Sam Phillips Dead

Sam PhillipsThe most important figure in the second half of the twentieth century, the architect of rock and roll, Sam Phillips, died last night at the age of 80.

Pick up any of the Sun Records compilations to hear his unbelievable influence on r&b, rockabilly, and rock and roll. It is impossible to overrate the impact he had.

My favorite Sam Phillips story is the one right before the recording of “Great Balls of Fire” where Jerry Lee Lewis—influenced by his cousin Jimmy Swaggart, no doubt, who referred to rock and roll as “the new pornography”—was feeling bad about playing “the Devil’s music.” Here’s the conversation, as transcribed by Robert Gordon in It Came from Memphis:

Phillips: “Jerry. Jerry. If you think that you can’t, can’t do good if you’re a rock and roll exponent—”

Lewis: “You can do good, Mr. Phillips, don’t get me wrong—”

Phillips: “Now wait, wait, listen. When I say do good—”

Lewis: “You can have a kind heart!”

Phillips: “I don’t just mean, I don’t mean just—”

Lewis: “You can help people!”

Phillips: “You can save souls!”

Lewis: “No! No! No! No!”

Phillips: “Yes!”

Lewis: “How can the Devil save souls? What are you talking about?

It might have taken a few years to feel its effects, but I’ll be goddamned if Mr. Lewis was not 100% correct. Rock and roll can save your soul.

18 thoughts on “Sam Phillips Dead”

  1. This is arguably the most significant death in the world of music since Sinatra. I wonder if they’re closing down Sun Records today in tribute? Any word on a memorial service this weekend? That would be worth the drive to Memphis. Listen to Sun tunes all the way down, pay some respects…

  2. Even if he had never recorded Elvis, he would still have been a giant in his field for his blues recordings with Howlin Wolf, BB King, Ike Turner, etc. He was all about the feel, you know? I’ve got an awesome single-disc Sun blues collection called Blue Flames that’s out of print now, but it’s just so damn good!

  3. The day the music REALLY died…if it weren’t for Sam, there wouldn’t be rawk as we know it…catch ya on the flipside, buddy

  4. Heard a replay of an interview with him on “Fresh Air” this afternoon. Turns out that he was a big John Phillip Sousa fan. And he talked about how legendary Boston Pops conductor Arthur Fiedler was something of a wildman (!?), especially if he’d had a beverage or two before going out to conduct the orchestra. Shows the breadth of Sam, something that I suspect many contemporary producers lack.

  5. I don’t know, if you’re talking about contemporary producers with diverse taste, “Mutt” Lange’s taste ranges from the viking metal of Def Leppard to the heartland country-pop of Shania Twain.

    Makes ’em sound EXACTLY the same, but anyway…

  6. As funny as that last comment was, it’s deplorable that Sam Phillips’ obit would be tarnished by a reference to Mutt Lange. Then again, what is God without the Devil?

  7. Wow… I mean, I know he had lived a long life, but the loss of Sam Phillips still hurts really badly. For me, the very first place I went to when I first visited Memphis was the Sun Studio (this was 1995; the Stax Museum wasn’t open yet). Even though the studio is basically “just a room”, for me, it crackled with electricity. Knowing all of the artists who had recorded there just gave it an incredible magic. The list of musical acts, albums, and songs that could complete the sentence “Without Sam Phillips there wouldn’t be a…” would be as long as the phonebook. Thank you Sam for making all of this possible; thanks for being the contrary sonofagun who dared to record the music as it deserved to be recorded: unvarnished, as raw and rough as a split log.

  8. First time poster longtime reader..Sam helped shed light on some of the greatest musicians and singers, most especially Johnny cash. He gets maximum respect in my book for helping to bring us the Man in Black (forget Elvis!).

  9. Thanks for this piece on a true legend. I am very curious as to how many of the folks who visit your site have made the trek to Memphis to Sun Studios. I have. Show of hands??

  10. Oh yeah. I’ve been there. It’s where you buy “The Lowlife’s Guide to Memphis,” a great zine that tells you all the cool things to do in Memphis.

  11. Oh yeah, been to Sun Studios. While I was there, I struck up a conversation with Scott Taylor of the Grifters, who took me to Shangri-La Recs, the coolest record store/label in Memphis (they are the ones who publish the Lowlife’s Guide). I then had my mind blown by the Grifters later that night when they played at the New Daisy Theater on Beale Street. Best line of the night: the late great Jack Taylor (of the group ’68 Comeback, no relation to Scott) asks me where I’m from. When I told him Chicago, he asked me in genuine sarcastic exasperation, “Why the fuck did you come to Memphis??!!”

    Because, Jack, this is where it all started. Sun Records, Stax Records, Hi Records, Big Star, birthplace of Koko Taylor… there’s a magic in Memphis that its inhabitants for the most part couldn’t give a crap about. It’s like a veritable Tigris and Euphrates of music as we know it and love it.

  12. “I am very curious as to how many of the folks who visit your site have made the trek to Memphis to Sun Studios. I have. Show of hands??”

    I haven’t been and don’t want to talk about it.

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