Just passing through the Memphis Interational Airport, I couldn’t help notice how Sam Phillips’ particular genius still flavors the town he called home for much of his life. Sam, to put it as I did in a 2002 Southern Living story, is the man who invented rock’n'roll. I made that huge claim because Sam’s Sun Studio not only recorded Ike Turner and the Jackie Brenston Five’s Rocket 88, reputed to be the first true rock song, but also because he went on to record Elvis, BB King, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, and other musical pioneers too numerous to mention here.
Sam died a few years ago, shortly after my story appeared, and for many younger people, his name now belongs to a female alt-folk-rocker. But Sam Phillips, the man, was an original, and his imprint remains. There at the airport, I visited the Sun Records Store, adjacent to the Rock’n'Soul Museum Store, both packed to the ceiling with memorabilia that wouldn’t have been possible if Sam Phillips hadn’t been a white producer willing to take a chance on black musicians in the 1950s. Down the concourse, Sun Studios Cafe beckoned, one more reminder of a red-headed entrepreneur who moved north and west from Muscle Shoals and made his fortune, and those of many others.
Sam had great stories to tell about those early days, always entertaining whether or not the details blurred with time. His voice is gone, but his sound – that sound he was always trying to capture, lives on in the hits. Hearing some playing across the speakers at the airport reminds even transitory patrons that the South produced rock, soul, blues, country, and jazz. Without Sam, Memphis – and American popular music – wouldn’t be the same.