Sun Records founder Sam Phillips, whom many critics credit with helping to invent rock & roll by discovering Elvis Presley and helping him find his signature sound in the studio, died Wednesday at St. Francis Hospital in Memphis, his spokeswoman said. She did not specify the 80-year-old’s cause of death or how long he had been hospitalized.
Phillips, a Memphis disc jockey-turned-record producer, founded Sun in 1952 and was one of the first to record such black blues and R&B stars as B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Rufus Thomas, and Jackie Brenston, whose 1951 Chess Records single ”Rocket 88” (produced by Phillips and featuring Ike Turner on piano) is considered by some to be the first rock & roll record. He recorded white artists as well, including a truck driver named Elvis Presley who had come into the storefront studio to record a birthday disc for his mother. Phillips and Presley worked together to create a sound that fused white hillbilly country music with black R&B; the results were 1954’s single ”That’s All Right Mama” and four other records that helped start the rock revolution. With Presley on the cusp of superstardom in 1955, Phillips sold Presley’s contract to RCA for what then seemed like a huge sum ($35,000) but in retrospect seems like chump change.
After Elvis, Phillips recorded the early work of Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Roy Orbison, as well as country stars Conway Twitty and Charlie Rich. In 1969, he sold the business, but the Sun studio remains a Memphis tourist attraction and pilgrimage spot for fans of Elvis and primordial rock & roll.