Memphis became a regional hub of recording activity due to a number of factors, not the least of which was the availability of talent. Additionally, from Clarence Saunders and Kemmons Wilson to Fred Smith and beyond, Memphis has been blessed with entrepreneurs not afraid to take a chance with a good idea. Sam Phillips was just such a visionary, and turned his idea to harvest the abundance of Mid-South musical talent via records into Memphis Recording Service and the Sun label.
And, from a practical standpoint, another source of the success of Memphis record labels could be summed up in the magic word Mr. McGuire shared with Ben Braddock in the movie The Graduate; plastics. Memphis had a place you could go and economically press up thousands of records. Buster Williams came to town from Enterprise, Mississippi, where he had been a teenage business wizard. Starting as a peanut salesman, then drug store owner, he was fascinated by the money to be made from coin-operated machines. Buster became a jukebox distributor, then opened a record distribution company in the mid 40’s. In 1949, Williams’ next endeavor was Plastic Products, the second independent record pressing plant in the nation. Located in a Quonset hut on Chelsea Avenue, Plastic Products opened just in time to satisfy the clamor of the growing market of teenagers who desired to buy the records Buster pressed. With the advent of the 45-rpm record, and the onset of rock-and-roll, Fortune Magazine pegged Plastic Products sales at six million records annually, with a profit of 2 to 3 cents each. Business was so good Billboard Magazine reported in 1956 that Williams purchased a company plane.
The departure of Elvis Presley for Army service had a direct effect on the Memphis recording scene. The breakup of his backup band led to the strengthening of two local labels, Fernwood and Hi Records.
When Elvis first came to Sun records, owner Sam Phillips teamed him up with two of the Starlight Wranglers, Scotty Moore and Bill Black. As experienced music professionals, Phillips looked to the duo to mentor the young singer and provide backing for his recording sessions. A few records later, by the time RCA bought Presley’s contract, the dynamic of the band had changed.
The big label producers expressed frustration with the backup players and preferred the picking of their studio sidemen, but Presley treasured loyalty and kept Scotty and Bill on. With Elvis gone, the guys were looking for work, and possibly for a bit of the respect they felt they were due.
Scotty Moore landed at Fernwood Records. Fernwood was established by Jack Clement and Slim Wallace in 1956, and took its name from the street where Wallace recorded in his garage. Clement did such a good job with Billy Lee Riley’s debut that when he took the tape to Sun records, Sam Phillips bought the master to release on his label, signed Riley and hired Clements.
Rockabilly and country were Fernwood’s bread and butter. Among their discoveries, guitar prodigy Travis Wammack was only 13 years old when he made his first record, “Rock And Roll Blues”. Other six-string wonders would play at Fernwood, including two who would quietly make Memphis the hit single capital of the world in the late 60’s, Reggie Young and Lincoln “Chips” Moman.
Hi Records had converted the old Royal theater into a studio at 1320 South Lauderdale. From their beginning in 1957 until Bill Black came calling, they had recorded 16 singles, and 16 of them had flopped. With the band Black assembled to back Jay B. Lloyd on the 17th release, all that was about to change. Lloyd’s “I’m So Lonely” scored well enough to get the attention of London Records, who picked up national distribution on Hi material. And in the near future, starting with a band called The Bill Black Combo, they would have quite a few Hi hits to distribute.