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Published: 2003/08/29
by Jason Casey

Train I Ride: An Appreciation of Sam Phillips

"Train I ride, sixteen coaches long
Train I ride, sixteen coaches long
Well that long black train got my baby and gone…."

Sam Phillips the "inventor of rock and roll" died in Memphis at 4:30 pm July 30 2003. Sam Phillips took music from his surroundings, gospel, blues, and country, and mixed them together in a lightning infused mix of tolerence and talent and shot rock and roll out of the Mississippi delta and into the minds and spirits of everyone within earshot. The pantheon of talent that rolled through his production facility at Sun Studio and the Memphis Recording Service is perhaps the most amazing list of musical talent ever. Ike turner, little milton, Howlin' Wolf, Roy orbison, Johnny cash, Rufus Thomas and all the other tributaries of this musical river created a surge that is still growing and flowing today.

Had Sam not recorded "Thats all right Mama" by a young man from Tupelo Mississippi legions of fans would never have had to be protected from Elvis Presley's x -rated gyrations. Without that little black 45 rpm disc millions of people would never have experienced the joy of the performance, the suspension of disbelief, the magic of the show.

"Train train, comin' 'round, 'round the bend
Train train, comin' 'round the bend
Well it took my baby, but it never will again (no, not again)..."

Without Sam no Bobby Weir imitating Elvis and singing "Turn on your Lovelight" (Bobby "Blue" Bland, Joe Scott), no Widespread Panic surprise bust out of "Ring of Fire" (Johnny Cash), no Jerry Garcia Band doing "That's what love will make you do" (Little Milton), and no Grateful Dead doing "Walkin' the Dog" (Rufus Thomas) In addition, without Sam, no scratchy recordings of others covering seminal rock and roll songs. No cassette or CD bootlegs would litter the floors of countless dorm rooms and floor boards. Even the original business cards for the Memphis Recording Service carried the spirit and mantra of the now familiar taper community "record anything—anywhere—any time." All before TDK, DAT's, the Oade Brothers, MP3's and CD roms Sam worked for WREC Radio, engineering live broadcasts of big bands from The Peabody Hotel, a portent to the AM parking lot broadcasts of Grateful Dead shows or the public radio station being taken over this weekend at the Phish festival IT.

The mix of technology and personalities such as BB King, Bobby "Blue" Bland, and Rufus Thomas in the crucible of 1950's Memphis allowed Sam to record songs that reflected the common denominator of the human experience. Add to that the staggering and shocking presence of Elvis Presley and you get the components that make the live show, the concert, so alluring and so special. The interplay of the rudimentary notes of Johnny Cash and the Tennesse Two is the same as the "musical conversation" at a Widespread show or the "sociological experiment" at a Grateful Dead show. And in the end it just feels good to listen, dance, and clap when you hear the music play. Sam Phillips even had the vision to found an all female radio station called WHER.

Sam's virtuosity and love of capturing raw talent and the unpolished performance sets his recordings apart from other producers of the day. Countless stories exist of Phillips asking an artist "Ain't you got nothing unique?"

The late Carl Perkins remembered Sam saying "You just listen to this break. Did you hear that? You burnt it! We're not changing anything. Smash, smash, smash – this record's a smash!" when he wanted to rework some of the guitar on "Blue Suede Shoes"

Sam Phillips was a pioneer and legend in the recording industry. Sam broadcast and recorded the oral and musical tradition of the American south black and white. This wonderful gift and vibration we experience at the show and cherish afterwords in today's digital form is here in part because of Sam Phillips and his vision. The heroes on stage today followed a trail blazed by Sam Phillips and the performers on the payroll at Sun. R and B, rock, country, and pop have all honored this man in someway. The "jamband" segment is just as or even more effected by Sam Phillip's accomplishments. Without his vision many of the songs that are standards now would never have been "pressed" or recorded and would have been lost in the haze of history and only remembered as a wisp of sound from the closing door of a Beale Street bar. The next time you see moe, Phish, Widespread, the North Mississippi Allstars, Robert Randolf, or Bobby and the boys remember the people they are emulating and the spirit of Sam Phillips.

"Train train, comin' down, down the line
Train train, comin' down the line
Well it's bringin' my baby, 'cause she's mine all, all mine
(She's mine, all, all mine)" -Mystery Train

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