There’s no need to park in downtown Memphis and walk ten city blocks to your destination. We know that now! Looking back, I can’t remember why we did this on our second-last day in the city. It wasn’t the only time we paid for parking when a free spot was available at our destination. Tourists, eh?
I thought I knew a lot about what happened at Sun Studio but, like many fans of rock and roll history, I only knew the highlights.
Founder Sam Phillips was a former radio station engineer and a visionary who escaped the pop music he loathed to follow his heart into a new genre of sounds that he hadn’t invented yet: rock and roll. He nearly closed up his little operation a bunch of times because it was difficult to make money. He turned down Elvis the first time he heard him. Our tour guide, Daniel, brought to life the image of an 18-year-old Elvis, walking through those doors with nothing but raw talent and the belief that he didn’t have to be a factory worker for the rest of his life.
Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis became Sam’s session players. Johnny Cash was his most successful songwriter. And Elvis was the malleable young singer he would mold into a heartthrob. One night when they all ended up at the studio together, someone was wise enough to alert the media. They were dubbed The Million Dollar Quartet. A recording of the jam session is available and a successful play is based on the night.
Sam didn’t have extra money to put into frills. He had a standard set-up – Xs taped on the tiled floor still mark the spots – where he would place the stand-up bass player, the guitarist and the vocalist.
It’s a bucket-list studio for many musicians. They want to perform and record in the hallowed space that housed so many greats. It continues as a working studio at night while accommodating tourists through the day. Daniel played some music that had been recorded the night before by someone whose name was familiar but I’ve already forgotten. U2 recorded part of the Rattle and Hum record there. Sun produces some legendary music but, frankly, it’s not much to look at.
Many of the original acoustic tiles and much of the original floor remain the way they were in the 50s.
We listened to outtakes and early recordings from some of the legends. The coffee shop next door, where musicians and artists take their breaks, is now also a souvenir shop. It’s amazing to think that this place was boarded up for a quarter century, and then discovered mostly intact.
There are two essential parts of the story that I haven’t shared yet. First, is the influence of a woman. Sam’s assistant was his long-time friend, Marion Keisker. She kept the place running and it was on her advice that he named the studio Sun and operated it more like a business, for tax reasons. It was Marion who dubbed an extra copy of Elvis’ first $4 recording for Sam to listen to, and pestered him until he gave “the kid” another chance. Without Marion, there was no Sun Studio. The other ingredient was radio.
Dewey Phillips (no relation to Sam) was the hottest DJ in Memphis on WHBQ, a fast-talking hillbilly host of the show Red, Hot and Blue. When he first played “That’s Alright Mama” by Elvis Presley, the phones lit up and stayed that way all night. Dewey played the song 11 times on that one show and Elvis’ career was born.
The original radio studio was recreated in the Sun building. The equipment is archaic but both Derek and I could sit in that chair and operate it all. We used that same technology at small stations early in our careers. There’s even a smashed record on the floor, because Dewey made a habit of pulling songs he hated off the air by dragging the needle across the grooves, and breaking the record with dramatic flair. We listened to the moment when Dewey introduced the future King of Rock and Roll to the world and could barely understand a word he said. Daniel, a life-long Tennessean, admitted he could only pick up about a third of it. No matter. The song spoke for itself.
Daniel recommended the Arcade Restaurant for lunch. It’s the oldest diner in Memphis – 99 years to be exact. This was where we made our biggest parking error, but it was a nice day for a long, long walk. Our stroll took us through a bad area of town, but we kept going and it got good again. As for the Arcade, the fourth generation owners were on duty and the food was terrific. And I lucked into taking one of the best photos I’ve ever shot. If Derek ever records an album, this will be the cover!
But we were happy with what we chose to do.
Tomorrow, the famous Beale Street, why you should always ask a local where to eat (we always do!) and a side trip to Collierville where you shouldn’t make eye contact with the cashier at the army surplus store.