Music Reviews
3:31 pm
Thu January 2, 2014

When Memphis Made A Move On Nashville's Country Monopoly

Memphis has always believed that it, too, should be a center for country music, and that Nashville, despite a history reaching back to the 1920s, shouldn't have a monopoly on it. When Sam Phillips started Sun Records in 1953, he encouraged country artists because he knew that if he was going to find the performer with "the colored sound and feel" that he was looking for, then that's where he'd be. Bear Family recently released a nine-hour compilation of Sun's country output called Sun Country Box: 1950-1959.

Carl Perkins was celebrating the entire state when he recorded "Tennessee" in late 1955 — he ends the song by reminding us that "they built the first atomic bomb in Tennessee," after all — but his musical examples are all Nashville country greats. There's another thing: Perkins' picking isn't exactly mainstream country, although Sam Phillips thought of him as a country act at first. He thought the same about another young kid who was hanging around Sun Studios in those days, and used Jerry Lee Lewis mostly as a studio musician.

Phillips' early ventures into country weren't very interesting. Early on, he'd recorded Slim Rhodes for some other labels. Rhodes had been the dominant force in Memphis' country scene for years, and had his own radio and television shows to keep him visible, although his record sales weren't disturbing anyone in Nashville.

Phillips thought he'd found something with Harmonica Frank Floyd, who certainly knew his way around black music, thanks to his extensive performing experience with medicine shows. The trouble was, Floyd was born in 1908 and wasn't exactly teen-idol material. Still, his recordings provide a priceless look into an all-but-forgotten past.

Once Elvis Presley began to make waves at Sun, all manner of young men started showing up at the studio at 706 Union. Sam Phillips had them record country, of course. This rock 'n' roll thing might just turn out to be a fad. Charlie Feathers was from Mississippi, but had family in Memphis; a bout of meningitis had left him incapable of heavy labor, so he took to music. You can hear the rockabilly trying to escape from Feathers' voice in "Runnin' Around," and it would on later sessions.

There were others: Malcolm Yelvington, with his lush baritone, was another guy who, at 35 and happily married, was no teen idol. There was Warren Smith, who was capable of rocked-up Elizabethan balladry like "Black Jack David," menacing hard country like "Red Cadillac and a Black Moustache" and, of course, his infamous "Ubangi Stomp." But he also did stuff that showed how country was changing, like "Tonight Will Be the Last Night."

On the other side of the microphone, though, Sam Phillips was in over his head as post-Elvis mania mounted. He kept a country division going at Sun Records until the end, although he stopped recording the artists at 706 Union. But now that he'd found rock 'n' roll, he was determined to record as much as possible, and that would result in some of the greatest records ever.

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Memphis is always believed that it too should be a center for country music, and that Nashville - despite a history reaching back to the 1920s - shouldn't have a monopoly on it. When Sam Phillips started Sun Records in Memphis in 1953, he encouraged country artists. The man who discovered Howlin' Wolf, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and many others, also produced a lot of great country music.

Bear Family Records has released a six CD compilation of Sun's country output, and our rock historian Ed Ward has a review.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TENNESSEE")

CARL PERKINS: (Singing) Now there are folks who like to brag about where they came from. But when they start that stuff I let 'em be. But it makes me feel like I wanna brag some, to know that I come from the state of Tennessee.

(Singing) Let's give old Tennessee credit for music, as they play it up in Nashville everyday. Let's give old Tennessee credit for music, as they play it in that old Hillbilly way.

(Singing) Mr. Red Foley came from Kentucky...

ED WARD, BYLINE: Carl Perkins was celebrated in the whole entire state when he recorded "Tennessee" in late 1955 - he ends the song by reminding us that they doubled the first atomic bomb in Tennessee, after all - but his musical examples are all Nashville country greats. There is also another thing: Perkins' picking isn't exactly mainstream country, although Sam Phillips thought of him as a country acted first.

He thought the same about another young kid who was hanging around the Sun Studios in those days, and used Jerry Lee Lewis mostly as a studio musician. Occasionally, he'd let him record by himself, as with this Jack Clement song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M FEELING SORRY")

JERRY LEE LEWIS: (Singing) I told a little lie, baby, I made you cry. That's why I'm feeling blue. I'm feeling sorry, I lied to you. I took your little heart, I tore it all apart. And now I'm missing you. I'm feeling sorry I couldn't be true. I should've known better. I should've been truer. I know that you're blue but baby, I'm bluer.

WARD: Certainly, Sam's early ventures into country weren't very interesting. Early on, he recorded Slim Rhodes for some other labels. Rhodes had been the dominant force in Memphis' country scene for years and had his own radio and television shows to keep him visible, although his record sales weren't disturbing anyone in Nashville.

Sam thought he'd found something with Harmonica Frank Floyd who certainly knew his way around black music, thanks to his extensive performing experience with medicine shows.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

HARMONICA FRANK FLOYD: Ladies and gentlemen, (unintelligible) little rabbit twisters, step right around closely. I'll tell you all about a wonderful medicine show I used to work with here this afternoon. Also, we have Dr. Donniker(ph) here with us, the great medical menagerie of the world.

WARD: The trouble was, Floyd was born in 1908 so he wasn't exactly teen idol material. His recordings are a priceless look into an all-but-forgotten past, though. Once Elvis began to make waves at Sun, all manner of young men starting showing up at the studio at 706 Union. Sam had them record country, of course. This rock n' roll thing might just turn out to be a fad.

LUCY LETHBRIDGE: Charlie Feathers was from Mississippi, but had family in Memphis and a bout of meningitis had left him incapable of heavy labor. So he took to music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

CHARLIE FEATHERS: (Singing) When the rain starts to beating all around, all I do is just sit right down. 'Cause you know I like to settle down. Woman, you know I've been running round. Just running round, hoochie-cootching around. Hey, lordy, lordy, lordy, I've done come unwound. Well, when I was young we used to run around. But since I met you I just fool around.

(Singing) But now that I'm old and getting gray, all I want to do is set around and play. Sit around and play...

WARD: You can hear the rockabilly trying to escape from Feathers' voice here, and it would on later sessions. There were others - Malcolm Yelvington with his lush baritone, another guy who at 35 and happily married, was no teen idol. There was Warren Smith who was seemingly capable of anything from rocked up Elizabethan balladry like "Black Jack David," menacing hard country like "Red Cadillac and a Black Mustache," and of course his infamous "Ubangi Stomp."

He also did stuff that showed how country was changing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

WARREN SMITH: (Singing) Tonight will be the last night that I'm crying over you. Tomorrow I'm a going out and find somebody new. You had yourself a party and now it's you that's blue so tonight will be the last night that I'm crying over you. You run around all over town. You really had your fun. You broke my heart right from the start and look at what you've gone and done. You don't care whose heart you break. Go find someone like you 'cause tonight will be the last night that I'm crying over you.

WARD: On the other side of the microphone, though, Sam Phillips was in over his head as the post-Elvis mania mounted. He kept the country division going at Sun Records until the end, although he stopped recording new artists at 706 Union. But now that he'd found rock n' roll, he was determined to record as much as possible and that would result in some of the greatest records ever.

GROSS: Our rock historian Ed Ward is back in the U.S. and now living in Austin. He reviewed "The Sun Country Box: Country Music Recorded by Sam Phillips 1950 - 1959" from Bear Family Records. Coming up, our tech contributor Alexis Madrigal explains how and why Netflix divides the tastes of its subscribers into over 76,000 micro-genres. How about emotional independent sports movies? This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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