Sun Records left the music world all shook up. During the mid-to-late 1950s, the Memphis-based Sun released the early recordings of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and Charlie Rich.
Louisiana author Barbara Barnes Sims was there. LSU Press published her account of the record company, “The Next Elvis: Searching for Stardom at Sun Records,” in August.
Before Sims taught English at LSU for 36 years, she worked at Sun in promotion and publicity from 1957 to 1960. The label ceased to be commercially viable by the early 1960s, but by then its place in music history was set.
Sims, 80, documented the events and personalities she witnessed at Sun exactly as she remembers them.
“I didn’t intend to glorify Sun,” she said during a recent interview. “And I didn’t mean to write an exposé and not glorify Sun. I recognize the great importance of Sun, but I want people to have a sense of the day-to-day reality of it. That’s the only way I would know how to write it.”
Presley had left Sun by the time Sims joined the company. Sam Phillips, Sun’s owner, sold Presley’s contract to RCA Records in 1955 for $35,000. Nevertheless, Sims’ book contains a vivid account of her brief encounter with Presley, the star whose afterglow never left Sun.
Phillips introduced Sims to Presley at the Sun Studio in June 1958. The star was on furlough, wearing his U.S. Army uniform. She exchanged a few pleasantries with him and then excused herself, although she wanted to talk with him some more.
“Still,” Sims recalls in her book, “I fully took in what a beautiful sight to behold the real Elvis Presley was that day.”
Sims, a native of Corinth, Mississippi, was 24 when she joined Sun Records. Except for the 34-year-old Phillips, the company’s staff consisted of young people in their 20s and teens. Like Sims, most of the company’s staff, artists and musicians came from within a 90-mile radius of Memphis.
Sims accepted a job at Sun even though she knew nothing about the record business. She’d previously searched unsuccessfully for a position related to her college degree in radio and TV and her experience as a reporter and radio host. In the South in the 1950s, women weren’t usually hired for such jobs. The only interviews Sims got were for writing commercials, a field she didn’t like.
In Phillips, Sims found a boss who disdained normal procedure. He not only hired women to work at Sun, he founded a Memphis radio station, WHER, that had an almost entirely female staff.
Phillips gave Sims respect, autonomy and a position that had national responsibility. Meanwhile, during her calls to radio stations coast to coast, she never encountered a female disc jockey or program director.
Nor did she encounter a female TV dance show host. In another example of male exclusivity, apparently all of the reporters and critics at Billboard, Cashbox and Music Reporter were men.
“Sam was a visionary,” Sims said. “He was so far ahead of his time.”
Sims never heard Phillips say so while she worked for him, but in interviews he gave years later he recalled the derision he experienced in the racially segregated South after he recorded black blues artists in the early 1950s.
“Sam was for the outsider,” Sims said. “He worked with blacks and poor whites. He said Elvis Presley looked as oppressed as any black person he ever saw. Blacks and poor whites in Southern society were ignored. Sam wanted the music of both groups to not be ignored. He thought their music had a vitality that commercial music didn’t have.”
Sims’ book — published several months before the upcoming Phillips biography by Peter Guralnick (“Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley”) — offers great insight into the dynamic center of the Sun universe.
“I’m sure Sam didn’t get up in the morning and look in the mirror and say, ‘I’m the father of rock ’n’ roll,’ ” she said. “Writers later labeled him as such. But he certainly did want his kind of music to be heard and to be widespread.”
One incident that didn’t make Sims’ book illustrates Phillips’ fervent individualism. When she told him she wanted to join the Memphis advertising club, he objected vehemently.
“Sam said, ‘Absolutely not! That’s what’s wrong with this world! People joining together in clubs and cliques!’ ” she recalled.
Sims’ motivation to write “The Next Elvis” included her husband’s death 10 years ago. Retired from teaching and suddenly without her spouse, she needed to fashion a new life. She occupied some of her time by giving talks about Sun Records.
Three or four years into writing the book, Sims found the newsletters she’d written for Sun in her attic. They gave her memories a chronology.
“I never envisioned that I would finally get a book written and published,” she said. “It was not a dream of mine. But I received so much positive feedback when I made the talks that I thought it would be worthwhile to do a book. People are so interested in the subject.”
Sims realized that she could also chronicle the business side of Sun Records.
“I have a different perspective from the scholars who look at the artists and the music,” Sims said. “I don’t know of anybody else who has ever gotten into the nuts and bolts and the nitty-gritty of just how you market a record.”