We tried coming here the day before and were told that every tour that day was sold out…every single tour! Wow. So, Christine and I came back first thing the next morning and managed to score tickets for the 9:40am tour. I know…early.
But, hey, early or not, there was no way we were gonna miss out on a visit to Sun Records Recording Studio, home away from home to many of music’s most iconic figures and quite literally the birthplace of Rock ‘n’ Rock.
Our rockabilly tour guide put it best when she said: “It’s been written that if music was a religion, then Memphis would be Jerusalem, and Sun Studio would be it’s most sacred shrine.” And man, was she right. Being here was truly a religious experience for us both.
Even before an 18 year-old Elvis stepped through the front door to record a couple of songs for his Momma’s birthday, pioneering producer/Sun Records founder Sam Phillips was making music history at Sun with blues artists like Howling Wolf, Rufus Thomas, B.B. King and Ike Turner’s former band, Jackie Brenston And His Delta Cats, who recorded the first true rock ‘n’ roll song, “Rocket 88″here in March of 1951.
Originally known as the Memphis Recording Service — a place where anyone who paid their $3.25 could make a record — Phillips turned the tiny building on the corner into a world-class recording studio that is still in operation today with acts like REM, U2, Paul Simon and Beck lining up to record on the hallowed ground where Elvis Presley first stepped behind a microphone to record his seminal rock ‘n’ roll hit, “That’s All Right (Mama)”.
Aside from Elvis’ brief stay at the label (Phillips sold Presley’s contract to RCA in the fall of 1955 to settle an unrelated lawsuit that had nearly bankrupted the company) Sun Records was also home to legends like Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and Carl Perkins.
Legend has it that when Elvis (his star already well on the rise) stopped by Sun to visit Phillips one December day in 1956, he heard Perkins recording in the studio and decided to join him in an impromptu jam session. When Jerry Lee Lewis joined the pair, Phillips immediately called Johnny Cash at home and told him to hurry down to the studio, where the foursome joked around on tape and recorded together for the rest of the afternoon.
Labeled by the media-savvy Phillips as the Million Dollar Quartet, this one time gathering of the greats was immortalized in the now famous photograph shown behind my head in the picture below.
The tour (a steal at $10 per person) begins upstairs in a small room above the studio that is full of super cool stuff that, sadly, does not photograph well sans flash (they have a pretty strict no-flash-photography rule, upstairs at least).
But the loot up there is first rate — they have some of Elvis’ suits, dozens of original records and promo posters from various Sun artists and a treasure trove of instruments — the coolest thing is that everything the tour guide tells you is punctuated with the actual recordings she is talking about. And the music just chills you, baby. Seriously, the goosebump factor was off the charts.
Moving downstairs, you stop just outside the recording studio at the old front office. Here they have meticulously preserved the desk of Sam Phillip’s secretary, Marion Keisker. The first person to hear Elvis’ voice on tape, Keisker (pictured below with Elvis and Phillips) did the actual recording the day Elvis, the “White kid who sings Black” walked in off the street to make a record for Momma.
Pretty cool, huh? Just wait…it gets even better.
Stepping inside the studio, the first thing you see is a small “X” marked on the floor with tape. This folks, is the exact spot where Elvis Presley stood to record “That’s All Right (Mama)” in 1954. Whoa!
If you had told me the day before that a worn old piece of black tape would give me the chills, I would not have believed you. But it did. Big time! Hallowed ground indeed.
And then, the true highlight of the tour…just beyond the tape is the actual microphone Elvis used to record. And not only can you pose with it — which, as you can see we both eagerly did — but you can actually TOUCH it too.
I thought Christine was gonna faint. Seriously, she is kind of a fainter.
All in all, the tour was spectacular. And after fighting off the crowds (there were already two packed tour buses there at 9:00am!) to buy some Sun gear, we somehow snagged a table at the original Sun Cafe — which is little more than a lunch counter and two small booths nestled inside the store — where we shared a coffee and a fantastic chocolate malt for breakfast.
Surely, Elvis would approve…