Tuesday, July 26, 2011
A Day in the Sun
I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned this here, but back in the ‘90’s, when I was living in Memphis, I worked as a tour guide at Sun Studio. For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, Sun was the recording studio where Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and about a ton of other great rockabilly and blues performers cut their first tracks. It pretty much put rock’n’roll on the map.
It was a kick-ass job, I won’t lie. I got to meet people from all over the world—England, Germany, Japan—and talk to them about great music. I’d play clips from songs, answer questions, hang out, gently ask folks not to touch Elvis’s microphone in the corner.
But the best part of the job was having the opportunity to meet some of popular music’s greatest heroes. Billy Lee Riley (“my gal is red hot, yer gal ain’t doodly-squat”…) was a regular presence for a while, as he was recording a brand new record at the time, and he told me all sorts of great stories. Rufus Thomas showed up a couple times. Roscoe Gordon.
On top of that, I occasionally got to give the tour to more modern performers when they’d come through town on tour. One of the highlights: giving the tour to Lux Interior and Poison Ivy of The Cramps—and having them paying ultra-close attention to every word I said. Cool, but a bit nerve-wracking as well.
But the absolute best day at Sun occurred shortly before I left the job for greener pastures:
The BBC was in, doing a documentary on rock music, and for the occasion Carl Perkins showed up, as well as Jerry Lee Lewis, Scotty Moore (Elvis’s original guitar player) and D.J. Fontana (Elvis’s original drummer). In the café next door, I shared a Coke with Carl Perkins and he told me a great story about how Sam Phillips had promised him a Cadillac after “Blue Suede Shoes” sold a million copies. They took a publicity shot of Phillips handing the keys to Carl, with the Caddy behind them. After that, Carl told me, Phillips had the cost of the Caddy deducted from Carl’s royalty payments.
I told that story during every tour I gave after that.
Before the BBC started filming, I went upstairs, where Jerry Lee Lewis was getting make-up put on for the cameras. “Excuse me, Mr. Lewis,” I said. “I’m Heath. I’m a big fan of yours.”
And Jerry Lee turned around, sort of stiff-necked, to look at me. “’course you are, son,” he said, and turned back to the make-up artist.
An hour later, all four of them were in the studio, jamming. The little place was packed solid with cameramen, sound men and crew. The only person in the room not doing anything but watching? Me. I was crouched in the corner, trying to stay out of the way, and watching these four musical legends play together.
It was one of the highlights of my meager little life.
When I wrote The Bastard Hand, old Sun rockabilly was part of the soundtrack, as well as older Sun blues and R&B, like Howlin’ Wolf, The Prisonaires, Jackie Brenston. That music is STILL on my soundtrack, no matter what I write.