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Musical Space

Musical Space: Sun Studio


Memphis in 1950 was the logical time and place for a musical sound to be born. Here was the biggest city on a trade route between the blues players of the Mississippi delta and the country musicians of Appalachia right at the introduction of amplification and the 45 single. With impeccable timing, a radio DJ named Sam Phillips opened a recording studio then and there to capture that sound. Sun Studio was the only one around, and he recorded everyone - pro and amateur, black and white. He first recorded Howlin’ Wolf, Ike Turner, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, too many others to list. One reason his records sounded so good was that the technology was primitive - no splicing or overdubs were available. Everything you hear is the raw, intense sound of a band striving to get it perfect in one complete take. Sun Studio was the defining sound of the U.S. post-World War II.

Sun Studio is still a relevant part of our musical space. It’s a museum now; but after it closes every day, Sun continues as a working studio for any musician wanting to use that famous sound, and just like in the beginning, recording is done live and fast. Bands like U2 and Def Leppard have booked time there when they felt the need for street cred. Most interesting to me is a new generation that appreciates the old way of doing things. Sean Rowe is a case in point. He recorded the song “Gas Station Rose” just this year at Sun.

(Music: Sean Rowe, “Gas Station Rose,” New Lore (2017), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QEm3R3IT2ww&list=PLgb8jJ5xUSPGRd4KA8_cBBWTNNP8WdJjZ”)

You can tell it was recorded quickly, But it’s the minor flaws, like the uneven and slightly out-of tune guitar playing, that make the song so real and beautiful to me.

Rocket 88:

Howlin’ Wolf, “How Many More Years?” Moanin’ in the Moonlight
Recorded by Sam Phillips Memphis Recording Service 1951.

Elvis Presley, “That’s All Right,” 1954

Emily Barker, Sweet Kind of Blue, 2017
She’s from Australia, but lots of Memphis vibe; listen to the slapback echo

Margo Price, “Hands of Time,” Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, 2016
Third Man Records, Recorded in 3 Days, Pawned her wedding ring to make the record