If you ask someone what they think when they say “Sun Records”, you are likely to get one of two answers:
- I never heard of that.
Anyone who has heard of rockabilly has probably heard of Sun Records. This record label has practically become synonymous with rockabilly music. Many of the best recordings in the genre were issued on Sun Records during the 1950s. The record label and studio in which all those great songs were recorded (the Memphis Recording Service studios on Union Street in Memphis, Tennessee) they were owned and operated by the legendary Sam Phillips, who discovered several of the biggest stars in rock and roll and country music.
As the record label was a small independent label only a few years old when it began churning out hits, Sun Records’ catalog includes an astounding number of the most beloved records in all of rockabilly performed by some of rockabilly’s biggest stars. These are just some of the best songs to be released on Sun Records in the 1950s.
- “Red Hot”: “My girl is red hot!” cries Billy Lee Riley in this fantastic song. “Your girl is not very plump!” he answers to his backing band, the Little Green Men. Billy Lee never became a big star, but he certainly could have. The song “Red Hot” is a great rocker that rolls along full throttle from start to finish. Riley’s ragged voice is the very embodiment of rockabilly great and you can hear the sincerity in every note. Pitch perfect or not, it doesn’t matter. This song is all about attitude and it has tons of it!
- “Red Cadillac and Black Mustache”: This fantastic number by Warren Smith has more country than “Red Hot” and therefore shows a different side of rockabilly. He’s got the classic Sun Records vocals with plenty of echo and some really fantastic, understated country guitar work. It also evokes some of the great early rock ballads of the 1950s, although it can’t really be called a ballad. He just moves easily and smoothly as he asks the question somewhat nonchalantly, “Who have you been loving since I left?”
- “Honey, don’t”: The incomparable Carl Perkins might have been on his way to being bigger than Elvis when a near-fatal car accident wiped out the incredible momentum he had after his first big hit “Blue Suede Shoes” (the first-ever bestseller for a million Sun Records). Perkins recorded some absolutely fantastic rockabilly for Sun Records. “Honey Don’t”, the B-side of “Blue Suede Shoes” is a perfect example. Perkins influenced countless future rockers, including The Beatles, who covered this song and several other Carl Perkins songs. In fact, The Beatles recorded more songs written by Carl Perkins than any other artist besides them. It’s quite a tribute to the biggest rockabilly cat of all!
- “We want to dance”: Perhaps the most unusual sounding cat on Sun Records was Sonny Burgess. “We Wanna Boogie” is a great example of the crazy songs he cut. The only rockabilly band I’ve ever heard to include a trumpet in the combo, these guys played with complete abandon. Whistles, shouts, howls, and yes that crazy trumpet. All of this combined with Burgess’ gravelly voice makes recordings of him some of the funniest and most charming things ever recorded on any record label!
- “A Loose Hand”: With a breathy style that would have made Buddy Holly blush, Charlie Features produced wonderful examples of early rockabilly. Feathers was another artist who inexplicably never caught on. “One Hand Loose” is a stellar example of rockabilly at its best. It’s got some great rockabilly guitar work, signature slap bass, and Feathers’ wonderful vocal treatment. And a perfect rockabilly theme and hook, “Give me a loose hand and I’ll be satisfied!” You gotta love that!
These are just a few of the amazing songs that were added to the Sun Records catalog during the rockabilly days of the mid to late 1950s. Sam Phillips had an incredible knack for identifying the great rockabilly artists and of course, the more successful your artist began to be, the more similar artists were coming to your door hoping for a break at the big time. We’ve covered some pretty unknown songs and artists here, but there are so many more to talk about that I can’t encourage you enough to dig into the Sun Records catalog and see what you can discover. You won’t be disappointed!