Before Phillips set up shop at 706 Union, it had been a radiator repair shop. As I said before, he was very poorly portrayed by Dallas Roberts in the Cash biopic Walk The Line (I blame director James Mangold for that more than Roberts)
Skeptical? Look for yourself. Roberts' half-baked impression begins at 0:36 after some actual, legit history from people who know the score.
The real Phillips was no wuss. He more like a driven Southern musical evangelist, and that was pretty much the case from the start, when he started the Memphis Recording Service to record weddings, funerals and anything else that came his way before starting to the black blues musicians around Memphis, Arkansas and Mississippi.
But what the hell…let him tell you and note that edge to his delivery.
Some interesting interludes took place at the Sun studios beyond the Million Dollar Quartet session, like this impromptu debate between him and Jerry Lee Lewis, who grew up intending to preach and was booted from the Southwestern Bible Institute in Waxahatchie, Texas for boogie-ing up "My God Is Real" during a chapel service (unacceptable at the time, in those days before Christian rock). Jerry Lee's religious fervor, however, despite two marriages and the future scandal over his third marriage to his 13 year old cousin Myra Gale, hadn't dampened his beliefs. It happened during the "Great Balls of Fire" sessions. Sit back and enjoy. Jerry would have been a hell of an evangelist. The wisecracks some from Sun rocker Billy Lee Riley, also in the studio.
As it turned out, his cousin, Jimmy Swaggart, whose musical roots echoed Jerry's own, would become the evangelist. Jerry never hid his demons. Swaggart, the true hypocrite of the two, hid his until he got caught and brought down his empire to a shadow of itself.
Phillips, who became wealthy enough with Cash, Jerry Lee, Perkins and Charlie Rich to become one of the first investors in the Memphis-based Holiday Inn chain, founded by his friend Kemmons Wilson. For a time he even ran a Holiday Inn record label for them.He sold Sun Records in 1969 to Nashville record man Shelby Singleton, whose sons own it today.
The original 706 Union studio was sold in the deal and ended up used as an auto parts store. At the time Phillips had built another studio in Memphis and opened yet another one in Nashville, neither with one tenth of the mystique of 706 Union. He also owned radio stations in Memphis, including WHER, which featured an all-female on-air staff. He opened the station in the fall of 1955, around the time he sold Elvis's Sun contract to RCA for $ 40K. He later bought stations in Alabama, still owned by sons Knox and Jerry.
After Presley's death and as the Sun Records mystique grew, Phillips was interviewed more often. In general, he waxed evangelical about what he'd done. But he wasn't always at his best. Having been deservedly inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with the first group a few months earlier, he'd had more than a few too many before this embarrassing 1986 Late Night with David Letterman (NBC) appearance that even Paul Shaffer's intervention can't save.
Sam Phillips died at 80 in 2003, just months before Johnny Cash died. Cash, who had his problems and issues with Phillips over the years (mostly over money, royalties and Sam's failure to let him record the gospel album he wanted to do at Sun), delivered a long-distance eulogy to Phillips at his funeral. It's amusing, enlightening and touching at the same time.
Phillips, captured superbly in Morgan Neville's 2000 documentary Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock 'n' Roll, will be chronicled in a full-blown biography by Elvis and Sam Cooke biographer Peter Gurlanick in the not too distant future.