THE LABEL THAT HELPED BIRTH ROCK MUSIC IS HOME TO THE MASTER RECORDINGS OF JOHNNY CASH, JERRY LEE LEWIS, ROY ORBISON, & MORE
“If you’re not doing something different, you’re not doing anything.”
On October 1, 1949 Sam Phillips signed a lease on a storefront at 706 Union Avenue in Memphis and on that day, music would forever be changed. In 1952, Phillips’ Sun Records would establish itself as a label where artists would be treated with respect and honesty. Every artist, from Elvis Presley to Charlie Rich, was provided with a non-critical environment that invited creativity and vision. In 1969 music producer and label executive, Shelby Singleton, continued that environment after he purchased the iconic label from Phillips for an undisclosed sum. Over seven decades later, a new day and a new beginning has come as Primary Wave Music, the home of legends, announces its acquisition of the legendary recording company that changed so many lives.
“Do you know Sam Phillips?”
The multimillion-dollar deal encompasses master recordings for legendary artists including Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, The Dixie Cups, and more, all of the music publishing owned by Sun, as well as the iconic Sun Records logo and all other trademarks owned by Sun, including that of Nashville’s Sun Diner. John Singleton, President of Sun Records, will remain at the label, and he will now have additional resources provided by Primary Wave under the terms of this exciting deal. Primary Wave will help expand the Sun Records brand by providing access to their internal infrastructure which includes marketing, branding, digital strategy, licensing, synch opportunities, and film & TV production.
“We are extremely pleased to pass the Sun Records baton to Primary Wave and are confident that they will continue to reach new heights for the crown jewel of the music business created by Sam Phillips, which my brother, Shelby, and I have kept alive and relevant for the past 50 years” says John A. Singleton, President of Sun Entertainment Corporation.
“Sun Records is the original home to some of the biggest legends in music,” said Larry Mestel, CEO & Founder of Primary Wave Music. He continues, “Sam Phillips treated all of his artists with the utmost respect and provided a space of creativity unlike no other. His vision for Sun aligns perfectly with the creative ethos of Primary Wave, and I am overjoyed that this historic label is now a part of our family.”
Recordings included in the monumental deal are some of the most beloved and well-known tracks that came out of Sun Records such as “Raunchy” famously recorded by Bill Justis, the Jerry Lee Lewis classic “In the Mood,” as well his smash hits “Whole Lot of Shaking Goin’ On” and “Great Balls of Fire.” Upon the release of “Whole Lot of Shaking Goin’ On,” the song soared to #3 on Billboard’s Hot 100 and made Lewis an instant sensation. “Great Balls of Fire” was a huge success for Sun and Jerry Lee Lewis, selling a million copies within a week of it being released. The single went on to sell more than five million copies, making it one of the best-selling singles in the States. Both songs remain on Rolling Stone’s list of Greatest Songs of All Time.
Multiple Johnny Cash recordings are also a part of the acquisition including “I Walk the Line” and “Folsom Prison Blues.” Both were huge hits for Cash who once said, “If it had not been for Sam Phillips, I would still be working in the cotton field today.” Cash’s first number one in the United States was “I Walk the Line.” It remained on the charts for over 43 weeks and sold two million copies. After writing the song, a conversation with label-mate Carl Perkins, whose Platinum-certified song “Blue Suede Shoes” is also included in the acquisition, steered Cash to name the then untitled song, “I Walk the Line.” One of Johnny Cash’s signature songs, “Folsom Prison Blues,” appeared on his debut album. A live version that was recorded in front of an audience of inmates at Folsom State Prison became a number one hit in 1968.
The Sun “sound” began when Sam Phillips launched his record company in February of 1952. He named it Sun Records as a sign of his perpetual optimism: a new day and a new beginning. Sam rented a small space at 706 Union Avenue for his own all-purpose studio. The label was launched amid a growing number of independent labels. As a businessman, Phillips was patient and willing to listen to almost anyone who came in off the street to record. Memphis was a happy home to a diverse musical scene: gospel, blues, hillbilly, country, boogie, and western swing. Taking advantage of this range of talent, there were no style limitations at the label. In one form or another Sun recorded them all. Then in 1954 Sam found Elvis Presley, an artist who could perform with the excitement, unpredictability and energy of a blues artist but could reach across regional, musical and racial barriers. He helped form the beginnings of the Sun “sound” by infusing Country music with R&B. Elvis’s bright star attracted even more ground-breaking talent to the Sun galaxy. Listed among his contemporaries and label mates were Johnny Cash, the inimitable Jerry Lee Lewis, and the “Rockin’ Guitar Man”, Carl Perkins. These four soon became known as the Million Dollar Quartet. Right behind them came Roy Orbison, Charlie Rich, Bill Justis, Harold Jenkins (a.k.a. Conway Twitty) and other equally memorable musical talents. All eventually sold on Pop, R&B and Country charts and grew to international fame. In early 1969, Sam began negotiations with his good friend Shelby Singleton for a deal to purchase Sun. A successful music producer, Shelby had earned his stripes at Mercury Records. He started out in regional radio promotion and wound up as head of A&R before leaving in 1966 to start his own company. In July of 1969, Sam and Shelby finalized their deal and Sun Records was sold. Shelby would soon move the label to Nashville, joining Singleton’s already existing stable of labels – SSS International and Plantation. Shelby and his partner/brother, John A. Singleton, managed the label group until Shelby passed in 2009. John continues to guide the Sun legacy started by Sam Phillips.
Inherent in the music of Sun is a vibrancy that survives to this day. Sincere, passionate music. Music that has stood the test of time. It is music that has reached across race, age and gender boundaries. It reflects the diversity and vision of the talent that recorded on the Sun label, and indeed, American popular culture itself.
One of the most important figures in the history of rock, Sam Phillips has been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Country Music Hall of Fame, Blues Music Hall of Fame, Alabama Music Hall of Fame, R&B Foundation Hall of Fame, Rockabilly Hall of Fame, Radio Hall of Fame, and Memphis Music Hall of Fame.
In 2017, Variety Magazine named Sun Records one of the best record labels of the 20th century, with the historic recording company coming in at number 9