In the late 1950s, countless country boys arrived at a small Memphis, Tennessee, studio, hoping for a chance at the fame just one man — Sam Phillips — had proven he could deliver. Meanwhile, Phillips, who made Elvis Presley a star and then sold his contract, was on the hunt for more musical talent.
Baton Rouge resident Barbara Barnes Sims was there with a unique, up-close view of the revolution in American culture and music taking place at Sun Records. Working in sales, publicity and promotion for Phillips, she wrote liner notes and brochures for Phillips’ stable of artists — including Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Charlie Rich — and came to know many of them.
Sims, a retired LSU English professor, spoke on Saturday to the Baton Rouge Genealogical and Historical Society about her 2014 book, “The Next Elvis: Searching for Stardom at Sun Records.”
A native of Corinth, a small town in northeast Mississippi, Sims went to Memphis looking for work after graduating from the University of Alabama with a journalism degree. She applied and was turned down for a night job with United Press, but the Memphis bureau chief told her Phillips needed help with publicity and sales.
Sims was 24 when Phillips hired her. At the time, Sun Records employed five other people: Phillips’ brother Jud, two engineers and two secretaries. Sims worked there from 1957 until 1960, when she left to teach at LSU — initially in Alexandria and three years later at the main campus in Baton Rouge.
Sims had an unusual role for a woman in the 1950s, she said. But Phillips valued her journalism background, telling her, “I can tell you just a hint of what I want, and you can come up with exactly the right thing every time.” In addition to writing album liner notes, she even responded to Lewis’ mail before he had a fan club.
Phillips was charming yet dangerously energetic at times, consumed by the quest for his next Elvis. The man who eventually would become famous as the King of Rock ’n’ Roll had moved on shortly before Sims arrived at Sun Records, although she saw him there once in his U.S. Army uniform.
Phillips wanted someone who, like Presley, could combine different musical influences and make hit records, Sims said. Music historians have since labeled the Sun style as rockabilly — a fusion of hillbilly tunes from Appalachia and the music that African-Americans sang in the Mississippi Delta.
Presley, who first visited Sun in 1953 claiming he simply wanted to record a song to give his mother, and many other Sun artists came from obscure backgrounds, but Phillips had a knack for developing their talents and turning them into stars. The Sun building itself was not fancy, but it was perpetually surrounded by Cadillacs of the artists whose musical careers were born there, Sims said.
Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes,” which Phillips recorded in 1955, was the first No. 1 hit to make three charts: “hillbilly,” pop and “race music,” more commonly known now as country, pop and R&B. To celebrate, Phillips bought Perkins a Cadillac, then charged him out of his royalties, Sims said.
She remembered Perkins as a talented songwriter and guitarist but said he was a little too “countrified” and didn’t have the same personal magnetism to reach the kind of popularity Presley attained.
Sims said she’s come to appreciate Perkins more over the years. But her favorite Sun artist was Rich, a singer and pianist who drew inspiration from jazz before becoming known as the “Silver Fox” of country music.
Not only was he “one of the best-looking men I ever saw in my life,” Sims said, but “there was no temperament about him.”
Roy Orbison had a sweet personality, too, Sims said. She didn’t have a car and once had to ask Orbison for a ride in what he called his “Ooby Dooby car,” named for his 1956 Sun hit. She complimented him on the sleek white Cadillac.
“When I bought it, I could afford it,” Orbison told her. “Last year, I made $50,000, but the way things are going now, I’ll be lucky to make $3,000 this year.”
Those kinds of ups and downs marked the record business, Sims said.
She said Lewis always was an impressive showman but sometimes could be an embarrassment offstage.
While showing a visitor from a New York record company around Sun’s recording studio, Sims shook her head as a sweaty, shirtless Lewis pounded on the piano in a studio littered with empty beer cans.
“That Barnes woman … I was recording the other day and she was shaking her head,” Lewis complained to Phillips later.
“She was shaking her head because she couldn’t believe any one man could have that much talent,” Phillips replied.
Phillips “always had the right word for everything,” Sims said.
“I absorbed much from Sam’s remarkable mind and unique personality, at the same time witnessing the development of some of his great discoveries — the triumph and the disasters,” Sims wrote in the preface of her book. “... I have always been grateful to Sam for having faith in me and giving me the opportunity to be a part of his story.”