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5 Star Stories Studio Sessions: A rare look inside Sam Phillips Recording Studio

Updated: Dec. 8, 2020 at 9:30 PM CST
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - He launched Elvis Presley’s career: Sam Phillips, the founder of one of Memphis’ first and most noted record labels.

His son Jerry Phillips gave our Kontji Anthony a rare look inside Sam Phillips Recording Studio along Madison Avenue.

“We have cigarette burns right here that came from Johnny Cash because he had a bad habit of sticking his cigarettes down and leaving them,” Phillips pointed out.

“The Bar” inside Sam Phillips Recording Studio is where some of the world’s most famous musicians hideout between recording sessions.

Jerry Phillips is head honcho of the studio built after his father founded and then outgrew Sun Studio.

“When he had some success with Elvis and Carl Perkins, he built his dream studio,” Phillips explained.

It all began when Phillips was traveling with his preacher dad through Memphis in 1939 and snuck off to listen to African American musicians on Beale Street. That later set him on a path to become a DJ, engineer and radio announcer.

No tours are allowed, but Phillips granted our camera access to history only superstars are given a glimpse. Artists still use some of the same custom-designed instruments Phillips had built by hand in 1959.

Phillips says they’ve never even considered buying an auto-tune machine to doctor singers’ voices to stay on key.

“We kind of feel like if you can’t sing, you probably just don’t need to be here,” he said.

The vintage analog equipment is part of the draw. In 2018, Grammy award-winning engineer, mixer and producer Matt Ross-Spang produced Grammy-winner Al Green’s first recording in almost a decade. Ross-Spang churns out hits from studio B. In fact, Sony commissioned him to remix some of Elvis’ old concerts for re-release and current artists want to work with him.

“A group called The Mountain Goats was in here. St. Paul and the Broken Bones are a really hot group right now, Nicki Bluhm, William Bell, Margo Price. A lot of these people are in the Americana field,” Phillips noted.

The second floor of the studio is like a time capsule.

“The bar was built in 1960. Everybody wanted to come up and have drinks. This was where we entertained when Elvis would come up and bring his girlfriend and Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis,” said Phillips.

It has the same leather, since day one.

“Elvis and Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, everybody has sat on those stools and had their hands on this bar,” Phillips recalled.

His father’s office is still intact, shaggy carpet and all, with a jukebox he used to play songs throughout the building. Awards line the walls in Phillips’ old reception area and a large, open out the lounge area looks like a flashback in time.

The studio even has a vinyl pressing operation.

“Vinyl records are coming back big time. I think it’s the fastest-growing segment of the music business,” said Phillips.

With Phillips’ daughter Halley in the mix helping with the Memphis studio and running the family’s Alabama radio stations, the legacy rocks on.

“It’s a very special place, and it has a vibe about it,’ said Phillips. “It really does.”

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