The Kingmaker

By Alanna Nash
August 15, 2003 at 04:00 AM EDT

In 1995, budding rockabilly artist Eric Heatherly had just finished his 2 a.m. set in a Memphis club when a maniacal man in a white suit, red tie, and shades pulled him into his booth. ”I’m Sam Phillips,” he opened in his usual rambling oratory. ”Don’t let the world change what you’re doing, because they’ll try it. Just do what you believe, always stand true to it, and it’ll find a way.”

The legendary record producer, who died July 30 at 80 of complications from heart disease and emphysema, always followed his fiercely independent heart. In recording such unknowns as Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and Roy Orbison in the ’50s at his storefront Sun Records in Memphis, ”he was fighting for the common man,” says his son, songwriter and music publisher Jerry Phillips, ”untrained musicians who would otherwise never have a chance to record.”

In 1950, he opened the Memphis Recording Service (”We Record Anything-Anywhere-Anytime”), and tried to create a market for black music, but was also intent on finding an artist who could marry blues to country and cross the racial divide. Enter Presley, whose contract he sold in ’55 for $35,000 to promote Perkins’ ”Blue Suede Shoes.” He had no regrets. ”It worked out for everybody,” he said. ”We didn’t do too bad.” — Alanna Nash




1951 Records ”Rocket 88,” widely considered the first rock & roll record, with singer Jackie Brenston.

1956 Carl Perkins’ ”Blue Suede Shoes” becomes Sun Records’ first million-selling single.

1986 Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.