Monday, August 16, 2010

DJ Sam Phillips

Everyone knows Sam Phillips because everyone knows Elvis.  But the history of Elvis starts with Sam Philips, and Sam is pretty obscure in his career both pre and post Elvis. Since I'm writing about him here, you probably already guessed that some of that is in radioland. I wrote about one of his projects once before WHER-AM here.
It was not just musicians that came from radio. It was the promoters, the recoding engineers, the booking agents and every other money-grubbing, sleazy hanger-on as well. Nick Tosches mentions by name Sam Phillips as a former radio man in his book Country: the Twisted Roots of Rock n' Roll. I quote at length here:
"Sam Phillips got into the Record business by way of radio...Phillips began working as a radio announcer after dropping out of high school in 1941... In 1942 he was a disk jockey at WLAY in Muscle Shoals, and next year at WHSL in Decatur. In 1945 he worked at WLAC in Nashville, and from 1946 to 1949 he worked at WREC in Memphis where he also promoted shows at the Hotel Peabody."
It's a great book, and all of that was true so far as I can tell; except he means WMSL in Decatur. that and so much more. Phillips died quite recently , on July 30, 2003.  He sold Elvis to RCA in 1955 for the oft quoted sum of $35,000. Sam backed off recording after Elvis, tapering off to a trickle in the 1960s. In 1956 Sam opened WHER-AM the first all female-staffed radio station in America. The experimental station went on for seventeen years sticking with the format until 1971.
But that was not Sam's first foray into radio. He started out in radio. It's often cites that he dropped out of high school to announce at WLAY-AM and that much is true. What they skip is that he dropped out in his Senior year in 1941 to support his mom, deaf mute aunt and six younger siblings after his father died. He took night classes at Alabama Polytechnical Institute in Auburn, AL and studied audio engineering.

As the legend goes, Station Manger Jim Connolly the station manager at WLAY hired him based on his emceeing at a high school show.  I suspect he had a little sympathy for the kids family situation. In 1942 he moved on to 1400 WMSL-AM in Decatur, Alabama where he stayed for three years.  Then to 1510 WLAC-AM in Nashville, TN where he only stayed for one.

In June, 1946 he got a new gig at WREC-AM in Memphis.  There he hosted the program "Songs of the West" show daily at 4 PM with the on-air name 'Pardner.' He also began hosting a pop program called 'The Saturday Afternoon Tea Dance" which was broadcast live from the Skyway Room of the Peabody Hotel. There he spun records on a syndicated program carried on the CBS network. It was there he met a very hurried Art Mooney who wanted to cut a cover of the Pee Wee Hunt tune "Oh!"  Sam arranged to use the WMC-AM audios and recorded them in the stairwell for the echo. There it began, Sam began to transition out of radio and into the studio. He kept working at WREC and at the Peabody dogin sound even after he recorded Ike Turner's "Rocket 88" in 1951. He started Sun records in 1952, and released Elvis's first single in January 1954. He didn't really get back to radio (except promo) until his post-Elvis phase.