Memphis, TN – Before Sun rose, the sounds that originated at Memphis Recording Service at 706 Union Avenue found their way to the world via Chicago or Hollywood on Chess, Checker, or RPM records. Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats, B.B. King and His Orchestra, Rufus Thomas, Jr., and The Howlin' Wolf were laying the foundation for the Memphis sound, but nothing nailed the music to the Bluff City itself.
But starting in April, 1952, a bright yellow label, ringed with music notes, with a rooster standing on the horizon in the face of a rising sun and its outstretched rays, heralded the dawn of a new era in Memphis music. Sun Records' number 175 was the first release, featuring Drivin' Slow and Flat Tire by Johnny London. And at the bottom of every label, the two words that solidified the epicenter of the new musical revolution: Memphis, Tennessee. Over the course of the next few decades, musicians would come here in hopes that some scintilla of the alchemy that turned a truck driver into a king would spark magic in their own music.
Carl Perkins' Blue Suede Shoes was Sun's first million-seller, and made it to number 4 on the Billboard national chart. Longtime Memphis DJ and voice-over legend Jack Parnell remembers the first time he heard the song. In September, 1955, Parnell was working an after school job at his hometown radio station, WKBJ, in Milan, Tennessee. As Parnell pulled news off the teletype to prepare for an upcoming newscast, a song came over the on-air monitor that caught him by surprise. He ran to the control room to see what this mysterious sound was, and found program director Bill Haney chatting with his close friend, Perkins. Parnell asked what was playing, and Haney told him it was Perkins' new record. Perkins' classic nonchalant reply to Parnell was, "Yeah, hoss, maybe it'll make me a little cigarette money." Parnell had a front row seat to history, as he witnessed the world premiere of Blue Suede Shoes, played from the original acetate copy.
Sun Records never sent a single to the top of the Billboard Hot 100, but two Sun songs recorded in 1957 made it to number 2. Bill Justis used his talents in the background around Sun Studio, playing and arranging for others as the label's musical director. With a chance to blow his own horn on a single called Raunchy, Justis took the Sun stock to new heights. Co-written by Justis and Sid Manker, and released on the Sun subsidiary Phillips International Records, Raunchy was one of the first rock-and-roll instrumental hits. The week of December 16, 1957, the only thing keeping it from the top was Jailhouse Rock. There were actually two other cover versions of the song vying for spots on the chart that same week, by Ernie Freeman and by Billy Vaughn. A few months later, riding the top of a double-decker bus in Liverpool, England, Paul McCartney's young friend George Harrison would play this song to audition his acuity to John Lennon for a coveted spot in that world famous band, the Quarrymen. Perhaps you've heard of them.
A few weeks after Raunchy, Sun Records rose to number 2 again with Jerry Lee Lewis rocking the Otis Blackwell/Jack Hammer composition, Great Balls Of Fire. Producer Sam Phillips had to talk Lewis into even cutting the song. The persuasion of Phillips prevailed, and only Danny and the Juniors' At The Hop could keep Great Balls Of Fire from the top. A new dustup arose around this time, as Lewis married his teenage second cousin. This move put sort of a dent in his rise as a pop star, but oddly enough didn't adversely affect his sales on the country charts at all.
Lewis hit the TV in February of 1958, doing the Dick Clark show. Justis spawned a new genre of twangy rock instrumentals that enriched the fortunes of Duane Eddy and The Ventures among others, then moved on to a career in Nashville. And, as it turns out, Perkins met those English guys who played that Justis song atop that bus.