Sam Philips, one of the architects of popular music, died in a Memphis hospital July 30, 2003. He was 80. Best known for discovering Elvis Presley and ushering in rock ‘n’ roll, Phillips also recorded B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Ike Turner, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Charlie Rich.
I once had the pleasure of meeting the legendary Sam Phillips. Phillips gave the keynote speech at the 1988 National Association of Independent Record Distributors convention at the Monteleone Hotel. Phillips delivered a fiery oratory to the attendees, stressing that they were in the same position he was in when he started Sun Records. He told them that it was their duty to find the next Elvis’s and Howlin’ Wolf’s. Phillips got a standing ovation. I was covering the affair for Billboard magazine the next day and attended some of the workshops held at the hotel. I was getting ready to leave late in the afternoon when I spotted in the Montelone’s revolving bar Sam Phillips nursing a bourbon on the rocks. I’d heard Phillips was reclusive, unapproachable and declined taking with the press. Nevertheless, without saying a word to each other, Rounder Records’ Duncan Brown and myself walked over and introduced ourselves. Sheepishly, we said how we enjoyed his speech and what a pleasure it was to meet him. Phillips warmly pumped our hands and invited us to sit down and have a drink with him! He told Brown he knew about Rounder and what a fine label they were. He then recalled all the writers he’d encountered over the years at Billboard and how important a publication it was. We asked him a few questions, but mostly he chose the subject. On Howlin’ Wolf, he really did refer to his music as, “Where the soul of a man never dies.” On Elvis, “I still can’t believe what happened to my boy.” He simple referred to Ike Turner as a “genius.” After the bar completed it’s third or fourth rotation, Phillips announced it was pleasure to meet us but he had a dinner appointment. He shook our hands again and strolled through the lobby like he’d just had a three or four tumblers of water and not a hefty does of Kentucky’s famed sourmash. Brown and myself had to practically hold each other up to get out of the bar. I wish I’d have had the nerve to tape our conversation.