While visiting Memphis, Tennessee Cindy and I heard about a recording studio that billed itself as the birthplace of RocknRoll. Really? Pretty big claim I would say. I was dubious. The place is Sun Studios. We visited the studio to see how they could possibly back up this claim.
The recording studio is in a back room next to a small cafe on a nondescript street.
Tickets in hand we entered the cafe, where the tour starts. We were immediately struck by the huge amount of music memorabilia on the walls all around us. A lot to look at and take in here. When the time for the tour arrived we were led up some stairs into a room with an old radio sound booth. Every other wall was lined with display cases. The cases were packed with music history, focused on recording technology and artists from the 1950s.
A tour guide welcomed us, and told us the story of Sun Studios. As it turned out, Sam Phillips founded the studio in January 1950 to document the local Blues and R&B music being created at the time. There was no place anywhere that this new style of music was being recorded, documented and saved. He felt it deserved to be saved. He built it and they came, musicians from far and wide, primarily from Mississippi where the movement was exploding. Artists like Howlin’ Wolf, Little Milton, and B.B. King made their early recordings here.
The studio was open to virtually anyone who could buy the time, so all types of local musicians passed through their doors.
In July 1953, a young singer stopped by to make a present for his mom. He wanted to record a couple of songs, which he did. It happened that the office manager, Marion Keisker, heard him sing, and thought he had potential, so she saved a copy of that first session. The singer was Elvis Presley. She presented the recording to Sam but he was not impressed, as his love and focus, his mission, was the blues.
Wandering into the studio from time to time Elvis did not get much attention until about a year later when the office manager convinced the owner to bring Elvis in for a session, to see what he could do. Teamed up with two back up musicians, they worked through a wide variety of musical styles, to see if anything clicked. After a number of hours of luke-warm music, Sam had not heard anything that moved him, so he decided to call it quits.
At that point Elvis started into a speeded up version of the classic “That’s All Right.” The other musicians joined in and the room came alive. Elvis belted out the song in a high energy style that blew everyone away, and suddenly they realized they had found his gift. RocknRoll was born in that instant. Emotion of blues and soul, but upbeat and energized. Pow.
After a number of successful Elvis Albums, Sam eventually sold his Elvis contract to RCA, which gave him the resources to save the studio, and continue recording blues musicians.
One of Sun Studio’s defining characteristics are its unique acoustics, as noted on the Department of Interior website, record when the Department designated Sun Studio as a National Historic Landmark:
“It was one of the first music recording studios that took acoustics into consideration in its design. The acoustical tiles on the ceiling and on the front and rear walls were installed in patterns so that the room does not have any parallel surfaces. Beginning at the front wall of the studio, there are rows of tiles that angle down from the ceiling, then sharply back up for four rows to a section that is two rows deep and lays flat on the ceiling. Four more rows angle down and sharply back-up to another section laid flat. This pattern repeats down the length of the ceiling and gives the ceiling a kind of undulating appearance. In section it is similar to the design of a jerkinhead roof, and in appearance somewhat like short, adjacent barrel vaults spanned between the building’s side walls. Tiles on the front and rear walls also project out at intervals rather than lay flat on the surface. The tile was installed in this way to prevent standing waves of sound in the studio.”
Birthplace of RocknRoll
After visiting Sun Studios the claim of being the birthplace of RocknRoll seems appropriate.
Sun Studios eventually moved down the street to a more modern facility, but in 1987 the original was reopened and is still being used to record artists. In 2003, the studio was officially recognized as a National Historic Landmark tourist attraction.
The cafe was busy the day we were there. Come early to have a cup of coffee or lunch and then enjoy the tour.
706 Union Avenue
Memphis, Tennessee 38103