The Trail

The Story Behind Johnny Cash and Sam Phillips’ Sun Records

7/28/2022 | By Johnny Cash Trail| Johnny Cash

The story of Johnny Cash's music career began in Memphis, Tennessee, at a recording studio owned by Sam Phillips. Discover the story of the man — and the studio — that launched Cash's career.

Sam Phillips' Sun Records: the Studio that Launched Legends

Sam Phillips was born on January 5, 1923, in Florence, Alabama. When he was 16 years old, Phillips stopped in Memphis on a road trip with his brother. He immediately fell in love with Beale Street, an energetic neighborhood where soon-to-be music legends such as B.B. King and Louis Armstrong played.

Memphis had a lasting effect on Phillips, who moved there and took a job as a disc jockey at a Memphis radio station. 

Soon after, he leased a building at 706 Union Avenue and began his Memphis Recording Service. Phillips had no stars at the time, and Sun Records got its start by letting anyone walk off the street to make a recording. If they had a few dollars, that is. The studio's motto was: "We Record Anything — Anywhere — Anytime."

Here, a young man named Elvis Presley, fresh-faced and straight out of high school, walked in to record a song for his mother. 

Phillips began recording with Ike Turner, B.B. King, and other blues artists in the early days. But it wasn’t until Elvis entered his doors that Phillips’ Sun Records really began to earn prestige.

Johnny Cash: from Air Force to Memphis

While Sam Phillips was signing music icons such as Presley, King, and Turner in the early 1950s, a young man from Kingsland, Arkansas named Johnny Cash was enlisting in the US Air Force and buying his first guitar for $5. 

While stationed in Germany, Cash watched a movie called Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison. The burgeoning singer-songwriter was inspired by the plight of the incarcerated men in the film and penned “Folsom Prison Blues.”

It wasn't the only song that Cash wrote while he was serving in the Air Force. He also wrote “Hey Porter,” “Run Softly Blue River,” and “Oh What a Dream” while stationed in Germany.

After he was discharged from the Air Force, Cash and his first wife, Vivian Liberto, settled in Memphis, Tennessee. The rest was Sun Records' history.

Sam Phillips Signs Johnny Cash at Sun Records

In the summer of 1954, after having heard Elvis Presley's breakthrough record That's All Right, Cash contacted Sun Records. Unfortunately, Cash was initially “brushed off” by Phillips… repeatedly.

Undeterred, Cash sold appliances by day and practiced with his band, the Tennessee Two, at night. He continued to push Phillips for a meeting. After convincing Phillips to give him a listen, Cash performed a few Gospel tunes for the busy record exec. 

Phillips reportedly told Cash to "go home and sin, then come back with a song I can sell."

Cash was tenacious and eventually won Phillips over with more songs delivered in his unique style, and Phillips conceded. Cash's first recordings at Sun Records, "Hey Porter" and "Cry, Cry, Cry", were released in 1955.

"Folsom Prison Blues" was Cash'’s second single, which made the Country Top 5.  "I Walk the Line" became No. 1 on the country charts, making it into the Pop Charts Top 20. 

The Million Dollar Quartet Session

In 1956, Cash was joined by fellow Sun artists Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins for an impromptu jam session in the studio. 

Local press reported the session and coined it the Million Dollar Quartet. The article was published the next day with a now-famous photo of Presley sitting at a piano, surrounded by Cash, Lewis, and Perkins. (Twenty-five years later, in 1981, the session recordings were released and the public was finally able to hear the 17 tracks of gospel music from artists.)

Cash and Phillips: Music Legends

Cash's Sun Record success continued, with "Home of the Blues," recorded in July 1957. In 1957, Cash became the first Sun artist to release a long-playing album. 

At the time, Cash became Sun Records' most consistently best-selling and prolific artist. In 1958, Cash left Sun Records and signed with Columbia Records. 

Eleven years later, Phillips sold the recording studio that launched the careers of some of the greatest artists of all time.

Both men were honored for their contributions to rock and roll and country music.

For his contributions to American music, Phillips was in the first class of inductees elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986; Cash was inducted in 1992. In 1980, Cash was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame, and in 2001, Phillips also earned the honor.

Both men died in 2003 in Tennessee.