“If you’re not doing something different, you’re not doing anything.”Sam Phillips
Billboard magazine started charting songs in 1940. Eventually, they divided songs into three categories, pop, country-and-western, and “race music.” Around 1949, race music was renamed rhythm and blues (R&B).
Music sales were proprietary and closely guarded so Billboard based their charts off of popularity estimates from Jukebox and radio play. Before the 1940s three national broadcast networks dominated. The Federal Communications Commission mandated more local radio licenses. From the beginning to the end of the 1940s the number of local radio stations increased from about 800 to over 2,000.
Billboard categorized a song as pop or R&B depending upon whether the audience was African American or white. The songs on radio stations targeted to African Americans or Jukeboxes in African American clubs were R&B. Those targeted to white people were pop.
Rock & Roll
Rock & Roll came from a convergence of two events in Memphis, Tennessee. The first is a recording studio owned by Sam Phillips. “We Record Anything – Anywhere – Anytime” was their slogan. Any aspiring musician could visit and audition. If Phillips liked what he heard, he’d record them. Musicians could cut their own records for a fee.
One of the local African-American radio stations in Memphis was WDIA. In 1949, they began broadcasting and hired a disk jockey and on-air performer named B.B. King. Radio waves did not respect the racial segregation lives in Memphis. One WDIA listener, a B.B. King fan, was a young white man named Elvis Presley.
Young Elvis wasn’t alone. By one estimate, about 40% of the people buying R&B music, at African-American record stores, were young white people.
Just about this time the major labels exited the R&B market, segregating their music tastes to white people. In response, countless minor labels sprung up. Phillips decided to create one of his own, considering his stream of fresh talent, calling it Sun Records.
About this same time, television began widespread penetration. One of the featured events of live television were musical performances. Phillips had great musicians and a great sound but knew television, in those days, would refuse to broadcast African-American performers. “If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars,” Phillips said. In 1956, the Nat King Cole television show was canceled after only a year due to a dearth of sponsors. “Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark,” he noted.
Elvis showed up at Phillips studio in the summer of 1953, at age 18, to record two songs. They paid him four dollars, noted “Good ballad singer. Hold.” and ignore him. Phillips invited him back a year later to try some ballads. Nothing clicked but Phillips added some musicians, an electric guitarist and standup bass player. After a few songs, Elvis suggested trying R&B music, singing “That’s All Right.”
Phillips asked a friend with an R&B show on a white radio station (yes, Memphis was that segregated) to roll the record. Dewey Phillips played it and, due to repeated requested, kept playing it. Soon enough, he was singing to 40 million people on television.
During those years, Phillips recorded Elvis, B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Ike Turner, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Roy Orbison. And in a small studio in Memphis Rock and Roll was born.