FLORENCE - Once again, music will fill the air as crowds gather on the streets of the city to celebrate the legacy of the one of the giants of American music: Sam Phillips.
Phillips was born in Florence in 1923, and during the course of his life, he brought together the people and elements of music that came to be known as rock ’n’ roll. He died in 2003.
“I think everyone knows his position in American music — in the forefront,” said noted author Peter Guralnick, who is finishing a biography of Phillips. “It also has to be acknowledged that he is in the forefront of American culture. He believed in the democratic dream and ideal. He had belief in the common man. Sam always said God must love the poor man because he made so many of them.”
The Sam Phillips Music Festival kicks off at 5 p.m. today on Court Street in downtown Florence. Among the artists performing will be Mac McAnally, Wet Willie, the Atlanta Rhythm Section, and Second Creek. Admission is $20.
Phillips is best known for discovering and recording Elvis Presley in the mid-1950s, giving birth to a style of music that swept the world and remains relevant today. But the artist he most cherished was Howlin’ Wolf (aka Chester Burnett), a one-of-a-kind blues singer. The roster of artists Phillips discovered and recorded is a who’s who of late 20th century music: Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, B.B. King, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins and Charlie Rich, just to name a few.
Moving to Memphis in the 1940s after working at WLAY radio in Muscle Shoals, Phillips opened Memphis Recording Service in 1950 and began cutting sides on black artists.
“Sam refused to accept the limitations of class, race and region that were placed from above,” Guralnick said. “He saw the rich cultural aspirations and achievements of poor whites and poor blacks both, people who had had it beaten into them that what they had to offer was insufficient.
“This was the heart of American culture. People recognized it, but Sam had the determination to do something about it.”
Tired of leasing his recordings to other companies, Phillips formed Sun Records and soon became one of the most powerful independent producers and label owners in the country on the strength of hits like “Great Balls of Fire,” “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Mystery Train.”
That spirit of stubborn independence and vision had a direct effect on the man responsible creating the Muscle Shoals music industry, Rick Hall.
“He was an idol of mine,” Hall said. “He was the guy I wanted to be. He was good looking, debonair, hip — I even liked the way he combed his hair.”
Hall got to know Phillips when Phillips was putting together a studio in Nashville in the early 1960s. Hall was still playing bass in the Fairlanes and writing songs that were being cut by country artists. They spent time together between gigs.
“We would sit for hours on end in his studio and drink and tell stories and talk,” Hall said. “He liked to talk and I did, too. He told me how he discovered Elvis, Jerry Lee, Johnny Cash, etc., etc. I was all ears. I wanted to learn from this man I was so infatuated by. I hung on to every word he said because I felt like it was gold.”
Nashville was already established as the music capital of the South, and even when Hall began having success with Arthur Alexander and Jimmy Hughes, he was thinking of moving to Nashville to be closer to the movers and shakers. Phillips thought that was a bad idea.
“Sam said, ‘Well, Rick, if I were you, I would not move to Nashville because I think you are a little different breed from those in Nashville. I think you are your own man, like me in a lot of ways. You want to do things your own way.’
“He advised me to stay in Muscle Shoals,” Hall said. “He said they would eat up all my soul in Nashville.”
Phillips gradually left the record business behind, selling his iconic Sun Records label and catalogue to Shelby Singleton in the late 1960s. He bought WQLT radio in Florence in the early 1970s, returning to his first love.
His family still owns WQLT, which is located on Sam Phillips Street.
Phillips was inducted into the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame and Alabama Music Hall of Fame.
Robert Palmer can be reached at 256-740-5720 or robert.palmer@TimesDaily.com.
What: Sam Phillips Music Celebration 2012
Where: Outside the SunTrust Building, corner of Alabama and Court streets, downtown Florence.
When: Gates open 5 p.m. Saturday
Cost: $20, general admission
Who: Second Creek, Atlanta Rhythm Section, Mac McAnnally, Wet Willie
Details: 256-764-8121 or www.samphillipsmusic.net