Wednesday, 1 February 2012
MONKEY USA PART 5: SUN RECORDS, MEMPHIS, TENNESSEE
Some people are nuts for the Sun sound. I listen to it, like it, respect it, but it lags a long way behind in my affections when compared to Chess, Motown and Stax. Having already visited the sites of those three meccas Sun had its work cut out to compete, yet a combination of me being less pernickety/knowledgeable about the subject and having the best guided tour of the four meant - bar the shivers of walking into Studio A at Motown – this was possibly the best of the bunch.
I knew Sun Records was at 706 Union Avenue but its surrounding area, a fifteen minute walk from Beale Street, still took me a bit by surprise. Once again my London brain assumed it would be the corner of narrow busy street but it stood alone on the corner of wide road facing what the locals, I believe, call a gas station. With the surrounding buildings knocked down, its uneven brown brick construction like a building left standing after the Blitz; albeit one with a giant golden guitar hanging outside.
Walking through the door we were immediately into a room that operates as the reception, a souvenir shop and a cosy diner; mainly a diner/café. There were a couple of booths by the window and five red leather stools at the bar emblazed with the names Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and Elvis Presley across them. I nabbed Johnny’s. Despite the stocks of t-shirts and stacks of gift items it didn’t feel especially touristy; just a cool place to order a bottle of coke and sit listening to the boom-chicka-booming in the background. The big geezer with the big quiff behind the counter was nuts for the Sun sound, it was obvious enough without the need for him to pull up his yellow Sun t-shirt to reveal a huge yellow Sun tattoo across his ample chest. All the people that worked there were undoubtedly Sun freaks first, employees second.
Jason was our tour guide and owner of a fine head of hair and bushy beard. Lord knows how many times he’d conducted this tour but he still sounded so passionate and excited his enthusiasm rubbed off instantly. He led us (a dozen yanks and us two limeys) upstairs to the tiny museum stuffed with old Ampex recording equipment, posters, records, stage outfits, all the usual stuff.
Sam Phillips set up shop here in 1950 as the Memphis Recording Service - he hadn’t yet started Sun as a label - so when Ike Turner and his Kings of Rhythm drove through the rain in March 1951 to record “Rocket 88” (credited to Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats, a decision that must’ve irked Ike for the rest of his life) it was released on Chess, giving Chess in the North and Sun in the South join claims on what is broadly accepted as “the first rock and roll record”. Jason liked talking about firsts, or to be more accurate, “very” firsts, which is before your bog-standard first. He told us about “Rocket 88” and after giving it a big build-up as “the very first rock and roll record, made in this very building” hit a remote control in his hand and bang, Ike’s tinkling the ivories and Jackie’s honking his sax and bellowing about his jalopy. It was a simple idea yet bought the music and the place together perfectly in a way other studios (and I’m especially looking at you Motown with your singing flunkies) failed to do.
Howlin’ Wolf also recorded here during ’51 and as the unsuspecting punters stood before a cardboard Wolfman they got a blast of “Moanin’ At Midnight”. The look on their faces, eyes widening, as the Wolf’s guttural moans came booming out of nowhere was a sight to behold. Most of these people had never heard such a noise. The kid in front of me looked terrified. Hot on Wolf’s heels was the mighty “Bear Cat” by Rufus Thomas. The gathering had little difficulty in recognising the blatant rip from “Hound Dog” (so blatant the resulting lawsuit almost bankrupt Sun with its first hit), which finally led us to Elvis Aaron Presley.
Public Enemy spat out “Elvis was a hero to most but he never meant shit to me” on “Fight The Power” which is broadly how I feel (although Chuck D followed that with “straight up racist” which I don’t believe) but its churlish to come to Memphis and be snooty about Elvis. Jason told us about the very first time Elvis came to Sun; he played us his very first recording; we hear him played on the radio for the very first time; and we see his very first television appearance. He was all right though that Elvis. Nice voice, good looking lad.
We then shuffled downstairs into the studio. It felt like a studio because it still is. Vintage equipment was pushed to the sides of the small white pegboard walled room and folk were in the control booth looking like they were working. Amazingly when the premises had other uses (including life as a fishing tackle shop) before reopening as Sun in 1987, it stayed relatively untouched (even down to the light fittings), and if you believe Jason the marks and dents and grooves in the original linoleum floor show where the musicians stood and played. He hit his remote again and led us through a succession of classic cuts. They sounded bloody good too, although Mrs Monk and I disagree on whether Roy Orbison’s “Ooby Dooby” is a good record or not. I say yes but know she’s probably right.
The money shot when it came to the photo opportunity was the chance to pose with a vocal microphone used on recordings here in the 50s, in the shadow of an Elvis picture using a similar one. Jason urged people to have a go and recreate the curled lip. Despite feeling a wally I did quickly attempt to channel Johnny Cash recording “Get Rhythm” and due to the mic being used Johnny Rotten in the “God Save The Queen” video. I got it spot on too. Unfortunately Mrs Monk’s trigger finger was far too slow and snapped me looking like an embarrassed girl instead.
If anyone goes to Memphis they have to brace themselves to be asked on their return, “Did you go to Graceland?” We caught the shuttle bus from Sun and had a nose around “The King’s” gaff. I’d love to live there in its mid-70s time capsule: to chill in his TV/record room; to shoot pool in the pool room; to get smashed with my mates in the jungle room; and to have my cook knock up a few burgers in the tiny kitchen. None of the rooms were big and the main building was a lot smaller than expected. I bet Chuck D lives in a bigger house.
Click on the Monkey USA label below for further adventures: Motown, Stax, Chess and Buddy Guy.