We found out we couldn't walk down Union Avenue to Sun Studios from Cafe 61 so we drove down and made it just in time for the 4:30 tour. It was really good but they let too many people in together. I thought it was overcrowded and really difficult to see everything or to take pictures. The guide was a guy called Dave who was very friendly and informative. But I wasn't impressed when he tried to sell us his personal CD at the end of the tour. He claimed to have played gigs in Memphis and around Tennessee as well as all over the UK. But he ain't no King, Jerry Lee or Man in Black and I found it very disrespectful to pedal his disc in the studio.
We began the tour in the little record shop just past the cafe / soda shop. Unfortunately the prices were through the roof and I am certain that the same CDs can be bought in a decent shop for up to ten dollars less. The King would have been disgusted...
The tour starts upstairs in a room that has four glass cases of memorabilia from the very early days. In fact, the first few sections contain equipment, record sleeves and other things from when it was known as Memphis Recording Service.
Sam Philips started it and his thang was 'We will record anything.' He eventually changed the name to Sun because he thought the name was bright and offered promise (as in a new day / chance).
The next window has information about Ike Turner who recorded the first rock 'n' roll song in 1951 called Rocket 88 with Jackie Brenston and his band . There was also some guy (whose name I can't remember) that had a pet rooster who went everywhere with him. His claim to fame was that he recorded the longest with Sam - nine years. Of course the next section is all about Elvis and his first recording of 'My Happiness' which he did for his mother. Apparently, the secretary Marion Keisker thought he was good but Sam Phillips did not. Elvis wanted to meet Sam but he went there on a Saturday and Sam wasn't working. The story goes that for the next year, Elvis kept going in, talking to Sam until he finally got another chance to record and of course the rest is history.
The second part of the tour is downstairs, through the original entrance and reception area into the studio. Again, there were too many people which was a bit distracting but there was still a lot of atmosphere in the place. There is an X on the floor where supposedly Elvis stood during his first recording for Sam Philips.
There are lots of instruments and equipment but none of it is original except for the microphone that was given to the Studio by Sam.
Dave told us lots of stories about the studio:
How Sun Studio opened on January 3, 1950. One of the first recordings was Rufus Thomas singing 'Bear Cat', which was actually the same exact music as 'Hound Dog' and only the words were changed. Sam was sued and had to pay a huge fine stealing the song.
How Sun Records started operations on March 27, 1952 (just over two years after Sun Studios opened.) The label launched the careers of Elvis, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis.
How Sam sold Elvis in 1956 to RCA for $35,000 so he could raise the money to nationally distribute his records.
How Johnny Cash came to the studio one morning and pleaded with Sam to give him some time and let him make a record. He did and he recorded I Walk The Line. The clicking noise while he is playing was caused by a piece of paper he placed between the neck of the guitar and the strings to provide some percussion. He apparently was practicing the song for the Grand 'Ol Opry and they did not allow drummers on stage at the time.
How the 'Million Dollar Quartet' (Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis) were in the studio for one night and Sam recorded them, creating the very first 'jam' session.
How 'Great Balls Of Fire' by Jerry Lee Lewis is the biggest selling record of all time on the Sun label.
How he sold Sun in 1969 and then had nothing to do with the studio. The label was renamed Sun International Corporation and during the 1970s it re-packaged and re-released compilations of Sun's early artists.
How the studio became a scuba diving shop and then a barber shop before closing down entirely.
How the studio reopened and now records anyone for $85 per hour. They usually record seven nights a week.
We had a look around the shop / cafe next door to the studio and despite really wanting to buy something we both didn't. Mostly because the prices were ridiculous.
Now are heads were really melted and we both had total information overload. We got directions to the Heartbreak Hotel and drove down to it. I must say it was not what I expected and quite disappointing as well.
After a quick look in the gimp shop, we drove back to Beale Street and had a wonder around. Wednesday nights are bike night so everyone that has a motorcycle can park on Beale Street and the whole street is shut down to thru traffic. We got there at about 6:30 and things were starting to kick off.
We went into the Tap Room for a pint of Pabst but there was no atmosphere, so we continued on to The 'something' Cafe (I don't remember the name that's how overloaded with information I was). We had a drink there and ordered some chicken tenders and fried green tomatoes. There was a guy called Dave playing guitar and singing. Well, he was trying to sing but some group of drunkards sort of took over for a few songs. Anyway, he survived it and came back with a great second set after they had left.
We stepped back outside and the street was packed! There were people and bikes everywhere - a really good atmosphere.