This year marks the 60th anniversary of legendary Memphis record label Sun Records. Founded by record producer Sam Phillips, Sun was largely responsible for establishing rock’n’roll music as an important cultural artform in the ‘50s. Earlier this year, Melbourne’s David Cosma and Damon Smith conceived Sun Rising: The Songs That Made Memphis, a performance based tribute to Phillips and the astounding musicians he worked with. The hip-shaking five-piece Sun Rising band showcase the music of Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, BB King, Howlin’ Wolf, Carl Perkins Johnny Cash as well as some lesser known Sun alumni. David Cosma reveals the decision to do a Sun Records tribute was the inevitable outcome a longstanding personal passion.
“I’m a massive Elvis fan and have been since my earliest memory of music. That’s been a massive influence on me, in particular early Elvis. Damon’s equally as big of a Jerry Lee Lewis fan. We’d been talking about it for a while and we thought rather than just tribute the two guys there’s a lot more on offer that came from that studio, especially early on. Once we really started digging we found there was an unbelievable amount of artists worth telling people about that had come from this one little studio, all produced by Sam Phillips.”
Cosma is thoroughly acquainted with the history of Sun Records and explains that Sam Phillips initiated Sun Studios to promote music that the commercial tastes of the time ruefully overlooked.
“His main criteria at that time, before discovering the likes of Elvis, was to give a voice mainly to the black artists, because that music wasn’t getting any recognition whatsoever. Major labels weren’t interested in any sort of rhythm and blues music. His main objective early on was to just uncover music that wasn’t getting a fair run out there. He grew up in Alabama on a 300-acre plantation, so he was already to exposed to grass-level blues, guys singing in the cotton fields, women singing while they’re doing their chores, that sort of thing.”
Phillips’ endeavour to introduce rhythm and blues to a wider audience coincided with a remarkable instance of ‘right place at the right time’, which led him to discover many of the musicians who effectively set rock and roll music in motion.
“It’s not every day you’ve got Elvis Presley living not far and dropping in to say hello. Johnny Cash was from the area, Howlin’ Wolf had a radio spot in West Memphis at the time. A lot of these guys were from in and around the area.”
Sam Phillips certainly had a knack for identifying artistic flair but Cosma’s research suggests Phillips didn’t need to actively intervene to sculpt the classic songs recorded at Sun Studios.
“Elvis’ debut, That’s Alright Mama, totally came by mistake. It wasn’t like Sam was really pushing for something. Howlin’ Wolf, for example, he just invited him in and pressed record and let him do what he did best, which was sing away with his intensity. If anything he had the ability to recognise potential talent and then get the best out of them without pushing too much of a direction on them.”
The entire Sun catalogue is characterised by stunning integrity and the Sun Rising set-list includes a large portion of quality songs that Cosma believes would be unfamiliar to most people.
“Even the Elvis songs, generic Elvis fans probably wouldn’t know, apart from maybe That’s Alright Mama or Mystery Train. We cover Rufus Thomas Jr, an early Howlin’ Wolf song, an early BB King song, Ike Turner. Probably 80 per cent of the songs, even by artists that are well known, are probably not songs that are familiar to people.”
Focusing exclusively on the early Sun recordings distinguishes the show from being a covers gig. The Sun Rising band approach it as an authentic tribute, rather than an impersonation.
“We’ve really done our best to keep it as authentic to the original recording as we can. It takes quite a bit of discipline not to overplay. We run it chronologically too. It starts really early on in 1951, before the label actually came into play but Sam Phillips was still recording at that studio, chronologically up until about the mid-‘50s with Jerry Lee Lewis.”
Another crucial component of the show is relating various anecdotes from the period. Seguing with background stories contextualises the songs and offers the audience an in depth Sun Records education.
“We wanted to put together a show that wasn’t just necessarily an hour worth of music. We’re in the fortunate position of having the stories that come out of Sun. Whether it was how the artist was discovered or maybe a story behind the song, that’s enabled us to link 80 per cent of the songs with a story. We like to think they’re all accurate, but they are all interesting. That’s been a big part of the feedback from people who have seen the show: ‘we really enjoyed the music but we really enjoyed the unexpected history lesson too’.”
Cosma confirms that Sun Rising will continue beyond the epochal 60th anniversary year.
“Our intention is to really keep this thing going. I’m such a fan of that music and so is Damon and the guys in the band, but we didn’t know how it was going to be received. It’s been received so well I think we’d be nuts not to carry it on.”
BY AUGUSTUS WELBY
Come and celebrate the 60th anniversary of Sun Records at Cherry Bar on Saturday December 15. They also play The Palais in Hepburn Springs on Friday December 14.