“I never had an artist come in here — except maybe Wolf and Jerry Lee — who blew me away right out of the gate.” Sam Phillips
Back in the fifties, there was a ragtag assortment of characters, all in the general vicinity of Memphis, Tennessee. They had old guitars and didn’t look quite right to most people — even to the man who would turn them into household names.
That man was Sam Phillips and, from his little studio at 706 Union Street, he discovered the likes of Howlin’ Wolf, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis — and the greatest rockabilly artist of them all, Elvis Presley.
In each case, they walked into his studio one day, asking for a chance to record. With the exception of Jerry Lee Lewis — who everyone knew was too talented for words — the rest had nothing to recommend them except they were different.
“Anyone who came through that door got Sam’s full attention,” Marion Keisker, his business partner for many years, said.
Even at the end of his life, Sam Phillips was never able to say exactly what it was about these guys. Elvis had acne on his neck, Johnny was too soft spoken and possibly religious, Howlin’ Wolf was impossible to describe.
There was something, though, and Sam Phillips listened. “Anyone who came through that door got Sam’s full attention,” Marion Keisker, his business partner for many years, said. “Didn’t matter if it was Elvis or a delivery boy.”
Well, in fact, Elvis was a delivery boy. He’d come in on his lunch hour, hoping to record a gospel song on one of those little acetates for his mother. And, no, he wasn’t signed to a contract that day — or for many months to come.
As much as Sam liked the kid (Elvis was still in his teens), Elvis didn’t have any songs of his own. He tried singing everything from gospel to hillbilly until Phillips turned off the tape recorder. “I thought he was gonna throw me out of there,” Elvis once confessed, but then Phillips said to him, “Try another song, something that means something to you.”
That didn’t work, either.
It wasn’t until Elvis was clowning around on a break, doing a song called “That’s Alright Mama,” by blues singer, Arthur Crudup, that Phillips heard something he liked. Elvis was throwing in all this vibrato, wiggling around the studio, and Phillips heard him from all the way down the hall.
For the others, Cash, Perkins, Lewis, Rich, it wouldn’t be quite so easy — but it was easier once Elvis was out there.
Within days, a little acetate was floating around regional stations, no “pomp and ceremony,” as Sam Phillips used to say, but the song got played and played again. As Phillips also liked to say, “It literally changed the face of music and what we now know of as rock n’ roll.”
For the others, Cash, Perkins, Lewis, Rich, it wouldn’t be so easy — but it was easier once Elvis was out there. That little recording studio at Union and Marshall, a former grocery store, was now a recognized entity, a place where a man with an ear, a recording engineer named Sam Phillips, was listening, and discovering some of the greatest talent anyone had ever heard.
It wasn’t just the start of rock n’ roll, it was the embryo, the mecca of sorts.
To Phillips, it was what you saw in someone, and you knew was there.
Throughout his career, Sam Phillips hired artists, musicians, sound engineers, promotion people, distributors and executives. He always approached it the same way. Anyone coming through that door was worth a conversation, worth exchanging an idea or two. It became the benchmark of Sun Records, one of the most successful — and original — recording operations in history.
Through his ability to listen, Sam Phillips developed one of the greatest hiring principles of all time — one all managers should follow today. It was never about qualifications. It was never “who filled the bill.” To Phillips, it was what you saw in someone, and you knew was there.
Phillips believed instinct was developed, not born into you. He made lots of hiring mistakes, but his belief never wavered.
Even when Elvis was recording all those early songs, never hitting the mark, Sam refused to rely on formula. “It could be fourteen hours before I felt a hair goin’ up on my neck,” he’d say, “but something told me it was there.”
Today, it seems, we’re too quick to dismiss, too eager to move on to the next one. We believe either someone has the qualifications or they don’t. We do it by rote, not by instinct. That leads to the ordinary, the expected, the timeworn principle that the obvious choice is usually the best.
We fill offices with the safe ones, the predictable ones, the ones with no fire, no ability to really think. That sameness pervades in every industry.
Yet every year, people just as smart, just as talented, leave companies — or never get hired in the first place.
We talk of innovation, but there’s no one to innovate. We admire characters like Sam Phillips, Steve Jobs, Warren Buffett, but we know they’d never cross our thresholds. No HR department would have hired them out of the gate. No manager would have tolerated their unique thinking.
We hold them up as icons. We say, “Wouldn’t it be great if we had someone like Steve Jobs around.” Yet every year, people just as smart, just as talented, leave companies — or never get hired in the first place. In each case, the HR department, the managers say the same thing: “They weren’t the right fit for this company.”
I saw what they could do, and I made them do it.”
By most standard hiring practices, they weren’t. They were different, unpredictable — possibly even unstable. But it’s the unusual ones, the misfits who are at the heart of innovation and unique thinking. It’s those people who start change, who convince others that they can think for themselves, that they can contribute in a truly remarkable and indelible way.
As Sam Phillips used to say, “I never had an artist come in here — except maybe Wolf and Jerry Lee — who blew me away right out of the gate. Some of them took longer than others, but I figured them out eventually. I saw what they could do, and I made them do it.”
It should be a lesson to all of us. That is, if we bother to listen.
Unfortunately, many don’t, and many never will.
Robert Cormack is a novelist, blogger and freelance copywriter. His first novel “You Can Lead a Horse to Water (But You Can’t Make It Scuba Dive)” is available online and at most major bookstores (now in paperback). Check out Yucca Publishing or Skyhorse Press for more details (you can also buy from them).