If you ask someone what they think of when you say “Sun Records” you’re likely to get one of two responses:
- I never heard of it.
Anyone who’s ever heard of rockabilly has likely heard of Sun Records. That record label has become virtually synonymous with rockabilly music. Many of the genre’s greatest recordings were released on Sun Records during the 1950s. The record label and the studio in which all of those great songs were recorded (the Memphis Recording Service studios on Union Street in Memphis, Tennessee) were owned and operated by the legendary Sam Phillips who discovered several of the biggest stars in rock and roll and country music.
Given that the record label was a tiny independent label barely a few years old when it started turning out hits, the Sun Records catalog includes an astonishing number of the most loved records in all of rockabilly performed by some of rockabilly’s greatest stars. Here are just a few great songs that were released on Sun records in the 1950s.
- “Red Hot”: “My gal is red hot!” cries Billy Lee Riley in this fantastic song. “Your gal ain’t doodly squat!” responds his backing band, the Little Green Men. Billy Lee never became a huge star, but he certainly could have. The song “Red Hot” is a great rocker that rockets ahead at full speed from beginning to end. Riley’s ragged vocals are the very embodiment of great rockabilly and you can hear the sincerity in every note. Pitch perfect or not, it doesn’t matter. This song is all about attitude and it has tons of it!
- “Red Cadillac and a Black Mustache”: This fantastic number by Warren Smith has more country in it than “Red Hot” does and it thus displays a different side of rockabilly. It has the classic Sun Records heavily-echoed vocals and really fantastic understated country guitar work. It also evokes some of the great early rock ballads of the 1950s, although you can’t really call it a ballad. It just moves along easy and smooth as it somewhat nonchalantly asks the question, “Who you been lovin’ since I been gone?”
- “Honey Don’t”: The incomparable Carl Perkins could maybe have been on his way to being bigger than Elvis when a near-fatal car crash killed the amazing momentum he had going after his first smash hit “Blue Suede Shoes” (Sun Records’ first million selling record). Perkins recorded some absolutely fantastic rockabilly for Sun Records. “Honey Don’t”, the b-side to “Blue Suede Shoes” is a perfect example. Perkins influenced countless future rockers including The Beatles who covered this song and several other Carl Perkins songs. In fact, The Beatles recorded more songs written by Carl Perkins than any other artist besides themselves. That’s quite a tribute to the greatest rockabilly cat of all!
- “We Wanna Boogie”: Maybe the cat with the most unusual sound on Sun Records was Sonny Burgess. “We Wanna Boogie” is a great example of the crazy songs he cut. The only rockabilly band I’ve ever heard to include a trumpet in the combo, these guys played with complete abandon. Whistles, yells, yelps, and yes that crazy trumpet. All of this matched with Burgess’ gravelly vocals makes his recordings some of the fun lovinest stuff ever cut on any record label!
- “One Hand Loose”: With a hiccuping style that would have made Buddy Holly blush, Charlie Features turned out wonderful examples of early rockabilly. Feathers was another artist who inexplicably never made it big. “One Hand Loose” is a stellar example of the best rockabilly. It has some great rockabilly guitar work, the characteristic chugging slap bass, and Feathers’ wonderful vocal treatment. And a perfect rockabilly theme and hook, “Gimme one hand loose and I’ll be satisfied!” You gotta love that!
These are just a few of the amazing songs that were added to the Sun Records catalog during the rockabilly heydays of the mid to late 1950s. Sam Phillips had an incredible knack for identifying great rockabilly performers and of course the more success his artist started having, the more similar artists came to his door hoping for a shot at the big time. We’ve talked about fairly obscure songs and artists here, but there are so many more to talk about that I can’t urge you enough to dig into the Sun Records catalog and see what you can discover. You won’t be disappointed!
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write by Casey Ewing