Sam Phillips

Dublin Core


Sam Phillips


Florence, Lauderdale County, Music, Alabama Music Hall of Fame


Sam Phillips (1923-2003)

Samuel Cornelius Phillips was born January 5, 1923 in Florence, Alabama. He was the youngest of eight children born to Charles Tucker Phillips and Madge Ella Phillips. He was born into a middle-class farming family, but the family lost the farm during the Great Depression. His love of music was evident early on; he was active in his high school band, playing several different instruments, and eventually becoming the conductor. Sam dropped out of school just before graduation to support his mother and deaf aunt after his father died. He married Rebecca Burns in 1942; the couple had two sons, Knox and Jerry. He took an extension course in audio engineering from Alabama Polytechnic Institute (present-day Auburn University), but his passion for music remained his focus. From 1942 to 1949, Sam worked as radio engineer and host for several different stations including the following: WMSG in Decatur, Alabama; WLAY in Nashville, Tennessee where he became known as host of “Afternoon Tea Dance;” and WREC in Memphis, Tennessee. This work allowed Sam to acquire up many skills including transferring recordings from vinyl to acetate tapes and prerecording shows for radio hosts. In 1950 Phillips opened the Memphis Recording Service on Union Avenue in Memphis, Tennessee in order to meet the need of local musicians who had to travel to either Nashville, New Orleans, or Chicago to record. Early on, Phillips raised most of his business by offering anyone who walked in the chance to “cut” a record for a few dollars. He also recorded private events such as weddings. Eventually, Phillips started his own record label, Phillips Records. His first record, “Boogie in the Park,” by Joe Hill Louis, attracted the attention of B.B. King, Chester Arthur Burnett (Howlin’ Wolf), and Ike Turner, each of which went on to record his first record with Phillips Records. Phillips’s first hit record, “Rocket 88,” by Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats reached the top of the rhythm and blues charts in 1951. In 1952, Philips renamed the label Sun Records. Sun Record’s first single was Johnny London’s “Drivin’ Show” released in March 1952. A year later, Elvis Presley recorded two songs at Sun Records as a gift to his mother. In 1954, Elvis returned and made a record of ten songs, including “That’s Alright (Mama).” Phillips signed Presley to a contract and booked him to play shows across the country. In need of money, Phillips sold the contract to RCA for $35,000, a decision he later regretted. However, the money allowed him to expand Sun Records and offer recording deals to Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Roy Orbison. Around this time, Phillips separated from his wife and began a relationship with Sally Wilbourn which lasted until his death. The studio did well, expanded, and included more diverse material. Phillips bought radio stations and real estate and invested in the Holiday Inn chain of hotels. He sold Sun Records in 1969 but stayed active in the radio business. He died of respiratory failure August 1, 2003. Phillips has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1986), the Alabama Music Hall of Fame (1987), the Country Music Hall of Fame (2001), and the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. The original site of Sun Records is a National Historic Landmark, and each January a Sam Phillips Music Celebration is hosted in Florence, Alabama.


Joy Caitlin Monroe, University of North Alabama


Bolton, Jonathan W. “Sam Phillips.” Encyclopedia of Alabama (August 2013).


Alabama Cultural Resource Survey