If rock and roll had a birth certificate, it would most likely list the place of delivery as 706 Union Avenue, Memphis, Tennessee. That’s the original home of Sam Phillips’s Memphis Recording Service, which evolved into the legendary Sun Records. This is where, in 1951, Jackie Brentson waxed “Rocket 88,” a number that many consider the first rock record. It’s where Elvis Presley showed up in 1953, ostensibly to wax a song for his mother, and wound up creating the now classic Sun Sessions. It’s also where Carl Perkins got his start. And Johnny Cash. And Jerry Lee Lewis. And Roy Orbison. Phillips famously said he would record “anything—anywhere—anytime,” but he clearly had a discerning ear; the bulk of what he released commercially—and much of what he kept in the can—was far from “anything.” It was something else, man.
Germany-based Bear Records is another legend. The label built its reputation by issuing huge, beautifully annotated (and not inexpensive) sets aimed at the serious collector. The recently released eight-CD Sun Rock Box, which contains 254 tracks and comes with a lavishly illustrated LP-sized hardcover book, offers a quintessential case in point. A companion to the equally gargantuan Sun Country Box and Sun Blues Box, it vastly expands on a 12-LP vinyl collection of the same name that came out in the eighties. Well over half the material was not issued when Phillips recorded it; it stayed in the vaults until the 1970s and, in some cases, even longer. Throughout, the sound quality is terrific: it’s hard to believe that these remastered tracks are more than half a century old.
If you want a thorough education in what Sun’s golden years were all about, you’ve come to the right place. The first disc begins with four key early tracks from Presley and 10 from Perkins; and other famous names crop up later, including Jerry Lee Lewis, Charlie Rich, Roy Orbison, Charley Pride and Conway Twitty (who recorded for the label under his real name, Harold Jenkins). But the producers apparently felt that anyone who’d spring for a set like this already owns the work of Sun’s most famous performers. So not all the big hits are here and the prime focus is on cult artists and total unknowns. Ray Smith (nine tracks), Sonny Burgess (10) and Billy Riley (eight) show up, as do such obscure figures as Martin Willis, Magel Priesman, Vernon Taylor and Hannah Fay. Songs by each performer are sequenced together regardless of release date, so you can get a sense of his (or occasionally her) style before moving on to the next one.
The inescapable conclusion is that Sun Records produced a whole lot more great music than most people know about. This is the thrilling sound of rockabilly and then rock and roll being born out of country, jazz, hillbilly music, western swing, R&B and blues. Nobody follows the rules, because there are no rules, and the results are sometimes nothing short of wild. Even when a song seems firmly planted in a genre other than rock—such as Jack Earls’s “A Fool for Loving You,” which is pure country, or Mack Allen Smith’s “Young Dreams,” a pop ballad that recalls early Elvis—a rock sensibility seems evident.
Did the artists realize that they were pioneering a musical genre that would remain important more than half a century later? I doubt it, but their exuberance about this new music is all over these tracks. In fact, dozens of the songs here celebrate rock itself: The program includes, for example, Malcolm Yelvington’s “Rockin’ with My Baby,” Luke McDaniel’s “My Baby Don’t Rock,” Kenny Parchman’s “I Feel Like Rockin’,” Johnny Bernero Band’s “Rockin’ at the Woodchopper’s Ball,” Jimmy Williams’s “Rock-a-Bye Baby,” Glenn Honeycutt’s “Rock All Night” and Edwin Bruce’s “Rock Boppin’ Baby.
Then there’s Billy Riley’s “Flyin’ Saucer Rock and Roll,” a high-energy number about rockers from Mars. “I couldn’t understand a thing they said,” sings Riley, “But their crazy beat, it just stops me dead.”