Sam Phillips, the man who discovered Elvis, dies

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The Independent Culture

The record producer who discovered Elvis Presley has died in his home city of Memphis, Tennessee. Sam Phillips, the founder of Sun Records, was 80 and had been in declining health for more than a year.

"When I first heard Elvis, the essence of what I heard in his voice was such that I knew there might be a number of areas that we could go into," Phillips once said of the young man from Tupelo, Mississippi, to whom he awarded a recording contract after hearing him sing for his mother.

"God only knows that we didn't know it would have the response that it would have. But I always knew that the rebellion of young people, which is as natural as breathing, would be a part of that breakthrough."

As the founder of Sun Records, Phillips was at the very centre of the birth of rock 'n' roll, and after Presley's fame grew he was able to lure the likes of Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison to his Memphis studio, located on the corner of Union and Marshall streets. Previously he had recorded a number of black musicians such as Howlin' Wolf and BB King - something that was essentially unheard of for a white person to have done at the time. "Sun gave [musicians] hope. That was the main thing," Phillips once recalled. "Without my dedication, they would not have had the opportunity. That's simply the way it was."

Phillips's son, Knox, said that his father died on Wednesday at St Francis Hospital from respiratory failure having been taken ill while watching a baseball game. "We're just trying to celebrate his life at this point. When he did [Sun Records] it was considered a national disgrace,'' he said. "Now it's considered a national treasure. I don't think any other Memphian had any more effect on the world than Sam.''

Phillips's encounter with Elvis in 1953 - when the young singer went into the studio to record two songs for his mother's birthday - led him to offer him a contract. He produced Presley's first record, released the following year, which included "That's All Right Mama", "Blue Moon of Kentucky" and another nine songs.

Phillips - once described as "the Thomas Edison of rock 'n' roll" - knew that although Elvis could sing ballads, there was a need for a sound that would challenge established singers such as Perry Como, Frankie Laine and Bing Crosby. "What there was a need for was a rhythm that had a very pronounced beat, a joyous sound and a quality that young people in particular could identify with," he said.

In an interview in 2000, he said Elvis gave young people something to call their own.

Even before he discovered Elvis he was pioneering the driving beat that would become the trademark of rock 'n' roll. The song "Rocket 88", which Phillips recorded Jackie Brenston singing, is considered by many to be the first rock recording.

Phillips's former wife, Becky, said he was inquisitive by nature. "Sam wanted to learn anything about everything and to use his knowledge to make a difference. As he grew older, he had a sincere desire to help resolve the prejudice the world reflected."

Phillips, who was born in Florence, Alabama, started his career as an announcer at radio stations in his home state and in Nashville, Tennessee, before settling in Memphis in 1945. Having sold Sun Records in 1969 he returned to his original love, operating radio stations in Memphis and in Alabama.

He stayed out of the limelight except for some appearances at Presley-related events after the singer's death. "I'll never retire," he mused. "I'm just using up somebody else's oxygen if I retire."