5 Key Sun Studio Recordings
Sam Phillips first opened the doors of his Memphis, Tenn., record studio on Jan. 3, 1950. Known first as the Memphis Record Studio, then later re-opened as Sun Studio, the venue has come to hold a prominent place in country music recording history.
From Elvis Presley to Johnny Cash and many more in between, some of the genre's most legendary figures got their start within the unassuming walls of Sun Studio. The little building on Memphis' Union Avenue has been the scene of some unforgettable team-ups, too. To this day, the genre's A-listers make pilgrimages to Sun to record their albums.
Read on as The Boot counts down the five most unforgettable recordings to ever come out of Sun Studio.
"Bearcat"Rufus Thomas Jr.
"Bearcat" wasn't the first song to come out of Sun Studio, but it was the first to notch the studio a national hit. A comedic answer to Big Mama Thornton's "Hound Dog," "Bearcat" was recorded in 1953 by Rufus Thomas Jr.
At the time, Thomas seemed like an unlikely candidate to become one of rock 'n' roll's influential early figures. In the 1930s and 1940s, he was primarily known as a comedian who was steeped in Memphis culture and incorporated music into his acts; in fact, "Bearcat" was his breakout hit as a recording artist. He went on to record one more record for Sun, and several for Stax, where his daughters, Carla Thomas, became later became a successful recording artist.
"Bearcat" brought Sun its first taste of major fame, and simultaneously, it also brought the studio its first taste of major litigation. Phillips later lost a lawsuit for plagiarizing the tune from its original songwriters, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.
'Midwest Farmer's Daughter'Margo Price
Margo Price left her adopted hometown of Nashville for Memphis to make her 2016 debut, Midwest Farmer's Daughter. The singer and her husband, fellow artist Jeremy Ivey, saved up money for years in order to pay for the studio time, pawning some of their most prized possessions.
The result is one of the iconic modern-day albums that prove Sun's enduring legacy. A cutting, insightful project that puts a modern spin on timeless country strophes, Midwest Farmer's Daughter draws on the traditional stylings of Price's icons -- many of whom came of age in the same walls where she records the project.
The "Million Dollar Quartet" RecordingsJohnny Cash Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins + Elvis Presley
On Dec. 4, 1956, an all-star impromptu jam session led to an unforgettable series of recordings. According to Sun Records' website, it all started when Carl Perkins came into the studio to cut some new music. Perkins brought a skeleton crew of musicians with him, but Phillips -- hoping to fill out the lineup -- enlisted Jerry Lee Lewis, who was at that time still a relatively unknown pianist. Different retellings of the story offer various versions of the details, but one thing is clear: At some point, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley both found their way into the Sun Studio building, and all four men started playing together, thus creating what came to be known as the "Million Dollar Quartet."
Per Sun Records, the jam session got its name when an article about the team-up appeared the next day in the Memphis Press-Scimitar. That same article also contained a now-famous photograph of the four artists crowded around a piano with Presley on the bench.
"Hey Porter"Johnny Cash
Cash kicked off his career as a Sun Studio artist, releasing his debut single, "Hey Porter," in 1955. While the single (and its B-side, "Cry, Cry, Cry") achieved only moderate success, they were instrumental steps in establishing a signature sound that Cash developed during those early days as an artist signed to Sun.
One year prior, Cash had auditioned for Sam Phillips with hopes of signing a record contract, but Phillips turned him down. Cash sang gospel songs, and Phillips told him to "go home and sin, then come back with a song I can sell," per Sun Records.
Gospel and religion would always be a strong influence on Cash's singing style, but he developed a more sinister edge over the course of his early career. He left Sun Studio for Columbia Records, where he gained fame for songs including "Don't Take Your Guns to Town," "Man in Black" and "I Walk the Line."
"That's All Right"Elvis Presley
The 1954 recording session that produced "That's All Right," Presley's debut single and first major hit, actually wasn't the first time Presley had set foot in Sun Studio. He first checked in for studio time a year earlier, in 1953, to record a two-sided disc of "My Happiness" and "That's When Your Heartaches Begin." Presley didn't make much of an impression on Phillips at the time, although his secretary, Marion Keisker, wrote down in a note after the session that he was a "good ballad singer."
In January of 1954, Presley was back at Sun Studio, this time, to record "I'll Never Stand in Your Way" and "It Wouldn't Be the Same Without You." Once again, the session didn't lead to much.
Though things hadn't quite clicked for Phillips yet, the young Presley would soon turn out to be the key to a sound he'd been looking to find for quite a while. At the time, Phillips had a strong hunch that bringing a black musical sound to a white audience would be lucrative. Artists including BB King, Ray Charles and Muddy Waters were heating up, and down in Phillips' own hometown of Florence, Ala., black artists were just beginning to find a home at nearby FAME Studios. However, it wasn't until that fateful session on July 5, 1954, that Phillips and Presley finally struck gold with "That's All Right," a 1946 blues number originally penned by Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup.
After its release, the song sold only about 20,000 copies -- not enough to qualify as a national hit -- but stoked a career that would quickly launch both Presley and Sun into megastardom.