I met up with my wonderful Bostonian friend author S.A. Hussey and her awesome daughter Sara yesterday when they interrupted their Nashville vacation to drive over to Memphis to spend the day with my daughter and me. 🙂 We had a fantastic day! Started out by watching the Peabody ducks arrive in the lobby of the hotel from their home on the roof, and march – at warp speed, I might add – to the fountain. Then we strolled Beale Street, went to Midtown to eat at Central BBQ, over to Graceland to take pics, and ended up at the Mississippi River where S.A. Hussey managed to get to the river’s edge and dip her foot in the water as an unexpected rain shower broke open over our heads.
Between Graceland and the river, though, we stopped at Sun Studio on Union Avenue and took the tour. If you’re a fan of rock music at all, this is a tour you cannot miss!
Pretty much everyone has heard that Elvis Presley got his start at Sun Studio, but there’s so much more to the studio than that. For example, did you know that the very first rock and roll record was recorded there?
The song was recorded by Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats (which included Ike Turner on piano) in March 1951 at Sun Recording Studio, as it was then known. The guys had driven up to Memphis from Mississippi with guitarist Willie Kizart’s amplifier strapped to the top of the car. During the drive, the amp fell off, and the sound cone was damaged. When they arrived at Sun, repairs to the amp were attempted by stuffing it with newspapers to hold the cone in place. When the guitar was played through it, it resulted in distortion, that fuzzy sound you hear on the record. Producer Sam Phillips liked the sound, and kept it on the recording. That distortion is what took this record from boogie-woogie blues to rock ‘n roll, and history was made.
Sam Phillips, the owner of Sun Studio, has been widely credited for “discovering” Elvis Presley, but it was actually his business partner (and the studio’s only other employee!) Marion Keisker who was responsible for Elvis’ first recording and subsequent stardom. Marion is the person who recorded The King’s very first souvenir record, which she then played for Sam Phillips … who didn’t like it! In fact, over the course of a year, Marion kept pushing Elvis on Sam, but he was never impressed. Finally, to get Marion off his back, he agreed to let Elvis come into the studio with Scotty Moore and Bill Black. Again, Sam was unimpressed by the slow, syrupy songs Elvis was singing, and after a couple of numbers he pretty much called an end to the session. As Moore and Black were packing away their instruments, Elvis let off some nervous energy with frenetic dancing around the studio while singing Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right, Mama” under his breath. Sam heard it from the control room, and yanked open the door and demanded, “Boy, why you been holding back on me when you can do that?” Moore and Black got their instruments back out of the cases, Sam went back into the control room, and they recorded the song. Scotty Moore later said that upon finishing, Bill Black remarked, “Damn. Get that on the radio and they’ll run us out of town.” Two nights later it was on the radio. Deejay Dewey Phillips played it on WHBQ, and listeners loved it so much that he ended up playing it 14 times in a row. Elvis had arrived.
I can’t tell you the thrill it was to stand in that studio, the place where Elvis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis among others had recorded their iconic records. Yes, I admit that I did tear up! 🙂 In Sun Studio’s early days, there were only five microphones in the building, and only one of them was used for the vocals. Sam Phillips, upon finding out that tours of the studio were going to be given, donated that vocal mic so people could see it and touch it instead of it being hidden away behind glass in some museum. Posing with the microphone that recorded “That’s All Right,” “Blue Suede Shoes,” “I Walk the Line” and “Great Balls of Fire” totally left me speechless.
Sun Studio, though no longer owned by the Phillips family, is still a working studio, and bands like U2, Maroon Five, Matchbox 20, Tom Petty and more have all recorded there. But the studio itself hasn’t changed. The same acoustic tiles that Sam Phillips and Marion Keisker installed still cover the walls and the ceiling, and the same tiles are still on the floor. The control room is now state of the art, of course, but the recording studio itself is like stepping back in time.
The tour of Sun Studio takes about an hour to an hour-and-a-half, and is more than worth the $12 admission. Our little tour guide, Lydia, was upbeat and enthusiastic, and made our tour great, even demonstrating on a guitar the way Johnny Cash got a snare drum sound on “I Walk the Line” when he had no drummer for the recording. And the snippets of music played during the tour just make you hunger for more. In fact, I could still be happily standing in the studio listening to those songs, from Howlin’ Wolf to Jerry Lee Lewis.
If you’re anywhere near Memphis, and you love rock ‘n roll, make sure you stop by Sun Studio. You won’t be disappointed!