A Memorable Place

Can't help falling in love with Sun tour


By Chester R. Frazier



My two sons and I went on a driving vacation recently that took us through cities where a lot of American roots music began. We drove from Baltimore to Austin, Texas, with stops in Nashville and Memphis.

Along the way, we ate in Texarkana, Texas, in a place called Doc's that served great burgers and tortilla soup. We had barbecue at Jack's in Nashville -- known by its neon pig sign -- and shopped at the Ernest Tubb Record Store. We could see country music hopefuls playing at the nearby bars.

In Memphis, called the birthplace of rock 'n' roll, we visited Sun Studios, a place that I had always wanted to see. We happened to be in Memphis two days after the death of Sun Records' founder Sam Phillips. Phillips started out recording local blues artists he loved, like B.B. King and Howling Wolf. He went on to discover many of the pioneers of rock, who combined the blues and country music to form their own unique sound.

Johnny Cash was the longest and most consistent hit maker for Sun Records. Jerry Lee Lewis had two big hits for Phillips, one of which, "Great Balls of Fire," was recorded in the studio in one take.

The most important musician to come out of Sun Studios, though, was a 19-year-old Memphis boy who stopped by to record a birthday record for his mother. Phillips wasn't there, but his secretary was. She was so impressed she insisted that her boss listen to the recording. Phillips was underwhelmed at first. But he brought Elvis Presley back into the studio and eventually signed him to a three-year contract.

We learned all this on a terrific tour of the studio, which is still a working recording studio besides a museum. Upstairs an exhibit featured the old reel-to-reel recording equipment and a small lathe-like device used to actually cut the grooves in the old acetate records.

Because all the gear and paraphernalia are vintage, including a Presley jacket, no pictures were permitted. But downstairs we were allowed to happily snap away. The only vintage piece of equipment there is a microphone that Elvis, among others, sang into. My older son, Jackson, posed with the microphone.

For another photo, my younger son, Max, stood in front of the tour guide. His feet were covering the X-marks-the-spot where Elvis stood when he made his first recording.


The studio's modest brick building is on 706 Union St., recently renamed Sam Phillips Avenue, in a nondescript area of downtown Memphis. The guitar jutting over the door is a downsized version of the huge ones seen adorning many Hard Rock Cafes.

Chester R. Frazier lives in Baltimore.

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