It was just a small brick-covered building in a sleazy area of Memphis, and the motto over the business sign of Memphis Recording Service read "We Record Anything-Anywhere-Anytime."
The doors at 706 Union Avenue -- home of the legendary Sun Records studio, which was opened in early 1950 by high school dropout and former DJ Sam Phillips -- were entered by some of the greatest recording talent in the nation's history, and Sun became the most-significant independent label of the 1950s.
The awesome musical contributions from this small outfit can't be fully appreciated until one studies the superstar roster of artists and discs that emerged from Sun, and that list reflects Phillips' great business sense and an ear for what would sell.
Elvis Presley, Conway Twitty, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash began their careers at Sun, as did Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison, and this article takes a look at some of the very best recording artists who spent time as members of Phillips' stable of talent.
Phillips grew up in a farm outside Florence, Ala., and in high school, he conducted the school’s band. His early career included stints as a DJ at hometown radio station WLAY, and he later became a radio producer at such stations as WLAC in Nashville and WREC in Memphis. But it was at Sun Studios where he made an eternal mark on American musical history.
Conway Twitty not on this list
Although he had some early ties to Sun Records, Conway Twitty is not included in this Top 10 listing of major artists on Phillips' label. That's because whereas he recorded six demos for the label under his real name of Harold Jenkins, none of those were actually released as a single.
Born in Mississippi and raised in Arkansas, he was a talented baseball player who was scouted by the Philadelphia Phillies, but after being discharged from the armed services after the Korean War, he heard the music of Elvis Presley and formed his own dreams of recording for Sun Records.
Phillips did sign Jenkins to his label, but with nothing but unreleased demos, his major contribution to Sun was one of his songs ("Rock House") that was a minor hit for labelmate Roy Orbison. After leaving Sun in late 1956, he took part in a rockabilly tour, during which time he took a new performing name by combining the names of two cities, Conway, Ark., and Twitty, Texas.
In early 1957, he signed with Mercury Records without success, but after joining the MGM stable, he emerged with a No. 1 C&W and pop hit ("It's Only Make Believe') in 1958, and in the mid-1960s, he switched from pop-rock to country, and he charted 40 No. 1 C&W hits before his death of an abdominal aneurysm in 1993.
Following is a list of some of the top recording talent who received a major career boost with their time at Sun Records, and to hear any of the Sun Records music samples, simply click on the title.
- 1. ELVIS PRESLEY: "The King" who changed the music world forever was born in Tupelo, Miss., before moving to Memphis in 1948. And one summer day during his lunch hour, away from driving a delivery truck for $1.35 an hour, he entered the Sun studios and paid $4 to cut a single of "That's When Your Heartaches Begin" as a surprise gift for his mother, Gladys. That disc -- if it still exists in the Presley family archives -- would be priceless today. Elvis went on to have five releases on Sun, and when the last two of them hit the C&W charts, RCA paid an unprecedented $35,000 for his exclusive services, and the rest is history. SUN RECORDS SAMPLE: "That's All Right" (1954)
- 2. ROY ORBISON: The native of Vernon, Texas, actually first recorded for the Je-Wel label in early 1956 as the leader of The Teen Queens. His rendition of "Ooby Dooby" differs from the version on the Sun label later that year, and the Sun release, which reached No. 59 on the Billboard Magazine's Hot 100, became his first national charter. He toured with Sun Records shows until 1958, and his legendary career would lead to 21 Hot 100 singles on Monument and seven more on MGM, including chart-topping "Running Scared" (1961) and "Oh, Pretty Woman" (1964). After dying of a heart attack in late 1988, he had a posthumous Top 10 hit with "You Got It" on the Virgin label. SUN RECORDS SAMPLE: "Ooby Dooby" (1956)
- 3. JOHNNY CASH: Born in Kingsland, Ark., he picked cotton on his family's farm, and as a young man, he wrote songs and poems and sang on a local radio station. After a tour in the Air Force, he became a door-to-door salesman in Memphis, and he studied at a DJ training school. After forming a backup singing team -- The Tennessee Two, consisting of Luther Perkins (Carl's brother) and Marshall Grant -- the trio had 20 releases on Sun, and in all, Johnny had 24 Sun singles. SUN RECORDS SAMPLE: "I Walk The Line" (1956)
- 4. JERRY LEE LEWIS: After a brief stint as a Bible student in Texas, the native of Ferriday, La., auditioned at Sun Records in 1956, and his first recording ("Crazy Arms") sold a modest 300,000 copies. But his second effort ("Whole Lot Of Shakin' Going On") tore up the charts, topping the C&W listings and reaching No. 3 in the pop category. He followed up with "Great Balls Of Fire", which reached Nos. 1 and 2 on C&W and pop, respectively. His career faltered in the wake of his marriage to his young cousin, but he later went on to a lengthy career that culminated with a 1986 induction into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. SUN RECORDS SAMPLE: "Whole Lot Of Shakin' Going On" (1957)
- 5. CARL PERKINS: His second Sun single ("Blue Suede Shoes") is a rock 'n' roll classic, but when he was invited to New York to sing it on national TV, a highway accident hospitalized him for six months and prevented him from touring or promoting his records. The son of poor sharecroppers, born near Jackson, Tenn., recorded eight singles on Sun before switching to Columbia in 1958, but he had little commercial success thereafter. SUN MUSIC SAMPLE: "Blue Suede Shoes" (1956)
- 6. CHARLIE RICH: Born in Colt, Ark., he entered the University of Arkansas, concentrating on piano. In the Air Force, he formed his own group, The Velvetones, but after discharge, he returned to Arkansas and began farming. He got some weekend bookings as a singer-pianist in Memphis, where a talent scout heard him and signed him to Phillips International Records. For a time, he was a session pianist for Judd Records (owned by Sam's brother, Judd Phillips), and his pop chart success ranged primarily from 1960 (with No. 22 "Lonely Weekends") to 1973 (with No. 1 "The Most Beautiful Girl"). SUN RECORDS SAMPLE: "Red Man" (1960, under the name Bobby Sheridan)
- 7. DICKEY LEE: Born Dickey Lipscomb in Memphis, the pop-country singer-songwriter first recorded for Sun in 1957. He is best known for a pair of teenage tragedy songs, "Patches" (1962, No. 6 on Billboard) and "Laurie" (1965, No. 14). After the 1960s, Lee turned his attention to country music performing and songwriting. SUN SINGLES SAMPLE: "Memories Never Grow Old" (1957)
- 8. RUFUS THOMAS: The Memphis soul singer recorded music as early as 1941, but later made a big impact in his hometown as a disc jockey on WDIA, one of the few black-owned radio stations of the era, from 1953 to 1974. His rendition of "Bear Cat" -- an answer song to Big Mama Thornton's "Hound Dog" -- went to No. 3 on the Billboard R&B charts and gave Sun Records its first national hit. The father of soul singer Carla Thomas, he had a number of hit singles on Stax, headed by a No. 10 with "Walkin' The Dog" in 1963. SUN RECORDS SAMPLE: "Bear Cat" (1953)
- 9. GENE SIMMONS: "Jumpin' Gene" was born in Tupelo, Miss., and he got his start when his friend Elvis Presley put in a good word for him with Phillips. Sun issued just one Simmons single, but it flopped. Then he got a singing job with the Bill Black Combo at Hi Records, later getting his big break with a chance to record "Haunted House", which went to No. 11 nationally in 1964 after the song was turned down by Dom Samudio, who later became known as Sam The Sham. SUN RECORDS SAMPLE: "Drinkin' Wine" (1958)
- 10. DAVID HOUSTON: The country singer was born in Bossier City, La., and he was a descendant of two historical figures, Sam Houston and Robert E. Lee. He is most noted for his recording of "Almost Persuaded", which spent nine weeks atop the Billboard C&W listings and crossed over to No. 24 on the pop charts in 1966. During his career, he recorded on 10 labels. SUN RECORDS SAMPLE: "Sherry's Lips" (1966)