Roadtrippin’: Sun Studio

Some people wouldn’t understand. This is not conceit on my part but an observation based on the fact that people were all around, but I was the only one standing at the glass wall, gazing in glaze-eyed wonder. I may or may not have pressed my face to the glass. I was at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, Ohio, and behind the glass was a mixing board from Sun Studio. I was imagining the hands that had turned those knobs and the music that had been monitored through that console. I was transfixed.

About ten years later, driving down Union Avenue in Memphis, Tennessee, I grew giddy with excitement when I spied the huge (and impressively accurate) Gibson guitar sign that now marks the original home of that piece of unassuming equipment I had swooned over at the Rockhall. Walking up to the old storefront studio is a little like stepping into a time vortex for a moment, like straddling an invisible boundary between Then and Now. This feeling is instantly wiped away when you step into the Sun Studio gift shop housed in the adjoining building, crowded with tourists and merchandise, but that’s forgivable enough when you look at the photos displayed on the walls of the artists who recorded at Sun and see things like a reproduction poster announcing a “The Howling Wolf Vs. Muddy Waters” gig ($3.50 advance/$4 door).

At the half-hour, our tour was summoned up the stairs to the museum where a modest collection of photos and artefacts are displayed, and we were introduced to our tour guide, Jason, who was part rocker/part classic deejay/part carnival barker (more about him on NTSIB in the near future). Jason prepped us for our eventual step into the actual studio by giving us a condensed history of the studio (which began life as the Memphis Recording Service where Sam Phillips would record artists and then sell those recordings to labels like Chess Records before he decided to start his own label), sharing interesting trivia (the distortion effect for guitar was born when the guitarist for Ike Turner and Jackie Brenston’s band damaged his amp en route to the studio and repaired it with paper before recording what is considered by many to be the first rock ‘n’ roll record, “Rocket 88”) and sampling some of the msuic (Howlin’ Wolf, “Rocket 88”, Elvis Presley’s very first recording). Rocket 88 by Jackie Brenston

After viewing Elvis’ controversial, pelvis-swinging television debut, it was time to enter the studio. Descending the stairs and passing through the former office of Marion Keisker, Phillips’ secretary and the first person to record Elvis, I suppressed a giggle as I recalled the Sun Studio scene from Jim Jarmusch’s film Mystery Train in which the tour guide’s rapidfire spiel leaves a young Japanese couple mystified and exhausted. But when I walked into that small, simple, white room, I began to fight back tears. Scholars could argue for ages about where and when rock ‘n’ roll actually started, but I believe I’m safe in saying that if it wasn’t for the events that occurred in that room, NTSIB would not exist. Whether or not the songs recorded there started rock’ n’ roll, they were integral to the evolution-revolution that created the music I love, the music that is sometimes the only thing that gets me out of bed in the morning. When I stepped into that studio, I could feel the weight and power of that and was overcome in the most invigorating way.

Tour guide Jason continued to tell us about Sun and the great artists who got their start there, but I had a difficult time concentrating as the room itself and the spirit in the room (spirit, not ghosts – that room is alive) monopolized my attention. That small, humble, slightly age-worn room where Wolf, Ike, Carl, Elvis, Johnny, Roy, Jerry Lee and others effectively changed the world.

When the tour was over, I asked Jason, “Do you ever get used to it?”

I didn’t have to explain what I meant.

“Not really.”

Sun Studio Official Website

Rock ‘n’ Roll Photog: Sun Studio

Today, Jennifer takes us on another leg of our Southern roadtrip: our visit to the legendary Sun Studio. I’ll post my own observation tomorrow, but we had to share Jennifer’s wonderful photos with you all.

On Tuesday of last week, we put the road back in road trip and voyaged up to Memphis to see Sun Studio and Graceland.


It is no exaggeration to say that rock and roll as we know it began here in a ragged room on a run down corner in Memphis. Today it is both an active recording studio and a museum.


This is a reconstruction of the office of Marion Keisker, the lady who recorded Elvis Presley singing for the very first time, and, more importantly, kept a copy of the recording to share with Sam Phillips. We got to hear it during our tour, a little bit scratchy and rough but undeniably The King. I felt a little bit like I did when I watched Streetcar Named Desire for the first time, having to remind myself how new and different his voice and presence would have been, how it would have been a kind of lightening strike.


Some of the guitars lined up against the wall, which are, from what I gather, used by musicians who record in there at night, after the tour groups leave. The room is full of pictures of Elvis and also of other luminaries who recorded there – Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Bono – and I ultimately couldn’t decide if I thought that would be intimidating or encouraging for new acts.


And finally, the drumset, surrounded by Elvis, and in the foreground, a mic that was used by numerous early artists at Sun, including, possibly, Elvis Presley. The guide had hauled it out for purpose of Photo Opportunities, which some of our fellow tour members indulged in, and others did not. It was an interesting moment, both for the people trying to recreate a very specific kind of magic with various levels of success, and the microphone itself. It is simultaneously one of the many props in the floating Elvisland that is Memphis, a relic, a simple piece of machinery, and a tangible piece of the history of the place that all of us could touch with our own hands. Look at it long enough, and you can almost hear him inhaling, getting ready to launch into Hound Dog, and set the girls’ hearts a-flutter.

— Jennifer