Tributes: Knox Phillips, son of Sun Studio founder Sam Phillips, corralled his own legend in Memphis music

APRIL 15, MEMPHIS, TN – Knox Phillips, son of Sun Studio founder and Memphis legend Sam Phillips, is dead at 74.


from Robert Gordon

Knox Phillips’ heart was bigger than his hair, and he had some tall, wide notable hair.

If you’ve enjoyed Memphis music from the 1960s on, you’ve felt his influence—though probably you never realized it. While his dad Sam put a lot of greats in the spotlight, Knox worked more in the shadows. He was essential to many great recordings, engineering and producing John Prine, the Amazing Rhythm Aces, Randy and the Radiants.

In the 1970s, he tried to herd cats by organizing the Memphis music scene; a thankless task if ever there was one, but it did result in the city’s Grammy chapter, now nearly 50 years established and an important factor in both the industry and individual lives. He and brother Jerry maintained the family studio—the Sam Phillips Recording Service, opening its door to those who knew the sting of doors slamming in their face. Tav Falco brought Otha Turner’s whole drum corps onto the floor of that studio with his nascent Panther Burns, a mashup of backwoods and cutting edge. Jim Dickinson brought many acts through there—it was the natural place for him to produce a motorcycle playing rhythm on a Dan Penn song; when the studio filled with carbon monoxide, everyone said the session was a gas.

Alex Chilton recorded Like Flies on Sherbert there, one of the greatest achievements in corralling raucous chaos. At the Jerry McGill session, Knox was engineering for Dickinson. McGill, a career outlaw, pulled his pistol as he finished singing the Civil War song “With Sabers in Our Hands” and he shot six very large bullets into the ceiling (the holes are there today). Dickinson was on the floor when he looked up and saw Knox still at the console and asked what the hell he was doing. Knox was cool as he said, The gun needs more echo.

Knox Phillips’ echo will ring long and loud in the shadows of Memphis. 
Condolences to Phillips JerryHalley PhillipsSally Wilbourn, Diane Duncan, Johnny Phillips, Jeff PhillipsRose Phillips, and everyone who knew Knox. Rest in peace, friend.

~Robert Gordon

from Mark White

I had the pleasure of meeting Knox back in the late 80’s. In my role at Strings & Things I would deliver gear to Sam Phillips Studio. Knox couldn’t have been any nicer to me. I was just a grunt delivering amps and other stuff for recordings but he took the time to chat and we always had a nice unrushed conversation. He was one of the good ones. 

~Mark White

from Willy Bearden

Below is the foreword that Knox so graciously wrote for my book, Memphis Blues: Birthplace of a Music Tradition. When I asked him to write this, he said that he’d always wanted to write down what he felt about Memphis music, and especially what he felt about his father’s contribution to American music. After the book was published he called me “the man who made me an author,” and told me he was my best customer because he had bought cases of the book to give to everyone he knew. He was the sweetest guy ever.

~Willy Bearden

Left: Knox Phillips with Willy Bearden. Right, with Jon Hornyak.

Memphis Blues Foreward by Knox Phillips

In the late 1940’s and early ‘50’s, the migration of African-Americans out of the Mississippi Delta brought any number of talented and ambitious blues musicians to Memphis, where jobs were more plentiful, and the possibility of a better life was a realistic goal. In this fertile climate, for the first time their dreams of “making it” seemed more than just pipe dreams.    

It was to help some of those aspiring musicians that my father, Sam Phillips, first opened his tiny recording studio at 706 Union Avenue, the Memphis Recording Service, in January of 1950, with the avowed purpose of making records “with some of those great black artists,” as he said, “who just had no other place to go.” He did this, as he often stated, at the risk of a good radio job, at the risk of his health, and at the risk of his young family’s future — given the racially charged atmosphere of the time.  He did it because of his belief in the music, in the musicians, and in the possibilities that Memphis (and America) had to offer. I always felt that the foundations for the musical contribution that Memphis would make to our world were laid with that original “revolution of hope” — hope in the sense that frustrated, creative, poor people had a place to go, be heard, be themselves musically no matter what that self might be. My father’s mission was to give voice to those who had no voice.

Sam Phillips is probably best known for his discovery of Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis,, but he was no less proud –and that’s an understatement! – of his involvement with great blues musicians like B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Rufus Thomas, Little Milton, and Ike Turner, all at the earliest formative stages of their careers. I can only imagine the first time Sam listened and talked with a young, unknown B.B. King or Howlin’ Wolf, no more than local radio personalities at the time, and convinced them that he wanted to record the music that meant the most to them. “I knew the sound I had heard in the cotton fields growing up,” Sam said later in life, “and I also knew that had I not tried to captured it, I would have been the biggest damn coward that God ever put on this earth.”  There was nothing that told the truth, Sam said, more than gutbucket blues, and even if the white world may not have known it at the time, every one of those artists had something special that was almost bursting to get out. It was the beginning of Memphis’s musical self expression, what my father always prized as “self-expression in the extreme.” It was the beginning of the “Memphis Sound,” the Memphis music story. Which at its core is the story of people – black people and white people — working together.

That legacy of talented people coming together from diverse backgrounds is still the Memphis music story. Every day in studios across Memphis, and in the clubs on Beale Street, songs are being written and recorded, records released, and music is being heard by the millions of tourists who come here to experience a little taste of this thing called the blues.  But it’s more than just blues music; it is the culture, the traditions, and the way of life here in Memphis.  It’s a feeling.  We who live here and love it can’t define just what it is….but if you let go and become a part of it….you can feel it.

Enjoy this walk through the Delta and Memphis and feel the power of the music that changed the world.

~Knox Phillips, 2006, for Memphis Blues: Birthplace of a Music Tradition

from the Memphis Music Hall of Fame

Raised at the Coke machine in Sun Studio, he’s gambled with blues greats, rambled with rock and roll pioneers, and ambled with players at every level of Memphis music.

The eldest child of Sam and Becky Phillips, Knox inherited more than just his father’s great hair. Sam made sure his kids — Knox and younger brother Jerry — witnessed some of the blues greats at work in his Memphis Recording Service and Sun Studio. Thus, very early in his life, Knox was aware that the “colored only” and “whites only” signs he saw at public venues in Memphis were antithetical to what his parents were teaching him. In a city that sought to discriminate, Knox was taught tolerance, kindness, and humanity. Read more from his Memphis Music Hall of Fame tribute>>

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