Sam Phillips was an entrepreneur, DJ, record producer and executive who was a major influence on rock and roll music in the 50s. He founded of Sun Records and Sun Studios through which he uncovered new talent.
Phillips was born on 5th January 1923 in Florence, Alabama to a farmer family. As a child he helped them pick cotton from the fields. Phillips first inspiration was the black farmers who used sing while working with him in the fields. His humble childhood motivated him to become someone bigger, someone who made a difference. He got inspired by the heart of the music scene, Beale Street in Memphis which he visited in 1939. Unfortunately the coming years did not do much favor to him as his father went bankrupt during the Great Depression. The young Phillips had to drop out from high school and start working at a grocery store to earn some money.
Phillips passion for music encouraged him to soon move in the music industry. In the beginning of the 1940s he worked as a DJ and radio engineer for a local radio station. Soon he became an announcer on the station. In 1950 he opened his own radio station called the Memphis Recording Service where he invited new singers to record their music. Some of them went on to become famous musicians such as Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Carl Perkins and the most famous of all, Elvis Presley. Sam Phillips had an insight which allowed him to sense which artist was going to go all the way to success.
He launched his label Sun Records in 1952. Phillips loved all kinds of music but his favorite was the blues. Sun Records released 226 singles in 16 years. Another label by Sam Philips known as ‘Phillips International’ was founded in 1957 released more than 70 singles. After Presley got affiliated to his label, Phillips career skyrocketed both money-wise and musically. He was a risk taker and his risks always paid off. He launched an all-women’s radio station ‘WHER’ in 1955. Sam Phillips was among the first people who invested in the Holiday Inn, a motel chain that soon went national.
In 1986 his achievements were awarded when he was inducted in the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in 1987, the Blues Hall of Fame in 1998 and the Country Musical Hall of Fame in 2001. He got the Grammy Trustees Award in 1991 for his massive contribution to the music industry. He has been portrayed many times in films about Elvis Presley such as ‘Elvis’ (1979), ‘Great Balls of Fire!’ (1989), ‘Walk the Line’ (2005). A documentary on his life named ‘Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll’ was released in 2000 by A&E Television Networks.
Sam Phillips, one of the most influential producers in the history of music passed away on 30th July 2003 due to respiratory failure just a day before his Sun Studio was selected as a National Historic Landmark.