Sun Studio Memphis: How Elvis Presley Got His Big Break

Have you heard of the song “That’s all right”? Yup, that was the song that propelled Elvis Presley (also known as King of Rock and Roll and 猫王 to Asian fans) to fame. But how did Elvis get his big break? Thanks to the great folks at Memphis Travel, we got to know that story and more at Sun Studio, the birthplace of Rock N’ Roll!

2bearbear @ Sun Studio Memphis
2bearbear @ Sun Studio Memphis
Memphis Recording Service Sun Records as a National Historic Landmark
Memphis Recording Service Sun Records as a National Historic Landmark
Elvis Presley and Sun Studio
Elvis Presley and Sun Studio

Opening Hours and Admission Fees of Sun Studio Memphis

Opening Hours

Sun Studio is open daily from 10 AM to 6 PM. Tours are given at the bottom half of every hour from 10:30 AM through 5:30 PM.

Admission Fees

Kids below 5 years old are not permitted to enter Sun Studios while kids from 5 to 11 enter for free. Adults admission fee is $12 (plus taxes).

Tour of Sun Studio Memphis

Once you enter Sun Studio, you’ll be greeted by staff next to the bar. That’s where you’ll get your tickets for the tour. Thereafter, you can hang around at the bar, shop for souvenirs or just take in the sight of memorabilia of legendary artistes from Sun Studio…

Inside Sun Studio Memphis
Inside Sun Studio Memphis
Entrance Tickets to Sun Studios
Entrance Tickets to Sun Studios
Photos of famous artistes from Sun Studios
Photos of famous artistes from Sun Studios

We arrived at Sun Studio at about 10am and managed to join the first tour of the day at 10:30am. Thankfully, because our guide was Zac! Though young, he was passionate about the music produced at Sun Studio and soon, we started our tour at the 2nd of level…

Memphis Recording Service
Memphis Recording Service
2nd level of Sun Studios Memphis
2nd level of Sun Studios Memphis
Recording Equipment that Sam Phillips used to start the Studio
Recording Equipment that Sam Phillips used to start the Studio

The story of Sun Studio started with Sam Phillips, who started his own recording service known as the Memphis Recording Service. Due to his love and passion for blues, he bought his own recording equipment and started to record the blues music that he really loved and enjoyed. With artistes such as blues legend, BB King recording at then Sun Records, the little known Elvis Presley also wanted to have a shot at stardom by recording there.

How Elvis Presley Got His Big Break at Sun Studio Memphis

So Elvis decided to record two songs “My Happiness” and “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin” for a fee of $3.25. Unfortunately, during his visit, Sam Phillips went out for a game of golf. However, he was noticed by Marion Keisker, Sam Phillips’ assistant. In reality, she was far more than an assistant. In the story of how Elvis got his big break, Marion Keisker played an instrumental role. She is also often known as the first person to have recorded Elvis Presley. After recording, this most iconic conversation, took place at Sun Studio…

Marion Keisker who played an instrumental role to Elvis' big break
Marion Keisker who played an instrumental role to Elvis’ big break

Marion Keisker: “What kind of singer are you?”
Elvis Presley: “I sing all kinds.”
Marion Keisker: “Who do you sound like?”
Elvis Presley: “I don’t sound like nobody.”

She then left a note to Sam Phillips which read , “Good Ballad Singer”. However, Sam Phillips at that point in time, did not like Rock n Roll and did not care much for ballads. Hence, he gave little attention to Elvis. However, Elvis did not give up. Eventually, he was given a chance to record with Scotty Moore (guitar) and Bill Black (string bass). However, after an uneventful session, as everyone was about to pack up, Elvis started to play “That’s all right” by Arthur Crudup, just after midnight. It was an upbeat version of the song which Scotty and Bill didn’t really know. But as a passionate Blues lover, Sam Phillips knew the song and once Scotty and Bill started to join Elvis, Sam started to record. Before the night was done, Elvis’ first hit was recorded.

Sam then sent the record to his good friend, Dewey Phillips, who was the host of a popular radio show called “Red Hot & Blue”.

Dewey Phillips' Studio of Popular Radio Show "Red Hot & Blue"
Dewey Phillips’ Studio of Popular Radio Show “Red Hot & Blue”

The fun part about listening to Dewey’s Red Hot & Blue was that if he hated a song, he would break and throw the record in his studio so that his listeners would know how much he hated it. You can see some broken records on the remake of Dewey’s studio during the tour. However, if he enjoyed the record, he would sometimes sing to it. During the tour, we were able to listen to songs produced at Sun Studios as well as this particular day when Dewey played Elvis’ “That’s all right”, 14 times in 2 hours!

We also learnt about this really cool group called the Prisonaires. They were really a group of prisoners who sang really well and came up with the hit “Just Walkin’ in the Rain”.

The Prisonaires recorded at Sun Studios
The Prisonaires recorded at Sun Studios


The Prisonaires – Just Walkin’ in the Rain

In fact, the governor of Tennessee, Frank Clement loved the group so much that pardon was granted to them. He wanted to show that even criminals deserve a second chance, which was really cool in those days.

U2's drum set left behind after their recording session at Sun Studio
U2’s drum set left behind after their recording session at Sun Studio

At the end of the tour, we learnt that many famous bands such as U2 and Maroon 5 also recorded at Sun Studios…


Maroon 5 at Sun Studios

After U2’s session, they even left behind their drum set. You’ll also be able to take a photo with the actual microphone that Elvis (as well as other stars) used at Sun Studio!

U2's drum set left behind after their recording session at Sun Studio
U2’s drum set left behind after their recording session at Sun Studio

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The Million Dollar Quartet
The Million Dollar Quartet

After Elvis got famous, he left Sun Records and one day, he came back to see some old friends. Johnny Cash (I Walk The Line), Carl Perkins (Blue Suede Shoes) and Jerry Lee Lewis (who was not famous yet but went on to have hits such as Great Balls of Fire) were also there and they started an impromptu jam session which lasted about 4 hours. Of course, Sam Phillips didn’t miss the opportunity to record the whole session which the 4 were not aware of at that point in time. Today, we’re only able to listen to parts of that recording because of copyright/legal issues between the various recording companies involved (since Elvis was no longer at Sun). However, when we heard that snippet of the jam session during the tour, we could hear the simple love for music during that session. Amazing!

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We hope you have enjoyed our coverage of Sun Studio in Memphis. If you’re heading to Graceland in Memphis, Sun Studio would definitely be your next stop to visit! Have fun!

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