August 22, 2015 started cloudy in Memphis, Tennessee. As I left my hotel downtown on Union Avenue and made my way to Overton Square, a light drizzle got more intense. By 11:00 a.m., the rain began to fall so loudly that Susan Marshall, a fine singer onstage with her band at Lafayette’s Music Room, mentioned it between songs. She humorously made reference to the volume of the rain hitting the building and an inaccurate TV weather forecast. It was good to be inside listening to music and enjoying lunch.
By about 1:00 p.m., the rain began to subside and I left Lafayette’s and headed back toward Union Avenue. Not all the way downtown but to 706, the address of the little building where history was made in the 1950s. Not just music history. History, period. The sun began to shine as I made my way down Union and I couldn’t help but compare the brightness now covering Memphis to the way Sam Phillips illuminated the world with music at his Sun Records Studio. As it happened after Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, things got brighter when Sun Records got going.
(Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and on and on), Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King and more recently U2 and Dale Watson recorded at the studio. While tours are offered during the day, the building is still a working studio at night.
A new addition to the building is the recreation of Dewey Phillips’ broadcast booth. Phillips, not related to Sam, was the first person to play an Elvis Presley record on the radio. From the WHBQ AM station in the Chisca Hotel on Main Street, That’s All Right, was played by Dewey one night in 1954.
Then, on the same night during the same show, it was played sixteen more times because of the listeners’ response. When it was announced that the hotel building, long vacant by 2015, would be turned in to condos, Sun Studio curators wisely and carefully moved the turntable, microphone and every bit of Dewey Phillips’ studio to Sun and meticulously reconstructed it. Viewing it provides another breathtaking element in visiting the little studio.
Back home in Nashville five days later, I received a call from my friend Charlie Monk, host of Willie’s Roadhouse on Sirius XM and the man widely regarded as “Mayor of Music Row.” “I’m going to the preview of the new Sam Phillips exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame tonight,” Charlie said. “Would you like to go with me?” Three hours later, I joined Charlie for a memorable night that included words from Jerry Phillips, Sam’s son, and music from Sonny Burgess, the Sun Records artist whose hits included Red Headed Woman. A stellar celebration for the opening of the exhibit, titled “Flyin’ Saucers Rock & Roll: The Cosmic Genius of Sam Phillips,” after a Sun hit by Billy Lee Riley.
I had met Sonny Burgess in 2001 when I played the Rockabilly Festival in Jackson, Tennessee. To see him now, in his eighties and still rocking, was inspirational. He brought the house down with Red Headed Woman leading a band that included former Johnny Cash bass player Dave Roe. What a night.
It never dawned on me just a few days before as I stood in the building where Mr. Burgess recorded Red Headed Woman that I would see him sing it the very same week. Who knows, maybe I’ll record at the Sun Studio myself one day. Writing that sentence just made it a goal for me instead of a random thought. I suppose that’s all right (Mama).
Text and photos copyright 2015 by Les Kerr.