Sam Phillips was not just one of the most important producers in rock history; There's a good argument to be made that he was also one of the most important figures in 20th century American culture. As owner of Sun Records and frequent producer of discs at his own Sun Studios, he was vital to launching the careers of Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, B.B. King, Howlin' Wolf, Rufus Thomas and numerous other significant artists. Although he first made his mark (and a very deep one) with electric blues by Black performers, he will be most remembered for his rockabilly stars, particularly Elvis Presley. With singers such as Elvis, he was fusing the best of White and Black, and of R&B and C&W -- the main ingredients in the recipe that gave birth to rock & roll.
Exposed to blues, spirituals, and hillbilly music while growing up in Depression-era Alabama, Phillips worked as a radio announcer and engineer throughout the '40s. The experience would prove valuable when he decided to start a recording studio, which opened as the Memphis Recording Service in January, 1950. At first he recorded masters that he would lease to other independent labels, Chess and RPM (run by the Bihari brothers) being the most notable of these. In this capacity Phillips recorded important early sides by B.B. King and Howlin' Wolf, as well as one of the discs often cited as a candidate for the first rock & roll record, Jackie Brenston's "Rocket 88" (on which Ike Turner played). Already, Phillips' talent as a producer was evident in how he captured primal electric blues with a rawer, more Southern feel than a lot of blues being cut in bigger urban centers. Phillips briefly tried to start a label of his own, also called Phillips, in 1950, but this folded after only one release (by Joe Hill Louis). In 1952, frustrated by his business relationships with his leasees, Phillips again started a label, this time calling it Sun Records. Sun got its first national R&B hit in 1953 with Rufus Thomas' great "Bear Cat," though the triumph turned a bit sour when Phillips was successfully sued for royalties due to its extreme resemblance to the Leiber-Stoller classic "Hound Dog." For the next couple of years Sun continued to make excellent, occasionally commercially successful electric blues records, particularly on early sides by James Cotton, Little Milton, and Junior Parker, who recorded the original version of "Mystery Train" for Sun. Phillips' role in these records was important -- he had a good eye for top-notch regional talent, and he was good at funneling their unpolished talents into solid studio performances. He was also willing to record instruments, particularly electric guitars and harmonica, at high levels which gave them enormous presence. Phillips was also recording some white country musicians at the time, like Doug Poindexter and the Starlite Wranglers, who included guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black.