Sun Records had an impressive beginning by distributing such blues artists as Rufus Thomas. But they also rented the studio by the hour, and one day a truck driver named Presley stopped in during his lunch hour...Photo by Rick Kobylinski.
With today’s sophisticated software, almost anyone can record music and cut their own CD, or create a digital file that can be downloaded by listeners. But let’s go back to 1952, when recording equipment was a lot more expensive. And much more scarce. A fellow could create a record label, then charge people to record their music.
In 1953, a truck driver came into the Memphis studio of Sun Records on his lunch hour and paid four whole dollars to record two songs. He later said it was a gift for his mother, but he probably wanted to be discovered. Sam Phillips, the legendary owner of Sun Records, wasn’t there at the time, so his secretary managed the recording. She was sufficiently impressed to tell Phillips about this
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Elvis fellow, but it was still months later before Phillips got him back in the studio. This time, there was no missing his talent, and his first song (“That’s All Right, Mama”) came out in 1954. Elvis had only five singles on Sun Records before moving to RCA, but the partnership was the springboard to success for both artist and label.
Sun Records became the leading distributor of what came to be known as “rockabilly” records. Among the label’s stars were Jerry Lee Lewis (“Great Balls of Fire,” “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On”), Carl Perkins (“Blue Suede Shoes”), Johnny Cash (“I Walk the Line”), Charlie Rich (“Raunchy”), and Roy Orbison (“Ooby Dooby”). Unfortunately for Sun and Sam Phillips, his artists became so successful that he couldn’t afford to keep them. The Sun began to set after about a ten-year phenomenal run. But during that time, it had such a profound impact on both rock and country music that it holds a permanent place in American musical history.
Recorded on the legendary Sun Records label, "I Walk the Line" became Johnny Cash's first number one hit. It stayed on the charts for 43 weeks. Uploaded by tinypic.com.
Seems like you can almost hear a train in the rhythm of many of Johnny Cash’s (Great American Things, June 6, 2009) songs. That distinctive sound is one of the elements that makes “I Walk the Line” memorable. That, along with simple but heartfelt lyrics and that unmistakable Johnny Cash voice.
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One of the distinctive things about the song is that, going against convention, “I Walk the Line” doesn’t build to a conclusion. In fact, the last verse is sung an octave lower than the first verse. People asked Johnny why he hummed before each verse. The song changes keys several times, and he said “I hum to get my pitch.”
The song was released on the famous Sun label. It was Johnny Cash’s first number one country hit, and made it to number 17 on the pop chart. “Because you’re mine,” he sings, “I walk the line.” Johnny, what did you mean by that? “I was newly married at the time, and I suppose I was laying out my pledge of devotion.” I guess he did, with a song that stayed on the chart for 43 weeks, and earned the number 30 spot on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
Charlie Daniels follows in the footsteps of every great bluegrass fiddler, each of whom has to prove his worthiness by playing Orange Blossom Special. Uploaded by celebucrap.typepad.com.
Those who follow this blog regularly know that I try to make the selections based not just on my own personal opinions, but to honor those things that are special about America. And so it is that one of the signature tunes of bluegrass music gets its due: “Orange Blossom Special.”
Though even a cursory look at YouTube shows performances of the song on guitar (Chet Atkins), harmonica (Johnny Cash), even ukulele (The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain), bluegrass fans know that “Orange Blossom Special” is the quintessential fiddler’s song.
Ervin T. Rouse. Uploaded by 2bp.blogspot.com.
It was written by a fiddling prodigy, Ervin T. Rouse, in 1938. A friend and fellow fiddler, “Chubby” Wise, claimed co-authorship for 50 years, but Rouse was too meek and too troubled to dispute the claim. What’s beyond question, however, is that Bill Monroe recorded it in 1941 and made it a hit.
The Orange Blossom Special was a train, of course, and the first thing a fiddler has to do is replicate the sound of the train’s whistle. After that, it’s stand back and get ready, because each musician does his best to burn up the strings with his own sizzling rendition. Who better to feature than one of the leading fiddlers of our time, Charlie Daniels…
Photo courtesy of Flickr, uploaded by VeganMoonray
In its infancy, rock and roll quickly crowned its king. At the same time, another member of R&R royalty was making his name: The Man in Black.
Johnny Cash first gained fame on the Sun Records label. You might remember it best for producing a kid named Presley. In fact, along with Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins, Johnny made up what the Sun marketing people called “The Million Dollar Quartet.”
His first single to make the Billboard chart, Cry, Cry, Cry, reached number 14. But it was 1956, a year in which he released two epic songs, that Johnny Cash became a household name. Seldom does an artist have back-t0-back hits with the power of Folsom Prison Blues and I Walk the Line. The latter became his first number one song.
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Of course, if you know Johnny’s story, you know that his life spiraled out of control during the sixties due to drug use. God chose to bring him around as He often does – with a woman. June Carter not only sang some impressive duets with Johnny, but she and her family shared their strong faith with him, and patiently saw him through to a personal redemption.
Johnny Cash was the youngest person elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1980. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame conferred its membership in 1992. And in 1999 the Grammys honored him with a lifetime achievement award. He was honest, sometimes raw, and always electric. Which was obvious every time he stood on stage and said:
Copyright 2009-2011, Robin G. Chalkley. All material on these pages, and the listing of items as Great American Things, is copyrighted. The exceptions are the photographs and videos, which remain the property of their respective owners.
Header photo used courtesy of Flickr photographer too melo.