Long-distance information: The legendary Sun Studio in Memphis, Tennessee, where Elvis cut his first record, is back in business. Richard Buskin reports
Thursday 15 October 1992
The new 706 Records label (named after the building's location at 706 Union Avenue) is devoted to the roots music on which the studio forged its reputation. Original Sun acts like Rufus Thomas and Malcolm Yelvington are joined by newcomers like blues vocalist Phoebe Lewis (daughter of Jerry Lee) in a venture which finds its initiator, Gary Hardy, following in the footsteps of Sam Phillips, Sun's founder.
Phillips opened the Memphis Recording Service in 1950, to provide black artists with a receptive environment in which to record blues and gospel music. But it was with the discovery of a 19-year-old former truck driver named Elvis Presley that he hit paydirt.
Presley stopped by Sun in June 1953 and parted with dollars 4 to record a personal disc on which he crooned 'My Happiness' and 'That's When Your Heartaches Begin'. When he returned six months later to cut another two sides, Phillips decided to invest in the kid with sideburns. The results, as Phillips recalled, were 'all I've ever looked for in my entire life'. Following a succession of singles and concert performances which caused a sensation around the South, Presley's contract with Sun was sold to RCA in November 1955 for the unprecedented fee of dollars 35,000.
The cash brought Phillips success on a scale he can scarcely have dreamt of. Sun's current head of operations, however, finds himself in a radically different position. 'Sam thought that there was a revolution at hand and he was right, but I don't think I'll see another revolution in my lifetime,' says Hardy, who spent 20 years as a musician prior to taking control of the Sun Studio in 1987. 'So I'm not looking, I'm just listening, and if something is good, I'm gonna cut it.'
During the years following Phillips' departure to a purpose-built recording complex in 1960, the building at 706 Union went through a series of metamorphoses ranging from a garage to a barber shop, before falling into a state of disrepair. A number of attempts were made to launch the site as a tourist attraction after Presley's death in 1977, but they all failed. By 1986, under the auspices of the Presley Estate, Sun was about to become part of an Italian restaurant when Hardy stepped in with the idea of once again using it as an active recording facility.
Since then the list of clients has included U2 (three tracks on the Rattle and Hum album) and Ringo Starr, and the annual number of tourists visiting the studio has risen from 3,000 to 30,000. Walking in past the neon 'Memphis Recording Service' signs and 'Sun' facia, the visitor arrives in the tiny office where Phillips' assistant Marion Keisker first encountered Elvis. Beyond this is the basic, rectangular recording area where Jerry Lee Lewis pounded piano, Carl Perkins strummed and Johnny Cash growled, and on the other side of the partition window is the control room where Sam Phillips twiddled the knobs.
Archive photos now adorn the walls, but otherwise everything appears to be as it was, 'right down to the dirty tiles on the walls', according to Malcolm Yelvington, a former Sun artist who entered the studio in 1989 for the first time in 30 years. Meeting and talking to the artists on the new 706 Records label provokes a similar feeling of time-warp. A broad cross-section of musical styles and talents are represented, but all are united by the desire to make no-nonsense live recordings with the feel of the original Sun sessions. An all-star compilation album, entitled The Sun Studio Revue, provides a taster of what the label has to offer, from blues to rockabilly, soul to country.
The musicianship and the spontaneity evident on the record raise the question of how far popular music has moved on since the Fifties. Rufus Thomas is a throwback to the old school that subscribes to the belief that a record should be just that: the capturing of a spontaneous, live performance. He describes how recent work in the Sun Studio has reflected his own recording preferences.
'All the musicians would be in position, and then as soon as we'd get the sound balanced, hey, we jivin', we drivin'] We knew where we were and so we didn't have to do things bit by bit. We'd take all of the funk and do it real, instead of taking pieces and putting them together.'
Getting to actually hear the music going out on the 706 Records label could be a problem, however, for at present the recordings are only available in Europe on import. A full-scale release was planned for the beginning of this year, but the company behind the specially formed 'Music South' label went bankrupt. It was then that Hardy decided to go it alone and form 706.
The label's most recent release is a rockabilly album entitled Dream Girl by a group of Danish teenagers calling themselves The Billys, which features guest appearances by Carl Perkins, Charlie McCoy and the original Presley backing-vocalists The Jordanaires. It has garnered sufficient attention to attract substantial orders from overseas. At the same time, Dennis Muirhead, a London-based producer-manager who is representing both the label and the Sun Studio in the UK, is attempting to secure worldwide distribution for the new product.
Gary Hardy's thoughts, meanwhile, remain firmly on artistic matters. 'We don't have any restrictions on style or content, and we don't try to change what the music is in order to make it fit a trend. This music is good today, it will be good tomorrow.'
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