Rock ’n roll was born at Sun Records. The list of earth-shattering artists who got their start there is hard to believe: Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and so many others. As Collin Brace, VP of Sun Records, told us, “These guys defined not only a genre, but a generation.” In many ways, Sun Records and its artists paved the way for indie musicians and studios today. They were future minded. Open minded. They welcomed anyone with a guitar and a song. This is how they found legendary, mold-breaking artists like Johnny Cash. And it’s also how they ended up with over 8,000 master recordings from artists who never made it big, if it at all.
Four years ago, realizing just how many of Sun Records’ recordings were collecting dust on hard drives and basement shelves, Collin decided to perform the herculean task of digging through it all in search of gold. And gold is exactly what he found.
Collin Brace: About four years ago, I realized that only a few of our hits were responsible for 90 percent of our activity. But we have a catalogue of over 8,000 masters — a lot of B-sides, back catalogue, outtakes, and things no one had ever heard. So I got together with a buddy, and we started combing through the catalogue. We found this goldmine of tracks. Songs from the ’50s through the ’70s — even some stuff into the ’80s. And they span almost every genre you can think of.
They are digitized. But there is also a basement, so kind of both. Most of our catalogue is in .WAV format, but there are some tapes that still need to be transferred. So three or four years ago, we started listening to all of it. It was hours of sitting in front of a computer discovering artists we never knew existed. We found some really awesome stuff. We were like, “Why didn’t this guy ever have a career?” And then some stuff, we were like, “Oh my goodness, this person really thought they could sing.” It was a pretty crude process. Just going down the list and making a judgment call about whether something was high enough quality. Sometimes the tape would be rubbing or cracking. Sometimes the piano or guitar was out of tune. But the big factor was always the voice. There were a lot of tracks where you’d have this awesome intro and the beat would come in and you’re like, “Oh man. This is topnotch.” But then 30 seconds in, you’d hear the voice and you’re like, “Oh no.” The opposite can be true too. The person had a beautiful voice but he or she didn’t spend any time on the production. Sometimes that makes it beautiful, though. So it was just a lot of listening. When we finally started sending the tracks out to producers and filmmakers and music supervisors, the feedback we got was, “Holy crap! Where has this been?”
It’s a true independent record label. That’s the heart Sun Records has always had.
I can’t remember any from Cash, but there is this very interesting outtake from Jerry Lee Lewis. The engineer let the tape roll, and Jerry is in an argument with Sam Phillips (the owner of Sun Records) about the doctrine of salvation. It goes on for a good three minutes. You can tell Sam is laughing about it and he knows he’s egging Jerry on. But Jerry is just taking it to him with his classic fiery passion. It’s an awesome outtake to listen to. Back then, an outtake had to be pretty good for an engineer to keep the tape running, because tape was so expensive and you only had so much of it. I’m sure there were a lot of great outtakes that were recorded over.
A lot of them are no longer alive. And most of them didn’t have recording contracts, so the phone number we have doesn’t even work. Sometimes we try to find other artists who knew them and find them that way. Most of these artists are gone though, so we have to work with their estates.
Absolutely. Anyone who walked in off the street. That’s how Johnny [Cash] came in. He came in and wanted to cut a track. Sam [Phillips] heard it, and he had this amazing A&R ear. That’s how it all started. It’s not too far off from [how it’s portrayed in] the movies. Sam was just an A&R guy at heart. He could hear what other people couldn’t. Sun Records was started with the same heart you’ll find in, say, Jack White’s Third Man Records. It’s a true independent record label. That’s the heart Sun Records has always had. Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis — these guys defined not only a genre, but a generation. But at the time, record labels wouldn’t sign them. Their music wasn’t “in.” It wasn’t what they were playing on the radio. Sam took advantage of that and showed people music they’d never heard.
People say Sun Records is where rock ’n’ roll was born, and it comes from Sam’s mentality. Sam really did birth the genre by finding these artists who’d walked in off the street. He gave them an outlet. He was a true genius in that sense. We try to maintain that culture as a record label. I hope we always do.
I think it’s the authenticity. You can’t replicate a ’50s blues track. You can’t replicate a Frank Frost. He’s one of my favorite artists — just this awesome blues guy with gut-wrenching conviction and passion in his voice. You can’t replicate that on a laptop. You can hear the difference.
Absolutely. Back then it was about being the best musician or the best songwriter you could be, and making sure that who you were came across on your records. A lot of labels would challenge their artists to make something that sounded more like what was popular on the radio at the time. But Sun Records said, “Let’s make what’s going to be popular.” They were thinking about the future. So they allowed artists like Johnny and Jerry to be themselves. If they’d gone to Sony or Columbia or Mercury, those labels might have been looking at different metrics. What was on the charts that week. But that wasn’t what the future was going to be.
Major labels aren’t always looking for what’s next. They’re looking for what’s now. That’s where indie labels have really picked up the slack.
You could say the same thing is true today. Major labels aren’t always looking for what’s next. They’re looking for what’s now. And that’s a shame because then we don’t get to hear a lot of great artists. That’s where indie labels have really picked up the slack. They’ve given a home to artists who want to stay true to themselves.
A big difference now though is that artists have a much better understanding of the whole process. They understand the business, they understand the music, they understand the songwriting. They’re singers, players, managers, and accountants all in one. That’s what gives them a lot of success.
I think you automatically get a concentration of purity when your mind isn’t split. If you’re busy trying to figure out merch and accounting, and you’re reading contracts and trying to keep up with social media and increase your YouTube views, and then you sit down and try to write a song…you’re being pulled in a lot of different directions. Those guys back then just had to focus on their musicianship. So I’d agree with you a little bit. But purity is such an opinionated word. There is still pure musicianship with guys who understand the business. I believe it’s a lot harder to be a purist and be successful these days. It’s a lot more difficult to say, “I’m going to be the best damn musician I can be and let the rest handle itself.”
There is something beautiful about it. Their families might not even know the songs exist. Some of these guys just went in, tracked a song, and gave it to their wife for Christmas. Maybe that guy has now been dead for 20 years, but the music never died. It’s lived on. And there is something really cool about hearing it now. It’s like opening a time capsule. These songs haven’t been heard by anybody for 40 years. And they’re really, really good. Being able to share that music now, it’s just really cool.
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