Sam Phillips was the proprietor of Sun Records in Memphis when an 18-year old Elvis Presley strolled in one day to use the studio’s vanity recording service. Legend (repeated in the obituary linked below) has it that he wanted to record a song as a gift for his mother; the essential Elvis biographer/historian Peter Guralnick believes it was because he wanted to hear what he sounded like.
In any event, he made an impression on Phillips or Phillips’ secretary Marion Keisker. The following year they invited him back to record as the vocalist with Scotty Moore and Bill Black. The three labored at some length to find a song they could bring to life. When Elvis finally got them to play around with “That’s Alright, Mama,” and they committed a take to record, you can tell they felt something akin to what Columbus must have felt when he stumbled on America, and they were right. The sheer joy of discovery jumps off the grooves.
Yet Elvis was not by any stretch the only artist discovered by Sam Phillips. The roster of artists discovered by Phillips itself makes out a partial history of American popular music: B.B. King, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Charlie Rich, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, and many others. The man had an incredible ear for talent.
Phillips died today at the age of 80: “Record producer Sam Phillips dead at 80.” He is survived by the music. RIP.
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