Barbara Barnes Sims’ book, “The Next Elvis: Searching for Stardom at Sun Records,” is part biography, part American music history.
Sun Records owner Sam Phillips — the musical visionary who released the early recordings of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison — hired Sims in 1957 to do publicity and promotion for the Memphis record label.
By the time Sims, then 24, joined the company, the biggest star Sun would every have, Elvis Presley, had left the building at 706 Union Ave. in Memphis. Presley achieved superstardom after Phillips sold his contract to RCA Records in 1955 for $35,000.
There’d never be another Presley. Phillips and Sun carried on, recording more great artists, but Presley’s shadow inevitably loomed over the label’s artists and staff.
On Thursday, Jan. 8, the 80th anniversary of Presley’s birth, the Manship Theatre’s Hartley/Vey Studio Theatre will mark the occasion with a talk and book signing by Sims as well as performances by Gal Holiday and the Honky Tonk Revue of classics from the Sun catalog.
Local author Sims’ talk will include Presley’s various intersections with other Sun people. Orbison, for instance, traveled to Sun after he attended a Presley performance in Dallas. Perkins’ wife dispatched him to Memphis after she heard Presley on the radio. And Louisiana’s Lewis read about Presley and Phillips in a fan magazine.
Many of the artists and staff members at Sun shared strong cultural connections to Presley, including the gospel, hillbilly and rhythm-and-blues music they heard on Southern radio stations.
“I understood Elvis’ music and the music of all the Sun people, because it was the same thing that I had been exposed to,” Sims said.
Sims, 81, and Presley both grew up in Mississippi, 60 miles apart. Their high school football teams in Corinth and Tupelo respectively, were archrivals.
“Elvis was the hillbilly cat,” Sims said. “I was more the proper young lady type. He grew up in a town. I grew up out from a town on a farm, but his forbearers were farmers because it was an agricultural society. Most of the people at Sun came from within 90 miles of Memphis. We had a geographical kinship, you might say. We understood each other.”
The exceptions included Phillips, an Alabaman, Lewis from northeast Louisiana and Orbison from west Texas.
In Memphis, Sims saw Presley multiple times before she met him in at Sun Studio in June 1958, while the star was on furlough from the U.S. Army.
“In my book I tell about walking through the studio and coming within a few inches of Elvis before Sam stopped me and introduced me to Elvis,” Sims said. “His physique was perfect because he had been working out and doing physical work in the Army. He was very trim. He had his blue dress uniform on and that complemented his eyes. He truly was beautiful.
“I wanted to talk to him, but I knew that people were always chasing after him. He needed a little privacy to talk to his friend, Sam. I didn’t want to intrude on their conversation, although I really wanted to talk to him some more.”
Sims’ book, published in August by LSU Press, preceded the publication of Rick Bragg’s biography about Sun star Jerry Lee Lewis by a few months. In “The Next Elvis,” Sims gives her straightforward account of Lewis at Sun, including mention of the then 22-year-old singer’s marriage to his 13-year-old cousin. The scandal gutted Lewis’ career and damaged Sun Records.
“The Rick Bragg book does what it says it will do,” Sims said. “It tells the story as Jerry Lee understands the story of his life to be.”
As for her own book, Sims has heard from Sun Records fans in Norway, Scotland, England and Australia. The book is available from university libraries throughout the world, including Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Columbia University in New York. It’s also at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.
Sims is pleased that Sun fans are finding her book, but she also hopes a larger, not necessarily Sun-based audience, will discover it, too.
“As I think about the big rollout of the Jerry Lee Lewis-Rick Bragg book, it’s so ironic that Rick Bragg said in an interview, just imagine what it would be like to be at Sun, with all those people coming and going! I thought, ‘Well, read my book!’ You don’t have to imagine.”