Sun Records, Storied Early Rock Label, Sells Its High-Wattage CatalogBreaking News
tags: music, rock and roll, popular culture, country music, popular music, Sun Records, Rockabilly
In the 1950s, Sun Records in Memphis became one of the most dynamic forces in American music, releasing the first recordings by Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and others, helping define rockabilly and rock ’n’ roll. Even its yellow sunburst label, with a crowing rooster, has become part of the iconography of early rock.
Now, Sun has become the latest plum property to change hands in the music industry’s catalog gold rush.
Primary Wave Music, an independent music company in New York, has acquired the label’s assets, including its recordings, logo and brand, from Sun Entertainment Corporation, the family-run company that bought it from Sam Phillips, Sun’s founder, in 1969.
The deal includes every recording made by Sun — with the exception of Presley’s releases, which are owned by Sony — along with those of a handful of other small labels, like Red Bird and Blue Cat, and some songwriting copyrights. In total, about 6,000 recordings are part of the deal, among them some epochal classics: Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” and “I Walk the Line,” Lewis’s “Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” Carl Perkins’s “Blue Suede Shoes” and the Dixie Cups’ “Chapel of Love.”
Sun’s story began in 1949, when Phillips rented a storefront on Union Avenue in Memphis that he turned into a recording studio. Among the early recordings he made there, for other labels, was “Rocket 88” in 1951, by Jackie Brenston — backed by Ike Turner’s band — which is sometimes called the first rock ’n’ roll record for its driving beat and distorted guitar.
The first Sun records were released in 1952, and two years later Phillips recorded Presley’s debut single, “That’s All Right”; in late 1955, RCA bought out Presley’s contract for $40,000. (RCA is now a division of Sony.) Phillips continued to make records with Cash, Lewis, a young Roy Orbison and rockabilly cult favorites like Billy Lee Riley, whom Dylan has called “a hero of mine.”
Sun’s operations slowed down by the mid-60s, and in 1969 Phillips sold the label to Shelby Singleton, a producer and entrepreneur who moved its operations to Nashville and spent successive decades marketing Sun’s catalog through reissues and licensing deals. Phillips died in 2003. Since Singleton’s death in 2009, the label and its assets have been managed by his brother, John A. Singleton.
In an interview, Singleton, 80, said he chose to sell in part because “we don’t have a succession in the family after I’m no longer around.” He chose Primary Wave, he said, for its reputation in managing and marketing the legacies of famous acts.
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