Sun Records is the most important recording outfit in the outlaw tale of rock-and-roll, and probably in the history of American popular music as a whole.
The famous firsts hatched at 706 Union alone argue the point. The first rock-and-roll song — at least according to many critics — "Rocket 88" by Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats shook the acoustic tiles of the Memphis Recording Service on March 5, 1951.
Legend has it that Sun founder Sam Phillips could be heard uttering, ". . . if I could only find a white man with a [black] sound," in the early 1950s. Those who say that there is no single first rock-and-roll record, but many, can't deny that the first rock god materialized before our ears when Elvis Presley sneered into the Shure 55 model microphone at Sun in the summer of '54.
An event every bit as significant as the others — just less celebrated — rocked the music world from Sun Records in April 1956. By then, Carl Perkins' "Blue Suede Shoes" had reached the top five on each of the three Billboard charts — country and western, pop, and rhythm and blues — an unprecedented accomplishment and all the more improbable given the sharply segregated divisions of music at the time. Perkins' "Blue Suede Shoes" was also Sun's first million-seller.
The name of whoever launched the career of Elvis Presley would ring throughout the Valhalla of American culture. But Phillips neither started nor stopped with Elvis. The man responsible for the Sun-rise was rock-and-roll's redheaded stepfather. He launched the careers of Ike Turner, B.B. King, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and Roy Orbison in addition to Presley and Perkins. And those are just the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Famers among Sun alumni, of which Phillips himself is one.
Phillips' favorite Sun artist of them all, though, hasn't been enshrined yet. This should tell you something, both about the Hall's criteria and Phillips' bent. Chester Burnett, better known as Howlin' Wolf, possessed a sound that Phillips said originated "where the soul of a man never dies." Phillips' prophecy that the white man with the black sound would earn millions of dollars found truth in Elvis Presley. His description of Howlin' Wolf, though, indicates a vision of attaining something greater than wealth through music: immortality.
Sun Records embodies the "great man" theory of history, but Stax Records stands for the power of collectivism. You can hear it in the sanctified harmonies of Sam and Dave, the interplaying lyrics of Isaac Hayes and David Porter, and the schoolchildren chanting the chorus on the Bar-Kay's song "Soul Finger." Even the name "Stax" reflects team spirit — it's made of the first two letters of its co-founders' last names.
Siblings Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton both had safe, upwardly mobile careers in banking in the 1950s. When Elvis came along, he converted many a workaday wage earner into a dreamer, and this duo eschewed fiscal prudence to explore the record business. What began as a modest enterprise — the company recorded its first song in a shed — eventually energized the Memphis ghetto and broadcast the genius and the beauty of the city's other population to the world.
Needing to upgrade their recording facilities on a shoestring budget, Stewart and Axton decided to locate their studio where the rent was cheap: South Memphis. They hung the neon letters S-T-A-X on the marquee of an old movie theater, and beamed h-o-p-e up and down forlorn East McLemore Avenue.
And the ghetto kids came. They stomped up to the old theater in dusty Converse sneakers and told Jim and Estelle that they could sing, or play, or write. The would-be squares did an amazing thing, unduplicated elsewhere in American art or this segregated city: They threw open the doors to the ghetto kids and let them play, sing, and write. Here in a city that grapples with channeling its resources, Stax provided an elegant blueprint: Enable people to do what they're moved to do and they will achieve. Now those ghetto kids names' — Hayes, Porter, and Booker T. Jones — not to mention their music, are recognized worldwide.
Today you can hear Stax-recorded songs "Green Onions," "Soul Man," and "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay" in car commercials, movies, and elevators around the world. This conveys the cultural influence of Memphis music, and is very nice for the composers (thankfully, I'm not required to pay royalties every time "Theme From Shaft" pops into my head), but it doesn't capture the soul of the city or the value of Stax. That lives in those four letters and what they meant to the hopeless in a hard-luck town.