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Sam Phillips

Producer who discovered Elvis

Sam Phillips, who discovered Elvis Presley and helped usher in the rock ‘n’ roll revolution, died Wednesday in Memphis. He was 80.

Phillips died at St. Francis Hospital, spokeswoman Gwendolyn McClain said. No details were available about the cause of death or how long he had been hospitalized.

Phillips founded Sun Records in Memphis in 1952 and helped launch the career of Presley, then a young singer from Tupelo, Miss.

He produced Presley’s first record, the 1954 single that featured “That’s All Right, Mama” and “Blue Moon of Kentucky.”

“God only knows that we didn’t know it would have the response that it would have,” Phillips said in an interview in 1997.

“But I always knew that the rebellion of young people, which is as natural as breathing, would be a part of that breakthrough,” he said.

Phillips was elected to the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. Cabler A&E in 2000 ran a two-hour bio called “Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll.”

“When I first heard Elvis, the essence of what I heard in his voice was such that I knew there might be a number of areas that we could go into,” Phillips said.

Presley was good with ballads, Phillips recalled, but there was no need to challenge such established balladeers as Perry Como, Frankie Laine and Bing Crosby.

“What there was a need for was a rhythm that had a very pronounced beat, a joyous sound and a quality that young people in particular could identify with,” he said.

By 1956, when Phillips sold Presley’s contract to RCA for $35,000, the rock ‘n’ roll craze had become a cultural phenomenon and a multimillion-dollar industry.

“It all came out of that infectious beat and those young people wanting to feel good by listening to some records,” Phillips said.

Phillips began in music as a radio station engineer and later became a disc jockey. He started Sun Records so he could record both R&B singers and country performers, then called country & western or hillbilly singers.

His plan was to let artists who had no formal training play their music as they felt it, raw and full of life. The Sun motto was “We Record Anything, Anywhere, Anytime.”

In the early days, before Presley, Phillips worked mostly with black musicians, including B.B. King and Rufus Thomas.

After Presley’s success on Sun, others who recorded for the label under Phillips included Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Conway Twitty and Charlie Rich.

“We were starting from scratch together,” Phillips said in 2000.

He got out of the recording business in 1962 and sold Sun Records in 1969 to producer Shelby Singleton of Nashville. The Sun studio on Union Avenue in Memphis still stands as a tourist attraction.

In his later years, Phillips spent much of his time overseeing radio station WLVS in Memphis and others in Alabama. He stayed out of the limelight except for some appearances at Presley-related events after Presley’s death in 1977.

“I’ll never retire. I’m just using up somebody else’s oxygen if I retire,” he told the Associated Press in 2000.

Born Samuel Cornelius Phillips in Florence, Ala., Phillips worked as an announcer at radio stations in Muscle Shoals and Decatur, Ala., and Nashville before settling in Memphis in 1945. Before founding Sun Records, he was a talent scout who recommended artists and recordings to record labels such as Chess and Modern. He also worked as an announcer in Memphis.

His sons Knox and Jerry also were record producers.

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