Various Artists – Sun Records, The Sun Essentials

John Morthland

By John Morthland

on 04.22.11 in Reviews

Despite its storied history and massive influence on generations of rock, Sun Records claimed just five Top Ten pop hits in its 16 years of existence. Three of those singles — "Whole Lotta Shakin 'Goin 'On," "Great Balls of Fire" and "Breathless" — were by Jerry Lee Lewis; the others were Carl Perkins '"Blue Suede Shoes" and saxman Bill Justis 'instrumental "Raunchy." Shockingly, Sun never did achieve a pop Number One, though the epochal "Blue Suede Shoes" held the #2 spot for four weeks while hitting #1 country and #2 R&B. "Great Balls of Fire" likewise spent four weeks at #2 pop while going #1 country and #3 R&B. (Remarkably, "Whole Lotta Shakin 'Goin 'On" was #1 on both the country and R&B charts, but only #3 pop.) "Raunchy" was #2 pop for one fleeting week, but actually spent a week atop the R&B charts while peaking at #6 country.

The strongest rays of the brilliant Sun.

All of which suggests that the charts (or, more to the point, the people who compiled them), which were notoriously hostile to early rock & roll, were even more so when the music came from an independent Southern label. After all, "Red Headed Woman" was one of the wildest singles of the era, and Sonny Burgess, perhaps the most R&B-influenced of all the Sun singers, had several more just as hitworthy — yet he never charted at all. Billy Lee Riley's "Flying Saucer Rock & Roll" and the oft-revived "Red Hot" (written and first recorded by Sun R&B singer Billy Emerson) are today considered quintessential rockabilly.

As the label transitioned from the '50s to the '60s, Carl Mann and Charlie Rich infused rockabilly with pop flavorings, and "Mona Lisa" and "Lonely Weekends" both went Top 30. Johnny Cash, meanwhile, gave Sun five Number One country hits and had eleven more in the Top Ten. Between these 22 sides, you have nearly all the singles that made Sun's formidable commercial and artistic reputation.