Various Artists – Sun Records, Sun Spots, Vol. 1: The Story of Sun

John Morthland

By John Morthland

on 04.22.11 in Reviews

The first record that Sun mastermind Sam Phillips ever released was the good-timing "Boogie in the Park" by one-man-band Joe Hill Louis. The first record released on the Sun label itself was 16-year-old alto saxman Johnny London's intoxicating instrumental "Drivin 'Slow." Initially, Sun was a blues label, turning out gems like Junior Parker's "Feelin 'Good," an utterly primitive sound by Junior's standards but an original one by Sam's. Willie Nix's "Baker Shop Boogie" is a stomping double-entendre, while James Cotton's "Cotton Crop Blues" epitomizes Sun's country-meets-city sensibility.

Once Elvis hit, Sun concentrated on rockabilly like Sonny Burgess 'manic "We Wanna Boogie," while Warren Smith, despite his hard-country voice, snuck into the Hot 100 once with Roy Orbison's rocking "So Long I'm Gone." Surprisingly, Sun's straight-up country artists didn't fare so well, though Charlie Feathers '"I've Been Deceived" surely should have hit. Through it all, Sam retained a taste for feel-good one-man-bands both black (Dr. Ross) and white (Harmonica Frank). After scoring at the end of the decade with a pop-rockabilly remake of Nat King Cole's "Mona Lisa," Carl Mann charted a second (and last) time by following with Cole's "Pretend."

And though Sun faded rather quietly and ignominiously in the '60s, the label's last good gasp was as irresistibly bizarre and unhinged as anything it had ever released: the Jesters '1966 Chuck-Berry-meets-Screaming-Jay-Hawkins "Cadillac Man," featuring a young Jim Dickinson. What do these historic highlights have in common, besides the fabled Sun echo? Not a whole lot beyond the fact that nearly every record captures a powerful personality, daring for its time, infectious and full of feeling. Sam Phillips simply responded to the best raw talent, encouraging it to go all-out while he contained it just enough to create the possibility of a hit.