When there is more to a story, librarians want to know. Thus, having attended the musical The Million Dollar Quartet a few weeks ago, I set my sights on reading the book from which it was drawn, Good Rockin' Tonight: Sun Records and the Birth of Rock 'n' Roll by Colin Escott, one of the creators of the above mentioned musical.
The reader of Good Rockin' Tonight quickly encounters two viewpoints of the author. First, Escott believes that the lack of academic musical training was a plus for record producer Sam Phillips, owner of Memphis Recording Service and Sun Records. He was a radio technician with a love of good, honest music with emotion. He was also a risk taker. He did not have an unerring sense of what the public would buy, but he discovered a few great artists with whom people could identify. Second, the author believes that the best work by Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis was with Sun Records. (Some fans might argue that Presley at RCA and Cash at Columbia had very successful careers.)
Of course, there is much more to the story of the recording company. Phillips spent his initial years recording local blues artists, including B.B. King, Howlin' Wolf, and Junior Parker. Record sales for singles by the stable of blues artists were always modest. Royalty checks rarely totalled more than twenty dollars, even for local hits. Everyone had to keep day jobs or flee to Nashville or Chicago. After the rockabilly period, Phillips recorded more country singers with minor success. Escott also admits that Phillips failed to find the right sound for Roy Orbison.
Escott takes us through the whole history of Sun Records in mostly chronological chapters that usually focus on a particular genre or artist. We learn about many musicians who never struck it rich and the perils of trying to running a small recording business. I enjoyed the well-guided trip back in time.
Escott, Colin with Martin Hawkins. Good Rockin' Tonight: Sun Records and the Birth of Rock 'n' Roll. St. Martin's Press, 1991. 276p. ISBN 0312054394.