Red Hot: The Best of Sun Record Company Blues serves as an important reminder there are some budget-priced compilations in American and British bins that must not be overlooked. Gathering together some of the best of Sun’s 1952-1962 blues productions by genuine blues greats, these 16 tracks (leased from Charly Records which leased from Sun) also go a long way in proving where rockabilly really came from. Featuring songs by such notables as Rufus Thomas, Little Junior (Parker), James Cotton, Little Milton, Billy “The Kid” Emerson, and Rosco Gordon, this compilation will get any blues hound drooling. Yet as always the real delights on any such collection usually seem to come from the more obscure talents. On this, some of the best surprises come from musicians nearly lost to time, people like Joe Hill Louis, Raymond Hill, Willie Nix, and Doctor Ross.
A brief look at the history of Sun Records proves both self-evident creation and evolutionary process to be hard at work musically speaking. In case you’ve just arrived here from another planet, the Sun Record Company is responsible for the earliest productions of Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, and so produced the first rock and roll and rockabilly. Enthusiasts may debate facts and details, but all would agree the tracks compiled for this CD represent Sun’s first dawning as a record company.
Phillips actually opened his first studio Memphis Recording Service in 1950, operating from an old radiator shop in Memphis, Tennessee. For the first two years, he almost exclusively recorded black artists including Howling Wolf, Junior Parker, and B.B. King. In 1951, Phillips not only recorded the first Howling Wolf sides for Chess but another song that soon hit number one on the R&B charts. A hit in its own time, the latter recording is better remembered now and regarded by many as the first rock and roll record, Jackie Brenston backed by Ike Turner and his band performing “Rocket 88”. Fueled by success, in 1952 Phillips relocated his studio to larger quarters the size of a one-car garage and renamed his company Sun. From the humblest beginnings during the raw and early years of his record company, Sam Phillips first and foremost recorded the music he loved so much.
This collection starts off with a low saxophone imitating a locomotive’s steam whistle before rolling into the lyrics of “Mystery Train” by Little Junior’s Blue Flames. The piano and snare drum combine to imitate a huffing engine so effectively you can almost see the small clouds of smoke puffing out the smokestack, while a snap on the cymbal and the bass make the wheels go round on the steel track. Yes, Little Junior went on to become Junior Parker. Yes, Elvis Presley went on to record the same song for RCA after the record giant bought his contract from Sun for what now seems like a pittance of $35,000, but a figure then that could buy title to three fancy tract homes free and clear. And yes, Elvis used some major elements from the piano lead-in for his “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” from Little Milton’s slow Sun scorcher, “Beggin’ My Baby”.
Everybody was begging, borrowing, and bouncing off each other like neighbors with a bad sugar jones. Rufus Thomas spits, hisses, and yowls out the beginning of a catfight in “Bear Cat”, a retort to Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton’s “Hound Dog” where he dishes it right back to Big Mama. “Bear Cat” became the first Sun hit in 1953, whereafter Peacock Records soon dished it straight back to Sun in the form of a lawsuit for infringement of copyright. Rhythms and sounds heard everywhere in the every day world find their way into this music. Willie Nix throws down his “Baker Shop Boogie”. The lead-in, a simple muffled bass drum with a touch of natural studio echo, sounds just like bread dough thrown down, punched and kneaded in rhythm on a wooden breadboard.
Doctor Ross “The Harmonica Boss” was a one-man blues band, playing guitar (left-handed), drums, and harmonica on a neck rack. Listen to the Doctor’s romping guitar style back him up singing about his own self-diagnosed “Boogie Disease” and know where rockabilly guitar styles began getting set. Doctor (and Professor) were honorific titles bestowed upon musicians of great standing. Though he’d learned harmonica early in life, Ross bought a guitar and performed at USO shows while serving in the Army during World War II. One of his rare publicity shots from the time shows Dr. Ross in the kind of ill-fitting Army uniform made legendary by supply sergeants, the big wooly overcoat is lumpy, oversized and hanging nearly to his ankles. Ross is holding his guitar by the neck with the bottom resting on the ground, like it is his rifle, and he is poised like he is about to go over the hill. Ross also re-enlisted in the Army during the Korean War. With the arrival of Presley, Phillips’s attention shifted towards rock and roll and away from the blues, which prompted Ross to leave Sun and Memphis behind in 1954 and move to Flint, Michigan. There, Dr. Ross worked out the rest of his life in auto plants and occasionally performed as a one-man band. Before he left Sun, he set down his stomping country blues, “Chicago Breakdown”. Years later, Dr. Ross popped up everywhere in the Sun tape vaults. Many of Ross’s rejected works had been taped over, and his takes were found on tapes between other artists (such as Presley). The finest Dr. Ross collection appears on Arhoolie, not on Sun.
Sun artists still are lost in the recording process. On this disc, Eddie Snow and Sammy Lewis are lost once again. The track credited as “Ain’t That Right” by Eddie Snow is actually Sammy Lewis’s masterpiece, “I Feel So Worried”.
As an introduction to (or reminder of) the early world of those wonderful Sun blues, this inexpensive disc is a good collection of great music. The fidelity is excellent considering the brittle old reel-to-reel tape masters. Put together with the American release The Sun Blues Years, with 25 different tracks, and you’re on your way to an essential blues collection. Each album lists out at about $10 new, and improbably the songs end up costing about what they did when they were first waxed and released as individual records fifty years ago.