When Sam Phillips sold Elvis’ contract to RCA Records, it was no mistake as many people will tell you. I had the honor and privilege of working for “The Father of Rock and Roll”, at his radio station in his hometown of Florence, Alabama.
I just got off the air after doing my Saturday afternoon air shift, walked into the sales area and saw Mr. Phillips standing there. I found out in short order that he prefers Sam over Mr. Phillips. He sat down and he told me that radio was his first love, not recording. He was a disc jockey for many years including WREC at that time located in the Hotel Peabody in downtown Memphis. In fact, the recording started as a sound effects library for radio production and grew from there. Sun Studios was originally called The Memphis Recording Service with the slogan “We Record Anything, Anywhere, Anytime.”
At the time, I was young and naive enough to think I could ask him about selling Elvis’ contract for $40,000. Sam said, “Well, first of all, it was $35,000 because Elvis got $5,000 and second that was a lot of money back in 1955 especially for an artist that had never had a hit record. He told me at the time RCA made the offer he was considering an offer from Atlantic Records for $25,000. He needed the money to promote Sun’s other artist. I knew Elvis had started on Sun but didn’t realize he never had a hit. He said he didn’t have the money to promote Elvis, “Back then the best way to sell records was by touring. With the money I made from the sell of the contract I was able to promote Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis.” He paused for a minute, went into his office and returned with an old picture, he said this group played right here in the tri-cities (Florence, Sheffield and Muscle Shoals). It was Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jay Perkins (Carl’s brother) and Jerry Lee Lewis. All but Jay were in later years called the Million Dollar Quartet.
Since he brought it up I asked about how Carl Perkins felt about Elvis recording “Blue Suede Shoes” a song Perkins wrote and had recorded himself. Sam said, “Carl was in a car wreck on the way to do a TV show (the Perry Como Show) and couldn’t tour. Elvis did a cover and had a hit with it bringing in money Carl would have never seen from royalties.” He pointed out that in hindsight people think that the Elvis version overshadowed Perkins version. The fact is, Perkins version gave Sun Records their first national hit, selling over a million copies and giving them the cash flow they needed at the time. Perkins took “Blue Suede Shoes” to the top of the country charts and #2 on the pop charts. Elvis’ version (on RCA) stalled at #20 on the pop charts. But the royalties from the Elvis version gave Carl the money he needed during his recovery.
Sam also said that he invested some of the money into Holiday Inn, over the years he made his money back many times over. He had also put on a radio station in 1955, WHER. It was the first all female radio station. Not only the air staff but management as well. A sly grin came across his face as he told me that all the girls applying for the on-air staff thought they would be the only woman on staff as was the norm at the time. It wasn’t until they came to work that they realized they were going to be a part of broadcasting history. “At the time,” Sam said, “people thought I was crazy, that it would never last, but WHER was on the air for years.”
Sam was a living legend and an innovator. He took chances by combining black and white music and was the first to cross over the country and rock charts (Elvis later added R&B and topped all three charts). He also had the first “All Girl” radio station; he was truly the first Equal Opportunity Employer. I am proud to have worked for him.