Visit Sun Studio in Memphis- The Birthplace of Rock 'n Roll!

Sun Studio front OUAW

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In Memphis, Tennessee, a mile from the famous blues clubs on Beale Street and less than 8 from Elvis’s Graceland, sits an icon in music history.  To this day, Sun Studio in Memphis remains one of the most famous & successful music studios in history.  Radio DJ, Sam Phillips, opened his recording studio in 1950 (and Sun Records in ’52) because of his love of blues and desire to bring it to a wider audience.  Sun Studio grew to launch the careers of legends across multiple music genres and is credited with birthing rock ‘n roll, itself.  The effects of the rise of blues and rock ‘n roll has even been credited in softening race relations in a pre Civil Rights era.  For his pioneering work in music, Phillips is not only in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, but in the Rockabilly, Country, and Blues ones, too.  And what better place than Memphis, the home of Blues, Soul & Rock ‘n Roll.  Memphis became a mecca for the music industry, even before, infused with blues music in the early 1900s.  For over a century, it has been a hotbed for a mash of music genres, birthing new ones and flavoring & re-shaping old ones with that funky, soul-deep Memphis sound.  

 

Some of the 1st recordings there include early blues records by Howlin’ Wolf and a young B.B. King.  In 1951, Ike Turner’s band recorded “Rocket 88” there, widely considered to be the 1st rock ‘n roll song.  Sam Phillips considered Howlin’ Wolf his greatest musical discovery.  The one he claimed 2nd was a shy, 18 year old kid who paid $3.98 to use the studio to record a 2 song demo record for his mom.  When he came in, he was asked who he sounded like and he replied several times, “I don’t sound like nobody.”  The young Elvis Presley was hoping to be discovered, but that 1st demo record wasn’t terribly impressive.  Neither was his 2nd and neither was his 3rd, until late in the night when they were about to give up.  Elvis & the musicians started having fun and acting goofy.  His lively, rockin’ rendition of “That’s All Right (Mama)”, however, was ‘magic’ & a glimpse of the singer Elvis would become.  They recorded more, Elvis’s star began to rise and other Southern hopefuls came to the studio dreaming of being discovered & successful, too.  Among those hopefuls were Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison.  Sun Studio and those hopefuls (& more) became legends together.

 

The famed “Million Dollar Quartet” moment happened here (mentioned later, below).  Other R&B performers such as the Bobby Blue Band, Willie Nix, Rufus Thomas, Little Milton, Junior Parker, James Cotton, & Roscoe Gordon were some of the 1st to record here.  Rockabilly & Country singers Charlie Feathers, Ray Harris, Warren Smith & Charlie Rich were early recorders.  Later, came U2 (Rattle & Hum), Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, Robert Plant, Def Leppard, John Mellencamp, Chris Isaak, Bonnie Raitt, Beck, and Ringo Starr.  The list of big names, new and old, goes on and on.  Countless legendary singers still flock to pay homage, here.  Bob Dylan came in and kissed the floor.  In 2003, it was designated a National Historic Landmark.  The studio was sold in 1969 and spent time as various shops, before becoming a recording studio, again, in 1985 (& tourist spot in ’87).  For its re-opening, record producers assembled Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins to record the LP Class of 55: Memphis Rock & Roll Homecoming.  Elvis had passed a decade before.

Sun Studio band
U2's drum set from Rattle and Hum. Ringo Starr sat here and played.

Tour Highlights

Sun Studio Museum- You’ll start your tour in a small room with display case exhibits on the history of Sun and its stars.  Some highlights include:

  • Early vinyl records and vintage collector memorabilia of Sun Studio stars.
  • Instruments they used used in the, now famous, recordings, including BB King’s guitar and Elvis’s amp, cowhide guitar case & floral etched guitar
  • Photos and clothes they wore, including a 1954 jacket worn by Elvis
  • Elvis’s high school diploma, yearbook, and Social Security card. 
  • A wood chair autographed & played in by BB King in 1993 
  • Antique music equipment, amps, radios, players and recording gear- many used in the Sun Studio recordings.
  • A replica of the 1st radio DJ booth to play Elvis’s 1st released song, future hit, “That’s All Right (Mama)”.  The DJ played it repeatedly on his hit radio show and gave it a heavy push. 
  • Next-  The front office desk and lobby of the secretary/ assistant that spoke with Elvis when he came to record as a teen.  The secretary continued to bug Sam Phillips to give Elvis a chance and record him (twice), again.  He wasn’t impressed with Elvis’s slow ballad voice. 
Studio Tour & Recording Control Room-

Much in the room is original, the flooring, lights, acoustic ceiling tiles.  The tiles tilt in a series of waves, hand-placed by Phillips, himself, for great acoustics and flow of sound waves.  Autographed records line the walls with photos of the stars who made them.  They still use some of the antique instruments and some period recording machines.  Sun Studio is still an active recording studio, so the instruments are out and still rock in the evenings.  The tour guides are well versed and passionate about the studio’s history.  They’ve talked to some of the stars, heard 1st-hand accounts, and they re-tell those great stories of incredible moments that happened in this room.  They show you the little tricks Sam Phillips would dream up to create his trademark sounds.  The room is alive and when they play samples of the recordings that happened in here, with the great acoustics, deep surrounding sound & history of Sun Studio, you’ll wish it could go on all day.  It’s a place you want to hang out, the history & significance oozes out of the walls.  It’s a thrill you can only get standing in that same room.  The 4 main highlights that you’ll want a picture of are:

 

  1. The Elvis ‘X’–  They’ll point out the spot where Phillips placed Elvis and other singers, with their back to the control room, facing the band, so they’d be focused and not distracted or nervous.  Elvis stood here when he recorded his 1st hit and others.  You can stand there, too.  Two more ‘X’s mark the spot where Elvis’s musicians played.  Artists still sing on the Elvis ‘X’.  This is the exact spot that Bob Dylan bowed down on the floor to kiss.  John Mellencamp praised it for the great results he got in his recording due to great acoustics & amazing history.   
  2. U2 drums- After U2 recorded their Rattle & Hum tracks here, they left behind the vintage drum set.  Ringo Starr tried them out during a visit here in the ’90s.  The track recorder they used for those songs is displayed on the wall in the Record Shop.  
  3. The Million Dollar Quartet spot, piano & pic.  Vinyl records on the wall are autographed by the stars.  The Million Dollar Quartet moment is music history legend.  Carl Perkins was here to record.  The studio was using an unknown piano player, Jerry Lee Lewis.  Elvis stopped in and Phillips called in Johnny Cash.  The boys played & sang for 4 hours, not realizing that luckily, Phillips recorded it.  The photo hit the newspaper the next day and dubbed the amazing group the Million Dollar Quartet.  It’s one of the most famous photos in rock ‘n roll history, taken right in this room, at the spot where Elvis playing this piano.  You can sit where the magic happened.
  4. Pose for a picture with the only surviving microphone from the early Sun Studio recordings.  They have had women lick the 70 year old microphone because a young Elvis once held & crooned into it.    
Million Dollar Quartet piano

The Million Dollar Quartet piano, photo & spot where Elvis played for a bit and the 3 sang over his shoulder.

Sun Studio in Memphis, Today

Sun Studio is still alive and rockin’, today.  They host a tv show on PBS titled “Sun Studio Sessionsthat airs in limited areas.  In the early years, it started as a walk-in recording business, which is how Elvis started.  But, today, to record at the famous studio, you have to submit sample recordings to the studio engineer and they hand-pick the talent that is allowed to record there.  Recordings start at $200 an hour for a 5 hour block.  Many of those talented musicians have their Sun Studio sessions available to watch on Youtube.  The record label, Sun Records, is now separate & located in Nashville, recording gospel, blues, hillbilly, country, boogie, and western swing.

 

CMT had 1 season of a scripted series called Sun Records in 2017 that is still available with some providers. In September 2018, Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones and Jerry Lee Lewis stopped in with movie producers at Sun Studio.  They are rumored to be researching the location for a planned biopic movie about Sam Phillips & Sun Studio, starring Leonardo Di Caprio.  It is based on the biography “Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll” by leading music historian, Peter Guralnick.  He wrote the “definitive”, award-winning 2 volume biography on Elvis in the 90s, “Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley” and “Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley”. 

Elvis 'X' Sun Studio

The Elvis ‘X’ where the magic began and continued.  Bob Dylan bowed down to kiss this spot on the floor.  

What the Wheats think of Sun Studio in Memphis:

Our family loves music, but you don’t have to be a super fan of any particular genre to appreciate the significance of this place.  It’s music royalty.  If you’re in Memphis, this is a gem, don’t miss this place.  There is so much to do and see in Memphis.  It’s a city with roots and soul as deep as its music.  Less than 2 miles away is the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated.  Give it at least a couple of days to fully appreciate the city.  They have good food, plenty of live music, a unique vibe, and much to visit.  Nashville isn’t the only king of music in Tennessee!  Sun Studio in Memphis birthed the king!

 

The microphone.  I love Elvis, Cash, Tom Petty and the rest, but, no, we didn’t lick it!  Elvis ♥ with this same mic behind us.

Good the Know:

 

  • Free parking behind Sun Studio
  • Free Shuttle (tips requested) once an hour to/from the Rock ‘n’ Soul museum on Beale street.  See site for current schedules.
  • The Sun Studio Cafe & Record/ Gift Shop has coffee, pop, light snacks such as chips, crackers, milkshakes, & floats.  The cafe has a hip, rock ‘n roll vibe with vintage vinyl records, photos, posters, & newspaper clippings of the Sun Studio stars
  • On the wall is the restored sign for Crown Electric where Elvis used to drive a truck before he rose to fame
  • Kids will like the bathroom in the Cafe.  The toilet lid looks like a guitar body.  
  • The Tour is $14 for adults, $12 for students and free to kids ages 5-11.  Under 5 are not allowed on the tour.  We did a parent swap and one of us waited with the twins and took the next tour.  
  • Tours begin at the bottom half of every hour from 10:30 – 5:30.  7 days a week, except holidays.  The studio & shop is open 10a- 6:15p. 
  • Buy tickets in the Gift shop, the day of your tour.
  • Sun Studio takes about 1 – 1 1/2 hours.
  • The guided tour takes 40-50 minutes.  Arrive early to buy tickets.  Space is limited, so go early on weekends.
  • $2 Discount for Students, Military, and AAA
  • You can purchase a prepaid voucher online to be exchanged for a ticket upon arrival, but it does not guarantee you a spot on a specific tour.  Vouchers take at least 2 weeks to be received in the mail. I recommend just buying at the shop.

Sun Studio

706 Union Ave, Memphis

 

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For more information:

Rollingstone.com–  on Sun Studio

Rollingstone.com–  on a possible upcoming movie    

latimes.com–  on Sam Phillips biography

Milliondollarquartetlive.com–  the Broadway show

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Once Upon a Wheat

Terri & Bill Wheat

Hey, there! I’m Terri & my husband Bill and I have 4 kids (2 boys & twin girls + a pup!) and we’ve been traveling since our kids were little. At this mid point in my journey, I’m trying to shove as much as I can into this precious gift of life and squeeze all the joy and growth and learning I can out of it. Making memories that matter, building a life of joy & meaning, actively pursuing my greatest potential. I have a zest for life, for learning, for growth & I want to give you the resources & inspiration to have better vacations and get more from your life!

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Visit Sun Studio in Memphis- The Birthplace of Rock ‘n Roll!