Thursday, February 20

Sun Records pays tribute to label’s greats


Sun Records pays tribute to label’s greats

New CD collection shines with rock ‘n’ roll, blues and
country

By Michael Tatum

The shy young man with the unkempt hair and the well-worn work
clothes finally decides to open the door of the Memphis Recording
Service. The sign out front reads "We record anything ­
anywhere ­ anytime," but it has taken him a while to get up
his nerve to stop pacing the building’s exterior and go inside.

When he does, the receptionist takes his name and tells him to
wait his turn. A few minutes later, to pass the time, she asks him,
"Who do you sound like?"

With the modest politeness that would later be known as his
trademark, he replies, "I don’t sound like nobody."

These days, when a random stranger from off the street walks
into a record company’s office to have his music heard, usually
he’s kindly escorted back outside by a civil but firm security
guard.

But back in the early 1950s, the man who owned this particular
Tennessee recording studio, revolutionary entrepreneur Sam
Phillips, preferred listening to the man of the street rather than
the accomplished Tin Pan Alley singers and musicians in vogue at
the time.

Of course, these weren’t just ordinary mortals who wandered into
the studio at 706 Union. The young man in the above story for
example, actually ended up cutting a few moderately successful (in
terms of sales, that is) singles for Phillips’ label, Sun. The
radical recordings he made ­ among them Arthur Crudup’s
"That’s All Right," Bill Monroe’s "Blue Moon Of Kentucky" and Roy
Brown’s "Good Rockin’ Tonight" ­ merged seemingly disparate
forms of music such as blues, country, gospel into an exciting new
hybrid that would soon captivate the world.

Oh yeah, the guy’s name was Elvis Presley, and he would later be
known as the king of rock ‘n’ roll.

If the story of the Sun label stopped with Elvis, that in itself
would be enough to earn Phillips a cloud of his own in rock ‘n’
roll heaven.

But a cursory look at the artist lineup on the new three CD box
set from Rhino, "The Sun Records Collection," proves that Phillips
made discovering future legends a routine practice: Johnny Cash,
Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, B.B. King, Howlin’
Wolf, Charlie Rich. One gets the feeling that the only reason
Phillips, an unquestionable genius for recognizing raw talent,
didn’t discover the Beatles and the Stones was because they were
born on another continent.

Phillips has been called "America’s Real Uncle Sam," and it’s
not hard to see why. He gave two historically underprivileged and
disregarded groups of people ­ poor Southern whites and poor
Southern blacks ­ a chance to have their voices heard that
they otherwise might not have had. "I just thought that (they) were
the only ones who had any soul left in their music," Phillip
said.

And you can bet that Phillips got more soul out of most of his
discoveries than anyone else with whom they might have worked
afterward. Howlin’ Wolf and B.B. King, who left Phillips’s fold
after a few recordings, later found better contexts for their music
at Chicago’s Chess Records, home of Bo Diddley and Sonny Boy
Williamson. But the so-called "hillbilly cats" that made Sun a
household word created a stunning body of work that few of them
surpassed after they moved on to so-called greener pastures. Then
again, their best songs, which dominate the second and third CDs of
this set, were hard acts to follow.

You don’t get any better than the wild, unrestrained
performances Jerry Lee Lewis gives on "Great Balls Of Fire" and
"Whole Lot Of Shakin’ Going On" ­ you just don’t. Likewise,
Elvis Presley’s subsequent work for RCA ditched the tough blues of
"Mystery Train" for abysmal soundtrack music and gloppy show tunes.
Johnny Cash’s songwriting rarely reached the level of "I Walk The
Line" and "Folsom Prison Blues" after he left Sun for Columbia. Roy
Orbison, who later cluttered up his songs with strings and his
overserious tenor, never got as loose or relaxed as he did on "Ooby
Dooby" or "Claudette," and the list goes on.

If any criticisms are to be made about this set ­ a very
good one, to be sure ­ it’s that rock fans should already have
many of these songs in their record collections via other
anthologies, many of them also available on Rhino: Jerry Lee Lewis’
"Original Sun Golden Hits" (eight tracks of which are repeated
here), Johnny Cash’s "Sun Years" (five tracks) Elvis Presley’s "The
Sun Sessions" (four tracks), Carl Perkins’ "Original Sun Greatest
Hits" (seven tracks), to name a few.

Not that this is necessarily a crime. After all, leaving these
key artists out of the Sun story – a story largely their own –
would be ridiculous, but making their songs the prime focus of the
collection doesn’t make this box set as revelatory as one would
wish.

One of the things that made Rhino’s "Doo Wop Box," the
quintessential example of a well-done multi-artist box set, so
special was that it collected songs by artists who made a few great
songs (if that many) and then disappeared back into obscurity.
Thus, most of that collection spent time revealing long-forgotten
and obscure treasures that even the dedicated rock ‘n’ roll fan
might not have heard before. You can’t argue with the Marcels’
"Blue Moon," but what normal person would buy their "greatest hits"
package, if one actually existed?

That’s why the biggest surprises on "The Sun Records Collection"
come from artists who said their piece and, for whatever reason,
vanished back into the woodwork from which they came. Granted,
these songs aren’t nearly as epochal as say, "Great Balls Of Fire,"
but what they lack in power they more than make up for in charm.
The Miller Sisters sound like Andrews Sisters gone country western
on their charming "Someday You Will Pay," Charlie Feathers’
refrigerator metaphors on "Defrost Your Heart" give new meaning to
the phrase "inspired amateurism," and the various songs about
getting drunk and getting high are simply irresistible. And, a
special treat: one track by the obscure Harmonia Frank Floyd, who
most only know from the chapter Greil Marcus devotes to him in his
book "Mystery Train." Floyd’s unbelievably great "Swamp Root"
unveils this rarely heard performer’s one-of-a-kind singing style,
which recalls Sylvester the Cat with a penchant for the occasional
falsetto. Will someone get to work on a single-CD collection for
this guy?

Suffice to say, not one of these three CDs sparkle all the way
through; in some cases, some of the people who came to Sam Phillips
from off the street were simply people from off the street. No one
will mistake Little Milton for Muddy Waters, let alone Alvin Lee;
the painful, off-key harmonizing of the Five Tinos on "Sitting By
The Window" makes the Chordettes sound like the Robert Shaw
Chorale; and while Billy Emerson’s "Red Hot" is red hot, the
funk-free remake by novelty artist Billy Riley ain’t, well,
doodley-squat.

Nevertheless, "The Sun Records Collection" serves as a fine
introduction to the label’s greatness, particularly to rock fans
who come to this crucial time in rock ‘n’ roll history as a
relative beginner. It goes without saying that the remastered audio
sounds great, and noted journalist Jimmy Guterman contributes not
only a brief history of the label, but also provides a 1994
interview with Phillips himself.

"Money, fame, none of this jazz gets in my way of knowing the
greatest thing on this earth is being able to feel something!"
Phillips tells Guterman. "That’s the greatest freedom in the world.
That’s what I wanted my records to make you do." And at their best,
these songs do just that, possibly to an extent untouched and
unequaled since.

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