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Legendary producer Sam Phillips, whose discoveries shook country and rock 'n' roll over the last half-century, died of respiratory failure on July 30. He was 80 years old.
As the owner of Sun Records, Sam recorded and released the earliest music by Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Charlie Rich, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and many others.
"I have one real gift," he once declared. "That gift is to look another person in the eye and be able to tell if he has anything to contribute -- and if he does, I have the additional gift to free him from whatever is restraining him."
Among those whose gifts he loosed upon the world was Elvis, whose "That's All Right, Mama" is widely considered the first rock 'n' roll record. But he also knew a great country singer -- like Johnny Cash, whose "Folsom Prison Blues" and "I Walk the Line" he also produced. "He didn't just create rock 'n' roll," Johnny said shortly after Sam's death. "He helped create me."
Opening Sun Studios in Memphis in 1950 and the record label of the same name two years later, Sam sought out raw talent -- be it blues, country or R&B, black or white. His vision of a musical world without color lines was crucial to the development of American music.
Sam sold Sun in 1969, though his presence continued to be felt in music. He was a colorful personality, talkative, expansive and not shy about his accomplishments. "There's nobody that deserves more to be in the Country Music Hall of Fame than me," he declared, three years before he was inducted.
His entrance into the Hall stirred a mild controversy -- the eruption of rock 'n' roll in the '50s, after all, dealt a serious blow to country's popularity -- but he loved the music dearly. "I never got away," he said, "from the feeling you get from country music."
-- Chris Neal