. “Sun records were often imbued with a “slapback echo,” created by a small tape delay when the signal was bounced between machines. Whether on sessions principally overseen by Phillips or others, Sun studio personnel were good at positioning instruments so that an especially crisp sound merged. The resulting ‘Sun Sound’ was recognizable enough that many collectors automatically respect and purchase almost anything on the label.”
In 1998, Sam was selected for membership in the Blues Hall of Fame, again in the “Non-Performer” category. This time, he was preceded by several of the blues greats who got their start with him at the Memphis Recording Service, the precursor of Sun Records: BB King, Walter Horton, Howlin’ Wolf, and Little Milton. A few years later, Rufus Thomas and Junior Parker, two other artists Sam successfully produced, joined him and the other performers. It is interesting to note that two of these bluesmen also made the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: B.B. King as a performer, and Howlin’ Wolf as an early Influence.
The Blues Hall of Fame recognized Sam Phillips’ contributions to blues music with this praise on their web-site: “Before Elvis Presley ever walked through the door…, Sam Phillips’ place in history was already assured, thanks to the hundreds of powerful blues recordings he produced in the early 50’s. It is for that body of work, some of the best most classic blues recordings of all time, that he is now being inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.”
Sam Phillips’ most recent recognition was given By The Country Music Hall of Fame. In 2001, barely two years before his passing, Sam was enshrined. It makes you wonder what took them so long, when you read a quote like this from their web-site, “Just as the music his artists created still inspires new generations of performers and fans in country music and other genres, Sam Phillips stands as one of American music’s most singular figures.”
Two of Sam’s protégés proceeded him into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Johnny Cash was in the class of 1980, and Elvis was inducted in 1998.
So, there it is – Sam Phillips is in four different music halls of fame. He was the producer for seven performers who made The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, six who made the Blues Hall of Fame, two who made the Country Music Hall of Fame, and nine genuine legends in the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.
It’s very easy to agree with the assessment that Sam Phillips was one of the most influential figures in the history of American music.
What The Halls of Fame Web-sites Have to Say
About Sam Phillips
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame:
“Phillips not only recorded the varied streams that flowed throughout the South in the Fifties – from blues to country and gospel music – but was convinced he could bring them together in on irresistible package.
Phillips launched Sun records on its 16-year, 226 single run. These 45’s 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.”
Rockabilly Hall of Fame:
“Sam Phillips is not just one of the most important producers in rock history. There’s a good argument to be made that he is also one of the most important figures in 20th-century American culture.”
<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />Blues Hall of Fame:
“Sam Phillips was often greeted crudely by the citizens of Memphis who couldn’t understand the traffic of black musicians in and out of his recording studio. Back in the early days… blues legends-in-the making such as Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King, Little Milton, Rufus Thomas and dozens more were making regular trips to 706 Union Ave.”
Country Music Hall of Fame:
“By helping to ignite the rockabilly explosion of the 1950’s, Sam Phillips dramatically shaped the history of country music. Phillips encouraged artists not to polish their work but to rely on their own natural energy and straight-ahead, unfettered performances.”
© 2004 Philip R Arnold