Rock ’n roll was born at Sun Records. The list of earth-shattering artists who got their start there is hard to believe: Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and so many others. As Collin Brace, former VP of Sun Records, told us, “These guys defined not only a genre, but a generation.” In many ways, Sun Records and its artists paved the way for indie musicians and studios today. They were future minded. Open minded. They welcomed anyone with a guitar and a song. This is how they found legendary, mold-breaking artists like Johnny Cash. And it’s also how they ended up with over 8,000 master recordings from artists who never made it big, if it at all.
Four years ago, realizing just how many of Sun Records’ recordings were collecting dust on hard drives and basement shelves, Collin decided to perform the herculean task of digging through it all in search of gold. And gold is exactly what he found.
Collin Brace: About four years ago, I realized that only a few of our hits were responsible for 90 percent of our activity. But we have a catalogue of over 8,000 masters — a lot of B-sides, back catalogue, outtakes, and things no one had ever heard. So I got together with a buddy, and we started combing through the catalogue. We found this goldmine of tracks. Songs from the ’50s through the ’70s — even some stuff into the ’80s. And they span almost every genre you can think of.
They are digitized. But there is also a basement, so kind of both. Most of our catalogue is in .WAV format, but there are some tapes that still need to be transferred. So three or four years ago, we started listening to all of it. It was hours of sitting in front of a computer discovering artists we never knew existed. We found some really awesome stuff. We were like, “Why didn’t this guy ever have a career?” And then some stuff, we were like, “Oh my goodness, this person really thought they could sing.” It was a pretty crude process. Just going down the list and making a judgment call about whether something was high enough quality. Sometimes the tape would be rubbing or cracking. Sometimes the piano or guitar was out of tune. But the big factor was always the voice. There were a lot of tracks where you’d have this awesome intro and the beat would come in and you’re like, “Oh man. This is topnotch.” But then 30 seconds in, you’d hear the voice and you’re like, “Oh no.” The opposite can be true too. The person had a beautiful voice but he or she didn’t spend any time on the production. Sometimes that makes it beautiful, though. So it was just a lot of listening. When we finally started sending the tracks out to producers and filmmakers and music supervisors, the feedback we got was, “Holy crap! Where has this been?”
I can’t remember any from Cash, but there is this very interesting outtake from Jerry Lee Lewis. The engineer let the tape roll, and Jerry is in an argument with Sam Phillips (the owner of Sun Records) about the doctrine of salvation. It goes on for a good three minutes. You can tell Sam is laughing about it and he knows he’s egging Jerry on. But Jerry is just taking it to him with his classic fiery passion. It’s an awesome outtake to listen to. Back then, an outtake had to be pretty good for an engineer to keep the tape running, because tape was so expensive and you only had so much of it. I’m sure there were a lot of great outtakes that were recorded over.
A lot of them are no longer alive. And most of them didn’t have recording contracts, so the phone number we have doesn’t even work. Sometimes we try to find other artists who knew them and find them that way. Most of these artists are gone though, so we have to work with their estates.
Absolutely. Anyone who walked in off the street. That’s how Johnny [Cash] came in. He came in and wanted to cut a track. Sam [Phillips] heard it, and he had this amazing A&R ear. That’s how it all started. It’s not too far off from [how it’s portrayed in] the movies. Sam was just an A&R guy at heart. He could hear what other people couldn’t. Sun Records was started with the same heart you’ll find in, say, Jack White’s Third Man Records. It’s a true independent record label. That’s the heart Sun Records has always had. Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis — these guys defined not only a genre, but a generation. But at the time, record labels wouldn’t sign them. Their music wasn’t “in.” It wasn’t what they were playing on the radio. Sam took advantage of that and showed people music they’d never heard.
People say Sun Records is where rock ’n’ roll was born, and it comes from Sam’s mentality. Sam really did birth the genre by finding these artists who’d walked in off the street. He gave them an outlet. He was a true genius in that sense. We try to maintain that culture as a record label. I hope we always do.
I think it’s the authenticity. You can’t replicate a ’50s blues track. You can’t replicate a Frank Frost. He’s one of my favorite artists — just this awesome blues guy with gut-wrenching conviction and passion in his voice. You can’t replicate that on a laptop. You can hear the difference.