The label was built on 7-inch singles and released more than its fair share of classics. Niko Primus plugs in the jukebox
Let’s turn back the clock to March 1951; a track called Rocket 88 is recorded at Memphis Recording Service. Produced by a young Sam Phillips, the blues rocker is confusingly credited to Jackie Brenston, but actually performed by Ike Turner’s band. The track, released on Chess Records, is now widely considered one of the earliest recordings of what would eventually become rock ‘n’ roll. Yet more proof, if any more was really needed that Sam Phillips was so, so pivotal in the development of popular music in the 20th century.
Albums only really gained commercial traction from the mid-6os onwards, singles were always the immediate currency at the birth of rock’n’roll. The instant adrenalin-burst of excitement offered by the single could not be beaten and during their heyday Sun Records were the absolute masters of it. Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash just four Sun artists who would release incendiary singles on the label that would turn them into worldwide stars and make an indelible mark on the the cultural history of the planet.
While back in the day 45s were pretty much manufactured as disposal artefacts, the Sun singles from the 50s that survived are now worth a small fortune. The early Sun singles weren’t released in the UK, and the UK equivalents are also very collectable. Johnny Cash’s I Walk The Line/Get Rhythm (London HL 8358) will set you back £90-£100, while Elvis’ Blue Suede Shoes (HMV 7M 405) is worth in the region of £250. Nice work if you can get it.
Sonny Burgess – We Wanna Boogie
Sonny Burgess may not exactly be a familiar household name, but his name lives on through the early records he cut on the Sun Records label. In the early 1950s, Burgess played boogie woogie music in the dance halls and bars around Newport, Arkansas. Along with Kern Kennedy, Johnny Ray Hubbard, and Gerald Jackson he formed a rockabilly band called the Rocky Road Ramblers.
In 1954, following a two-year stint in the US Army, the newly-energised Sonny re-formed the band, this time around calling them the Moonlighters (after the Silver Moon Club in Newport, where they performed regularly). After receiving some wise words from Sam Phillips, the group expanded to form the Pacers.
The band’s first single for Sun Records, recorded in 1956, was titled We Wanna Boogie with Red Headed Woman on the flip-side. Both were written by Burgess and have been described as “among the most raucous, energy-filled recordings released during the first flowering of rock and roll.” Which is high praise.
Burgess’s live act with The Pacers was something else again with the singer often forming a pyramid on top of the bass player and occasionally jumping into the audience.Burgess went so far as to dye his hair a flaming shade of red to match his guitar and sport jacket. In July 2017, Burgess suffered a fall at his home. He died the following month in a Little Rock, Arkansas hospital, at the ripe old age of 88.
Johnny Cash – Ballad Of A Teenage Crush
Ballad Of A Teenage Queen was written by singer-songwriter ‘Cowboy’ Jack Clement, who also appears on Cash’s musical timeline as the man who produced Ring Of Fire.
Cash recorded the song in 1958 for his classic album Johnny Cash Sings the Songs That Made Him Famous. It hit number one on the US Country charts and number 14 on the Billboard Hot 100, making it a huge crossover success for the Man In Black. Clement also wrote Guess Things Happen That Way, which was another big hit for Cash on Sun in 1958.
The song ‘s narrative tells the story of a small town girl (‘the prettiest the townsfolk have ever seen’) who loved the boy next door. She was spotted by a movie scout and taken to Hollywood where she, naturally enough, becomes famous, leaving the boy. Eventually she sold all her fame to go back to the boy because amid it all she was unhappy without him. A heart-warming yet unlikely tale that lasts all of two minutes and 13 seconds.
During his brief stint with Mercury Records, Cash re-recorded the song in 1987 featuring guest vocals by his daughter, Rosanne Cash and The Everly Brothers. This version was first released on the 1988 duets album Water From The Wells Of Home and is one of only a handful of recordings of Cash performing with his daughter to be released. It received a nomination for Vocal Event of the Year at the 1989 Country Music Association Awards.
Billy Riley – Flyin’ Saucers Rock’n’Roll
Backed by the more earth-bound I Want You Baby, Flyin’ Saucers Rock & Roll was Billy Riley’s first hit on Sun. Backed by his band the Little Grree Men, the 45 was unleashed on an unsuspecting public on February 23, 1957. This Ray Scott cover was a blistering slice of early, no-holds-barred rockabilly, and reflected Riley’s wild, dynamic approach to live performance.
A certain Jerry Lee Lewis provided backing piano on the track, which is ironic as Billy Lee Riley’s rock’n’roll career stalled on the road to superstardom when a certain curly-haired piano player with ‘killer’ moves started to gain traction in the charts. With the success of Great Balls Of Fire Sam Phillips diverted marketing money towards Jerry Lee and away from other artists, such as Riley, who never managed to scale the heights.
Riley was the son of a sharecropper, born in Pocahontas, Arkansas, and learned to play the guitar from black farm workers. After four years in the Army, he moved to Memphis. In 1955, before being persuaded by Sam Phillips to sign for Sun, he recorded Trouble Bound, produced by Jack Clement and Slim Wallace. Phillips obtained the rights and released the track backed with Rock with Me Baby the following year.
Bob Dylan was a huge fan and offered this heartfelt tribute: He was a true original. He did it all: He played, he sang, he wrote. He would have been a bigger star but Jerry Lee came along.”
Jerry Lee Lewis – Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On
Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On was co-written by Dave ‘Curlee’ Williams and pianist and Nashville club owner Roy Hall. The track was first recorded by the indomitable Big Maybelle for Okeh Records in 1955, arranged by a young Quincy Jones, though, without question, the best-known version is the 1957 rock and roll/rockabilly version by Jerry Lee Lewis.
Lewis had been regularly performing the track as part of his stage act and recorded it at his second recording session for Sun in February 1957. Jerry Lee radically altered the original, adding a propulsive boogie piano that was complemented by J.M. Van Eaton’s energetic drumming and Roland Janes’ muted guitar. A typically ebullient Lewis later stated: “I knew it was a hit when I cut it. Sam Phillips thought it was gonna be too risqué, it couldn’t make it. If that’s risqué, well, I’m sorry.”
The song was producer by Jack Clement, who rther amusingly told Lewis when he entered the studio, “We don’t do much country around here. We’re in the rock ‘n’ roll business. You ought to go home and work up some rock & roll numbers.”
Released as Sun 267 in the US on April 15, Whole Lot Of Shakin’ Going On rocketed to No. 3 on the US Billboard pop chart and No. 1 on the Billboard R&B chart. The single also hit No. 1 on the country charts, and a sensational No. 8 in the UK. Off the back of its success, the shy, retiring Jerry Lee Lewis became an instant sensation.
Rufus Thomas Jr – Bear Cat
Within months of its release in 1952, Big Mama Thornton’s Hound Dog hit number one on the R&B charts. There were numerous answer songs to the Lieber and Stoller penned classic which were common during that decade. Among the more popular answers songs were Roy Brown’s Mr. Hound Dog’s In Town, and Jimmy Wilson’s Call Me a Hound Dog. The most successful answer song, however, was Rufus Thomas’s Bear Cat, released on Sun.
After hearing the Thornton hit on the radio Sam Phillips re-wrote the lyrics to Hound Dog. His’ new words were written from a male perspective. Without changing the melody or chord structure, Phillips called local disc jockey Rufus Thomas to see if he’d be interested in singing the song. Using an arrangement based very closely on the original record, the Rufus Thomas song was near-nigh identical. Released a few weeks after the Thornton’s Hound Dog, Bear Cat hurtled to the number three spot on the R&B charts.
The record was the label’s first national chart hit. However, a copyright infringement brought by Don Robey, the original publisher of Hound Dog, very nearly bankrupted the label.
After only one recording there, Thomas was one of the African-American artists released by Phillips, as he oriented his label more toward white audiences and signed Elvis Presley, who later recorded Thomas’s song Tiger Man.
Elvis Presley – Mystery Train
Mystery Train was written and recorded by American blues musician Junior Parker in 1953, and originally performed as a Memphis R&B tune.
The track was loosely based on other traditional songs circulating around during the day, and ended up as the inspiration for a rockabilly classic. Parker, was billed as Little Junior’s Blue Flames, and the track was produced by Sam Phillips during sessions in September and October 1953 at Sun Studios.
Familar with the song, Phillips got Elvis to record it and Presley’s version of Mystery Train was first released on August 20, 1955, as the B-side of I Forgot to Remember to Forget”. It featured Presley on vocals and rhythm guitar, Scotty Moore on lead guitar, and Bill Black on bass. Moore used a country-style lead break and also ‘borrowed’ the guitar riff from Junior Parker’s Love My Baby.
Mystery Train was the first recording to make Elvis Presley a nationally known country music star. Black once said to a visitor to his house in Memphis, as he pointed to a framed Sun Record of Mystery Train on the wall, “Now there was a record.” He was right.
In 1973, with the approval of Sam Phillips, Robbie Robertson wrote some additional lyrics for Mystery Train, and The Band recorded this version of the song for their Moondog Matinee album. It wasn’t a patch on Elvis’ version.
Roy Orbison – Ooby Dooby
Roy Orbison began singing in a rockabilly and country-and-western band in high school. Even before this time it was evident that the young lad from Texas possessed a wonderful voice, and when he was given a guitar for his sixth birthdaythere was no looking back.
While living in Odessa The Big O saw a performance by Elvis Presley, he was hugely impressed. A young Johnny Cash toured the area in 1956 and suggested that Orbison, now performing in the vocal group The Teen Kings, should approach Sam Phillips at Sun Records for a recording contract. Orbison did so and was initially rebuffed, with an indignant Phillips reportedly huffing and puffing: “Johnny Cash doesn’t run my record company!”
In the light of the rejection from Sam Phillips, the Teen Kings eventually recorded their best song Ooby Dooby in 1956 for the Odessa-based Je–Wel label. After the enterprising local record store owner Poppa Holifield played it for him over the telephone, Sam Phillips finally relented and offered the Teen Kings a contract.
Orbison was signed to Sun Records by Sam Phillips in 1956. Backed by Go! Go! Go! (Down The Line), a re-cut version of Ooby Dooby was Roy first hit single for Sun Records..” Released in the early summer of 1956, Orbison then started a summer tour package with Carl Perkins and Johnny.
The classic track was revived by Creedence Clearwater Revival on their Cosmo’s Factory album in 1970.
Carl Perkins – Blue Suede Shoes
Blue Suede Shoes is a rock ‘n’ roll landmark written and first recorded by the mighty Carl Perkins in 1955. Many consider it one of the first rockabilly records, melding elements of blues, country and pop music of the time. Perkins’ original version was a hit, but the song went stellar when another former Sun artist recorded it.
Famously Elvis Presley performed his version of the song three different times on national television. It was also recorded by Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran, among many others, but it was Presley who wrestled the song away from Perkins. It was another Sun artist who originally planted the seed for the song in the fall of 1955, when Cash told Perkins of a man he’d met when serving in the military in Germany, who had referred to his military regulation airmen’s shoes as “blue suede shoes.” Cash suggested that Perkins write a song about them. Perkins replied, “I don’t know anything about shoes. How can I write a song about shoes?”
However, when Perkins performed on December 4, 1955, he noticed a couple dancing near the stage. Between songs,
he heard a demonstrative voice say to his girlfiriend, “Uh-uh, don’t step on my suedes!” He looked down and noted that the male (yep, you guessed it) was wearing blue suede shoes and one had a scuff mark. “Good gracious, a pretty little thing like that and all he can think about is his blue suede shoes”, thought Perkins.
Johnny Cash – I Walk The Line
I Walk The Line was written and recorded in 1956 by the recently married Johnny Cash. After three releases with only moderate chart placings, it finally became Cash’s first number one hit on the US Billboard charts.
The song’s lyrics are very straight-edged and touch on marital fidelity, personal responsibility, and the avoidance of temptation and criminal behavior. When asked about the track’s meaning Cash stated, “I wrote the song backstage one night in 1956 in Gladewater, Texas. I was newly married at the time, and I suppose I was laying out my pledge of devotion.”
After the writing of the song Carl Perkins encouraged Cash to adopt I Walk the Line as the song title. Cash originally intended the song as a slow ballad, but producer Sam Phillips was keen on the speed-up arrangement, which Cash grew to appreciate as the uptempo recording met with success.
It is based upon the ‘freight train’ or ‘boom-chicka-boom’ rhythm common in many of Cash’s songs. Once while performing the song on his own TV show, Cash told the audience, with a smile, “People ask me why I always hum whenever I sing this song. It’s to get my pitch.” The humming was necessary since the song required Cash to change keys several times while singing it.
I Walk The Line was used as the title song for the 2005 biopic of Cash starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon.
Elvis Presley – That’s All Right
Originally written and performed by bluesman Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup, That’s All Right is best none as Elvis Presley’s debut recording. Presley’s version was recorded on July 5, 1954, and released exactly a fortnight later with Blue Moon Of Kentucky on the B-side.
During an uneventful recording session at Sun Studio on the evening of July 5, 1954, Presley, Scotty Moore and Bill Black were taking a break between recordings when Presley started fooling around with an up-tempo version of Crudup’s song That’s All Right, Mama. Black began joining in on his upright bass, and soon they were joined by Moore on guitar.
Producer Sam Phillips, was taken aback by this sudden upbeat atmosphere, asked the three of them to start again so he could record it.
Black’s bass and guitars from Presley and Moore provided the entire instrumentation. The recording contains no drums or additional instruments. The song was produced in the style of a live recording. Upon finishing the recording session, according to Scotty Moore, Bill Black remarked, “Get that on the radio and they’ll run us out of town.”
But on the radio it went after Sam Phillips gave copies of the acetate to local disc jockeys. Dewey Phillips played That’s All Right on his radio show. Interest in the song was so intense that Dewey reportedly played the acetate 14 times and received over 40 telephone calls.