Here Comes the Sun, part II

You know, you’re right to say that Sam Phillips sure recorded a lot of good black and white artists down in Memphis in the 1950s.

The Fantastic Four

BUT – how the heck did he do it? What happened to musicians having to go to major music industry centres like Los Angeles or New York to get a start on their recording careers? For example, didn’t Ray Charles have to leave Seattle in just 1950 for California to get going on what would eventually culminate in Jamie Foxx getting famous and Kayne West shamelessly ripping him off?

The thing of it was, there were big changes to recording technology following World War II. And when an innovator like Sam Phillips came along to seize on untapped talent that was the Memphis region’s musicians, well, the rest is history.

Unfortunately, the original innovation to technology was thanks to the efficiency of Nazi propagandists. As Jonathan Gould relates in Can’t Buy Me Love: The Beatles, Britain, and America:

Up through the end of the 1940s, commercial recording had relied upon a “direct to disc” process that was essentially a reversal of what happened when a record was played on a phonograph: the sound of the studio was converted first into electrical signals by a microphone and then into mechanical impulses by a stylus, which cut a sinuous groove in the surface of a spinning wax or acetate disc. Though this method offered audio engineers little opportunity to edit or enhance the finished product, it was quite adequate to a philosophy of recording whose main goal was to produce as accurate a record as possible of the performance taking place.

An alternative technology, involving the use of magnetized wire, had been around for decades, but it was not until World War II that German engineers (working on behalf of nazi propagandists) developed an efficient means of recording sound on reels of magnetic tape. After the war, the new technology was quickly refined, and by the early 1950s it had all but replaced the direct to disc process. (Gould, 19)   

This innovation caused a DIY revolution in the United States. Thanks to the cost reduction in recording, not to mention its newfound accessibility in terms of portability and operating, independent recording studios popped up all across America. And where there’s studios, there’s labels. Independent studios would record local styles, and then the labels would distribute the music. Gould argues that this caused a record boom. It also enabled the music from regions left largely untapped by the mainstream music industry to be heard by the public. Musicians that would have gone unnoticed by the fatcats in NYC and LA finally the opportunity to prove themselves to the likes of Sam Phillips, a man that firmly believed in getting the music, made by blacks or whites, out from the Memphis area and into the wider world. (Gould, 20)

These changes brought democracy to the music industry and added a sense of leniency in contrast to the attitude of efficiency dictating the major centres. The folks in the independent studios were given the chance to be creative and try out new ideas and styles…and let some kid named Elvis try his hand at recording a song.

Phillips on the radio


Recording made easier

And easier

Sun Record


Sun Records

original text messaging

Elvis' microphone HASN'T left the building

Sun Studio

(Pictures used with the permission of the lovely tour guide at Sun Studios, on 16 September 2010)

Explore posts in the same categories: Music from Canada's Bow-tie, One time, Back in History...

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