In Memoriam: Sam Phillips

July 31, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: Finally tonight, we remember a legend of the music business. Sam Phillips founded Sun Records in Memphis in 1952, recording mostly black musicians; many would become among the most famous names in rhythm and blues. In 1954, a young man by the name of Elvis Presley walked in to record a song called “That’s All Right, Mama.” The rest, as they say, is history. Here’s Phillips talking about that moment in a 2001 documentary called “Good Rockin’ Tonight: The legacy of sun records.”

SAM PHILLIPS: I knew the power of the feel between these races, and I was not interested in forming another record company and trying to compete even with the bigger independents at that time. I had no interest in that. If I couldn’t broaden the base of music and let white kids enjoy black music and black kids enjoy white music, now, who in the world thinks that’s going to happen overnight, no matter if it was God came down and he was directing the orchestra or he’d built a studio. Mr. God would not have had, I don’t believe, too much success. But I can tell you with the fervor I had and the feel that I had for this conviction that if that could be converted some way, that we could come up with something that would be absolutely, to say the least, very intriguing.

ELVIS PRESLEY (singing): That’s all right, mama that’s all right that’s all right, mama, just any way you do that’s all right that’s all right that’s all right, mama any way you do.

SCOTT MOORE, Elvis Presley’s Guitarist: He’s taking a break and deciding what to do, and the door to the control room was open. Elvis just started with nervous energy, started absolutely just jumping around and beating his guitar and singing “That’s All Right, Mama.” I had never heard the song. Billy had never heard.

SAM PHILLIPS: It was semi-off mike. He was just dancing around and I heard that both before I went through the door and then when I went in the door and just automatically slammed it, and the mikes were still open and I heard this and I heard this rhythm just by himself. I said, “Jesus! Elvis, what have you been…” you know, didn’t just. “You’ve been holding out on me all this time and have cost me this much time and look how gray my hair is getting,” or some crazy something, you know? He said, “You like that, Mr. Phillips?”

I said, “Man, that thing is a hit.” You know, you don’t make statements like that. Even you don’t know. I said, “that thing is a hit.” By that time Scotty and Bill had gotten their instruments out. And, baby, I’m telling you, we may have taken three or four cuts– I don’t recall– but I think either the first or the second one, it probably was the second one — that was it. I mean, you could have cut for nine months and not gotten more out of what that song said “I want done to me” than that.

ELIVS PRESLEY (singing): I need your loving that’s all right that’s all right now, mama any way you do…