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"Sun' collection is a rock scorcher

A sweltering summer night and the devil's music drifts down Beale Street in Memphis. A big band disc jockey fresh off the bus from Alabama hears hillbilly rhythms and down-home blues shake straight down through his bones and come right out his shoes.

Rapture. A vision. Sam Phillips sees the light as clear as the bright sun of day.

That might not be exactly how Sun Records was born, but centuries from now, when rock 'n' roll historians talk about the birth of an art form, that's how Phillips will be remembered.

Howlin' Wolf, B.B. King, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, they all cut their teeth in that little brick building at 706 Union Ave. in Memphis, Tenn.

The Sun Records Collection ($49.98, Rhino) is a great historical text, the earliest known recordings of the genre, a veritable Dead Sea Scrolls of rock 'n' roll. The three-CD set, which comes with a 36-page booklet written in part by Sun expert Jimmy Guterman, is a must for serious rockers, old and young.

Phillips' motto was: "We record Anything _ Anywhere _ Anytime." That's all it took to coax the likes of Joe Hill Louis, a one-man blues band through the doors in August 1950. These veteran black blues men were naturally suspicious of white producers.

"Back then, a black man walked in and he saw a white man, so he wanted to play a bit of Duke Ellington and a little of Count Basie," Phillips writes. "I had to go out and say, "You know, there already is a Duke Ellington.' They wanted to make sure they weren't thrown out on their ear. . . . They wanted to please the white man behind the glass."

But Phillips listened patiently and encouraged the musicians to do their own thing. The results of these early sessions are haunting. Listen to Louis' Gotta Let You Go or Jackie Brenston's Rocket 88, and you'll get a taste of things yet to come.

Phillips had recorded a dozen artists like Sleepy John Estes and Rufus "Hound Dog" Thomas, Jr. before a skinny truck driver named Elvis Presley walked through the door to record a song for his mama's birthday.

Yet Elvis' short-lived Sun sessions are what the record label is most famous for. The cuts from '54 and '55 _ That's All Right, Good Rockin' Tonight, Baby Let's Play House and Mystery Train _ are The King's best, naked rock 'n' roll, free of the fat that would hinder his work in later years.

There also are relatively rare cuts such as Warren Smith's Red Cadillac and a Black Moustache, and some that betray the times like his vaguely politically incorrect Ubangi Stomp or Billy Riley's Flying Saucer Rock and Roll.

But listen to the three volumes in their entirety and they paint a portrait of early rock, music that's influenced everybody from U2 to the Grateful Dead.


The Sun Records Collection

Various artists (Rhino) ++++