In the history of rock ‘n’ roll there can’t be many more important places on the planet than this modestly-sized building on the outskirts of Memphis. 706 Union Avenue, Memphis, Tennessee is the home of Sun Studio, where Sam Phillips established his Memphis Recording Service back in 1950 with the aim of giving a recording outlet to black blues musicians like Howlin’ Wolf and BB King; where Ike Turner and others recorded what is now commonly held up to be the first rock ‘n’ roll record: ‘Rocket 88’ in 1951; where a young Elvis Presley walked in to cut a one-off disc, supposedly for his mother; where Elvis, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash all recorded their early singles; and the place which indisputably can proudly claim to be the birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll.
Sam Phillips moved the Sun operation to a larger nearby facility in 1959, which somehow never quite managed to repeat the pioneering and magical success of the original, and by the 1970s 706 Union Avenue was being used as a hairdressers. In 1987, though, the building, along with the next- door diner, was reopened as a studio and tourist attraction and is now listed as a historic national landmark.
Sun studio run daily tours and a free shuttle bus service can ferry you between downtown Memphis, Elvis Presley’s Graceland and Sun Studio. The old diner is now a gift shop-cum-cafe and the tour first takes you upstairs to a compact but magical display of period artefacts; including studio equipment, instruments and other historic memorabilia. A tour guide talks you through the history and plays snatches of music, including that very first Elvis recording: ‘My Happiness’.
And then it’s down to the actual studio, first passing the reception area, once staffed by Sam Phillips’ assistant, Marion Keisker: a pivotal figure in the history of rock ‘n’ roll, and the one who first spotted Elvis’s talent. But like too many women in the music business, one who’s name often doesn’t not get the recognition it deserves.
The studio, itself, has been recreated using authentic equipment and instruments from the era and, in spite of it’s post-Sun uses as a hairdressing salon and everything else, the original studio soundproofing that Phillips and Keisker applied by hand is still there to this day.
The tour guide ends the tour by bringing out an original studio microphone from the control room, one that Elvis and Jerry Lee and Johnny had all sung into at the start of their careers. He tells us it was donated by Sam Phillips on condition that it wasn’t just locked away in a glass case but that visitors could pose and have their photographs taken with it. You can’t get a better photo-opportunity than that and it’s a great end to a magical tour of a historic site.
Related review: Jerry Lee Lewis at London Palladium