Elvis, Sun Records, And How To Change The World
We found a parking space off Union Avenue, and I got out of the car. The weather was cold and icy; for some reason, I thought Memphis would be warm in January. The neighborhood was nondescript. I was excited, and a bit bemused. I had no idea what to expect. By outward appearances, I gauged that I shouldn’t expect much.
We walked up the side of the building, and I ask my friend Tom to take my picture in front of the building’s facade. I wanted to look back at the image when I had more time. Certainly, there would be aspects of the building that would make it special. I just had to study it a bit harder.
Now inside, I buy my ticket. In front of me is a gift shop formatted as a 1950s diner. I wandered around, as my tour is scheduled 20 minutes in the future. Old vinyl records, boxed CD sets, and t-shirts. To the right is a soda fountain complete with real glass bottles of Coca-Cola. So far a store with a theme, nothing more.
Our guide gathers us like a small herd. We crowd as she motions us up the stairs to a museum of sorts. Photos, ancient recording devices, the control panel from an old radio station. She starts. She talks about Sam Phillips. How he was an engineer at a local radio station but gave it up to start a little business. She talks about Marion Keisker, Sam’s secretary, who was more of a business partner than her title would suggest. We listen to her recitation interspersed with sounds clips of early recordings. I start to feel it. I start to get it.
We move down narrow stairs and into another space. Now we are in the actual Sun Records studio. A small front office with a desk welcomes us. Then a larger room paneled with acoustic tiles and anchored by a dull beige floor. Photographs on the wall remind us of the importance of this nondescript space.
Sam Phillips had an idea. He wanted to record the music that he liked. He wanted to record the music that moved him. He was outside of the mainstream in the 1950s, a time dominated by giant corporate record companies. Sam would cut a personal record for a few dollars. He would travel out into the field to record a speech for a small fee. He needed to pay the rent. His mission was to record the blues, an entire genre almost completely ignored by the mainstream. BB King, Junior Parker, Rufus Thomas. Jackie Brenston created what is considered the first rock-and-roll record in Sam’s Sun Studio.
And then there were the singers who were able to bridge the gap to a wider and richer white audience. Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and others. They began their recording careers in that little studio. Each taking a piece of history and making it their own.
I stood on the old worn floor, I looked at the aged acoustic tiles on the walls and ceiling, I saw the “X’s” designating where the performers should stand for optimum acoustic balance. At the end of the tour our guide brought out an old Shure vocal microphone. It was one of 5 that the studio owned, and so it most certainly was used by every major performer who recorded there. “If anyone wants to take a photo with this famous mic, feel free to do so.” I was third in line.
The building was nondescript. The actual studio was small, simple, and a bit seedy. Mr. Phillips goal was to record a form of music that was under-represented. His goal was to make a living. There was nothing special about his studio or equipment. He wasn’t a prophet or a visionary. But his actions transformed music, impacted culture and likely contributed to the emerging power of teens and young adults. That power extended to the protests of the Vietnam Era. That power extends to this very day.
It is foolish to disregard the power of the few. It is foolish to think that change can only occur when money, position, or establishment are involved. It is often the opposite when it comes to change. The person with a vision or passion. The group that questions the establishment. The whistleblower who is willing to risk all to bring injustice to light.
When we feel powerless, we become powerless. Unfortunately, it is easier to feel powerless than it is to believe in yourself.
Dear reader, people told me that I was supposed to do great things. In the end, I just became a country doctor. I still feel that my story isn’t over. I feel that there is more ahead. This feeling may just be my grandiosity. Ego, to fuel me forward during this transitory part of my life. But, I do feel it. My direction remains obfuscated. I don’t think that I’m destined to change the world. I am not Mahatma Gandhi, I am not even Sam Phillips. I just know that there is more for me to do. I can still contribute to the greater world. I accept that my contribution may be small, perhaps tiny. A life that only uses resources and takes from others without contributing has little meaning. I plow forward. Right, left, right, left. One foot in front of the other I stumble forward.
Dear reader, do you have a passion? Do you see injustice around you? Are you moving the world in a more positive direction, no matter how small that movement may be? I am not a preacher, and I am not qualified to preach to you. I am not a judge, and I am not qualified to judge you. I am just an old doctor who tends to think too much. Think with me. Perhaps the answers will come not only for me but also for you.