The little store-front studio at 706 Union Ave. in Memphis doesn't need to crow about its history, despite the big rooster in the logo; there's no more recognized sound in the world than the Sun Studio sound.
But most of all, you'll stand on the floor where those artists and others, including Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins, made their music.
The studio itself has been recreated faithfully; the tiles on the floor and the baffling on the ceiling are authentic. But it's a working studio, so the instruments are more up-to-date, as is the recording equipment behind the glass wall. An upright bass rests in the corner, across the room from a well-worn drum kit (used in the 1980s, by U2's Larry Mullin on that band's “Rattle and Hum” album).
First, however, there was the delta blues. It was a love for the blues that led Sam Phillips — a young, untrained soundman — to open the studio as the “Memphis Recording Service” in 1950. No one else was recording the music Phillips heard in the region, especially on nearby Beale Street.
“The blues, it got people — black and white — to think about life, how difficult, yet also how good it can be,” Phillips once said. “They would sing about it; they would pray about it; they would preach about it. This is how they relieved the burden of what existed day in and day out.”
He recorded anything he could to keep the doors open, including weddings and meetings, and he recorded songs for other labels. But he also recorded blues and R&B artists such as James Cotton, Little Milton and Bobby Blue Bland. B.B. King made his first recording in front of Sam Phillips' microphone.
Phillips founded his own label, Sun Records, in 1952. Two years later, he made his biggest find — a truck driver for Crown Electric named Elvis Presley.
But Elvis returned on a magical night in December 1956, when the “Million Dollar Quartet” of Presley, Cash, Perkins and Lewis gathered for an informal jam session. A photo on the studio's wall memorializes it. Roy Orbison has claimed he was there, but the studio can't confirm that.
The fact the studio is open at all — and recording new music and showcasing new artists — is due to Gary Hardy, who bought the studio, defunct for 27 years, and reopened it in 1987.
It was a project driven by Hardy's passion for the music; he's also taught music history at the University of Memphis. You can learn much more about the music by catching Hardy's show on most Sunday nights at the Blues City Café on Beale. Like a true historian — but one blessed with a voice that can resonate like Johnny Cash's — Hardy will lead listeners on a tour of the history of rock 'n' roll.
Since Hardy reopened it, the studio has cut tracks for U2, Def Leppard, Rufus Thomas, Bonnie Raitt, Carl Perkins, B.B. King, Ringo Starr and many others.
The studio is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily.