Red Hot: A Memphis Celebration of Sun Records is a jubilant homegrown commemoration of the timeless legacy of the tiny independent label that changed the face of American music. All proceeds from the AMS Records release (the debut for the label, run by the Americana Music Society, a Memphis nonprofit organization), due May 26, 2017, will benefit St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, the Memphis facility that is one of the nation’s top pediatric care centers.
The Americana Music Society exists to foster and support the creation, performance and appreciation of Americana music in Memphis and the MidSouth.
100% of the Net Sales Proceeds of Red Hot are donated to St. Jude.
“Coffee run?” asks Amy LaVere, a hint of pleading in her voice.
LaVere lays down her doghouse bass, having just played on “Ways of a Woman in Love,” Bryan Hayes’s cover of the 1958 Johnny Cash chart-topper. LaVere is an Americana artist in her own right. But for three days in June 2016, she’s part of the house band led by Luther Dickinson of the Grammy-nominated North Mississippi Allstars. Their mission: A much deserved tribute album spotlighting Sun Records and the pioneering work of producer Sam Phillips, sponsored by Americana Music Society and Visible Music College.
Hayes’s track is the first to be recorded, and the singer hobbled in on crutches, the result of a slight, but intimate encounter with a chainsaw. LaVere, “eternally 18,” as Hayes describes her child-chanteuse voice, is about to take a solo turn on the Miller Sisters’ “Ten Cats Down,” her dog, Ila, keeping time. And knowing that Jimbo Mathus, Valerie June, Chuck Mead, Bobby Rush, Alvin Youngblood Hart, and Shawn Camp are all scheduled for sessions, LaVere needs that coffee to get fueled and fortified.
Especially as the recording alternates between both Memphis studios that Sam made famous, Sun at 706 Union Avenue, and Phillips Recording (short for the Sam C. Phillips Recording Studio), at 639 Madison Avenue. Sam built the latter in 1959 to handle what the tiny Sun no longer could.
Engineer Matt Ross-Spang is recording to tape this day, but will later dump to digital. Jerry Phillips, Sam’s son, likes to keep it pure when he can, or certainly to his father’s spirit.
“People call up all the time wanting to book the studio and bring drum machines and cut rap records,” he says of the larger facility. You can tell by his face that he doesn’t look kindly on that.
It is not an exaggeration to say that Sam Phillips changed the world in those two studios, especially in the little twenty-by-thirty-five-foot storefront of Sun Records, with its bright yellow label depicting a spindly rooster greeting the day, music notes forming a circle around SUN RECORD COMPANY and its location, “Memphis, Tennessee.”
Like Walt Whitman, Sam Phillips heard America singing. The Florence, Alabama, native grew up on a tenant farm alongside black workers before leaving Alabama for Tennessee to work in radio. What he heard on the streets of Memphis was inspiration in the untutored voices of both blacks and whites. What he hoped to find was untried and unproven talent, especially that of regional performers who had the affinity to express themselves, but never had the opportunity to record. And in opening his Memphis Recording Service in 1950, and two years later his little Sun Records, he sold hope to people who had none.
It was never Sam’s intent to create a genre, and certainly not rock and roll. But in nurturing talent, and having the genius to sense and bring out of each person something that he might not even know he had, he did just that, with both depth and dignity. He believed in individualism in the extreme. (“To the extreme!” he would say, in that half-preaching way.) And he believed, with his ferocity of focus, that the voice of the common man would ring clear in the end.
Men (and a few women), that is, who sang country, southern white and black gospel, blues, and the emerging forms of rockabilly and rock and roll: Rufus Thomas. B. B. King. Carl Perkins. Elvis Presley. Howlin’ Wolf. Charlie Rich. Joe Hill Louis. Barbara Pittman. Roy Orbison. Johnny Cash. Little Milton. Jerry Lee Lewis. Junior Parker (aka Little Junior’s Blue Flames). And that’s just for starters.
And so it is more than fitting that Sun Records now has its own tribute album, featuring artists who all have ties to the city or the neighboring states that come together to make up that poker-hot, bent-note, barbeque-fed nugget of a place, equal parts reality and mythology, celebrated in history and song.
Shawn Camp was raised in Perryville, AR., just over a hundred miles from where Charlie Rich was born in Colt, AR., to cotton farmers. In the studio now, Camp pays homage to the Silver Fox with “Lonely Weekends,” his vocal moan-y, funky, and full of disbelief that his lover broke her promise to be true. “Aw, but baby,” he sings, pounding home the hurt, “You didn’t even try!”
“Gotta put a little hillbilly in it,” he says grinning.
There are three electric guitars on this cut, Camp’s own, Luther Dickinson’s, and that of John Paul Keith, who rounds out the house band.
One of the great rockabilly signature songs is “Red Hot,” which R & B artist Billy “The Kid” Emerson wrote and recorded for Sun in 1955, basing it on a cheerleader’s chant (“Our team is red hot”). While it was never a hit for Emerson, in 1957 it scored for Billy Riley (aka Billy Lee Riley), whose high-energy rendition featured a call and response pattern on the chorus.
Call: “My gal is red hot.”
Response: “Your gal ain’t doodly squat.”
Now Chuck Mead and the young cast of the CMT’s limited series “Million Dollar Quartet” have a go at it. From the first take, Mead gets Riley’s raw, edgy vocal in the bag, and the air in the studio crackles like a snapped power line. In the control room, the white-haired Mary Lindsay Dickinson, whose sons anchor the band, and whose late husband, Jim, was one of the South’s most respected producers and musicians, jumps up and dances to Rick Steff’s boogie-woogie piano break.
John Paul Keith’s crooning vocal visits Elvis on the low notes, and Sonny James on the upward glide on “Red Cadillac and a Black Moustache,” Warren Smith’s hangdog tale of a “triflin’ baby” who steps out with “a real cool cat with eyes of blue.” “As a guy who couldn’t afford a Cadillac or grow a moustache,” J.P. jokes between takes, “I can really relate to this song.”
Throughout these sessions, what trumps all is the quality of musicianship, starting with Luther and Cody Dickinson, guitar and drums, respectively. On a cover of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Moanin’ at Midnight,” Cody propels a hypnotic train beat under his brother’s lonesome, voodoo vocal, Luther’s stinging guitar work bringing to mind what Sam Phillips said about The Wolf’s original recording: “It is the most different record I ever heard.”
Tamara Saviano, who shares producer duties with Luther, takes little credit for the project: “I’m just a facilitator. After we got Luther, I was in. I just put the right people in the room.”
Of course, that contributes to the magic and the joyous spirit of the project overall. “It’s not just a group we threw together,” Saviano adds. “They know each other in town and in the studios.”
Because of that camaraderie, the between-song banter is a running dialogue about seemingly all of popular culture. It starts with a discussion of outsized Memphis wrestler Sputnik Monroe, “Two hundred and twenty-two pounds of twisted steel and sex appeal,” as he liked to put it. A fixture of the late ‘50s, Sputnik was a bad guy in the ring, but helped defeat Jim Crow in the Bluff City.
At Sun, Valerie June, who began performing and recording at age 19, tackles another song originally recorded in 1955, Carl Perkins’ “Sure to Fall (In Love With You).” Country gospel with secular lyrics (even the Beatles performed it), the song well suits a woman who grew up living and promoting the Good News. Her full-throated delivery is a powerful witness.
Alvin Youngblood Hart, however, achieves what some people might think impossible—he wrestles “Folsom Prison Blues” away from its creator, J.R. Cash. Where the Man in Black’s rendition brims over with braggadocio–giving the listener doubt that he ever really shot a man in Reno, let alone just to watch him die–Hart sings from the viewpoint of a man who actually did it, and who’s lived every day since with wrenching regret.
Not long after Hart’s performance, Rick Steff, the versatile piano player, points to the famous “Million Dollar Quartet” photo, which was taken in this very room in December 1956. In it, Cash, Perkins, and Lewis stand around a piano, where Elvis, never a master of the instrument, holds court on the bench, his hands on the keyboard. Steff knows the back story, that Lewis envied and resented Elvis and his success: “Jerry Lee’s thinking,” ‘What are you doing at the piano, Elvis?’”
Of course, after Lewis joined the Sun roster, it was Cash and Roy Orbison and Billy Riley who felt dissed and neglected, all the while thanking Sam, who had only so much time and energy, for giving them their first opportunity.
The Killer has a fine representative here in Jimbo Mathus, best known for his work with the Squirrel Nut Zippers.
“Have you heard this guy?” Jerry Phillips asks me. “He’s further out in space than most.”
“Yeah, but he’s also the real deal,” says engineer Ross-Spang. “He was raised up in it. He’s steeped in it.”
“It” is the undefinable quality that helped a young Mathus found Johnny Vomit & the Dry Heaves, one of Mississippi’s original punk rock and experimental noise bands.
Mathus, his blond hair pulled back, his cowboy boots clomping, his beaded necklace swaying, gives Lewis’s “High School Confidential” the full craze. In the vocal booth, where he removes his vest so he can throw his whole body into it, he’s a wild man stoned on 1958, his first boogie growl evoking black leather, sock hops, drag races, and maybe even a switchblade or two.
“Step a-WAY from the microphone,” Luther teases after he’s done.
Jimbo takes a selfie before exiting the booth. “Can I hear what I did?” Then later, “Sounds great in here.”
I ask about the boots, with “Jimbo” stitched across the shaft. “Well, got to do something for the people,” he says. “Carlos made ‘em. He made my gold tooth, too. Took my footprint, and then my mouth print.” I start to ask about Carlos, but stop.
“You’ve got a million stories,” I say.
He nods. “And all of ‘em true.”
While Mathus recorded for Sam Phillips in 1983 with a group called The End, blues musician and singer Bobby Rush was around when it all went down, travelling from his home in Arkansas to meet Sam Phillips in 1952. The “King of the Chitlin Circuit” is a testament to Phillips’ original mission: To record some of the great “Negro artists of the South.”
Still performing (his “Chicken Heads” went gold in 1971), he is a vibrant 82-year-old on the day he lays down “Tough Titty” for Red Hot: A Memphis Celebration of Sun Records. And he still knows how to sell a song, particularly one on which he bemoans what his woman did with his best friend.
“She said she didn’t love him when she did it/She didn’t have nothin’ else to do,” he sings, his lowdown harmonica close by.
“That’s a tough titty, y’all. Can’t nothin’ suck it but a lion…I think about what she did to me all the time.”
“Tough Titty” is the only original song on the album. Rush calls it his tribute to “Mr. Blues,” the late Junior Parker, who died at age 39, during brain tumor surgery.
Rush records this rendition at Sun, which everyone likes to pretend hasn’t changed since Sam Phillips opened it the year he and Rush met. It’s easy to look at the three X-marks on the floor and believe that guitarist Scotty Moore stood on that very spot, despite the fact that after producer Shelby Singleton bought the Sun label in 1969, the building was sold to a plumbing company and later hosted an auto parts store before becoming a studio again.
There are no reports on how those businesses fared, but it’s clear that Sun likes music being made here again– especially when it’s a tribute to the man who started it all, with proceeds benefitting St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
“With the notes bouncing off of ‘em,” Rick Steff says, “even the walls are smiling.”