I was born into Memphis music. My parents met in radio. Sam was an engineer and DJ; Becky was a singer and ukulele player. She and her sister, who was a consummate pianist, had a radio program on the station Sam worked for, and that's how they met.
Sam got the opportunity to come to Memphis and work at WREC in 1945 when he was 22. He had passed through Memphis a few years earlier and had fallen in love with the city after seeing Beale Street at 3 a.m. in the pouring-down rain. It wasn’t just Beale. It was the Mississippi River, the city’s rhythm and its feel. But most of all, it was the life and vitality he saw on Beale Street! He vowed then and there he would return some day if he ever got the chance.
I was born in Memphis in 1945. There was a judge named Knox in Lauderdale County, Alabama, where my parents are from. My father always loved that name, so that's where mine came from. When I was younger, I wanted to be a Bill or Jim! My brother, Jerry, is three years younger than me.
It was not a life of luxury. At first, we lived in a garage apartment on North Waldron where, as a baby, I slept in a dresser drawer. Later, we lived on the bottom floor of a duplex on Vinton in Midtown. Sam was totally consumed with radio — it was his first love, and it was his last. He always believed in its possibilities for communication, but he couldn’t put out of his mind the music he had heard on Beale — the same music he had heard as a boy growing up in Florence: the black spirituals and cotton patch blues that had inspired him and that he saw as the highest form of musical expression he had ever encountered. Against all the odds of that time and that place, he decided to build a studio to record that music.
It was a huge risk. Keep in mind, this was 1950. Segregation was at its height, and we're in the South. He had a young family and a good job with the certainty of advancement in his chosen field. He had to give up his job. He had to weigh the risk to his family. But as he always said, he couldn’t not do it. The only failure would have been in not trying.
He opened Memphis Recording Service — what later became Sun Studio — at 706 Union in 1950. He built the studio himself and bought used equipment. I was five or six years old, and I'd be in the studio with Ike Turner, Howlin' Wolf, Rufus Thomas, Little Junior Parker, Joe Hill Louis the One-Man Band, and Little Milton — to me, it was the greatest music in the world.
Sam's deal was that he had no interest in recording anyone but the untried, the unproven, the dispossessed — black and white. Every one of the people he recorded — including Elvis Presley — was frightened when they came into the studio. And if they weren’t frightened, they were insecure. They had never been given a chance. It was Sam’s mission to give them that chance, to bring something out in them that they might not even know they had themselves.
Sam’s first hit was “Rocket 88” by Ike Turner and Jackie Brenston. It went to No. 1 on the R&B charts in the summer of 1951 and has often been called the first-ever rock ‘n’ roll record. Ike and Jackie’s band broke up, but we ended up with their “Rocket 88” bus out in front of our place on Vinton! Sam had helped Ike put that bus together for them to go on the road, but I don’t think it ever ran. The point is, Jerry and I ended up with the bus to play in. It said "Ike Turner and the Kings of Rhythm" and "Rocket 88" in letters that were as tall as the bus. We had cap gun fights in it and imagined blasting off in our own, personal rocket ship!
None of that today sounds like your normal nuclear family experience, but it was my life, so it seemed pretty normal to me.
I remember the Prisonaires recording at the studio. My father talked the governor into transporting them here from the maximum-security prison in Nashville. Sam asked the governor to give them a chance. There were five black guys — I think they had 599-year sentences between them. To see these guys singing — voices only. "Walkin' in the Rain" was a kind of prisoner's prayer. There were two big, white guards in full regalia standing around. You wonder how anybody could sing in that atmosphere, but my old man was pretty good at bringing people's dreams into focus and helping them block out some of the obstacles in their way.
When my mother took us Downtown on the bus, I would see "white-only" and "colored only" signs. I couldn't understand what it meant. It was just so contrary to everything I had been brought up to believe. I mean, we all drank Cokes together at the studio!
Elvis came over to our house more than any of the other musicians — we saw him all the time, even after Sam sold his contract and Elvis was a superstar! Most of the time, he'd come over after midnight, knock on the door, and maybe have 12 or 15 people with him. No matter what time it was, my mother would always say, "Sure, come on in, Elvis!" And then she’d wake us and say, "Boys, Elvis is here. Do you want to get up?" We'd say, "Yep, probably so, Mom!"
How cool was that? You know, I think Jerry and I never got in any real trouble because we were in the middle of it all the time. For us, that was normal.
Sam had a pinball machine and a pool table. Nobody drank much; it was all pretty mild — but fun! We shot pool, played the pinball machine, and had conversations with Elvis or Jerry Lee Lewis. One time, Roy Orbison spent three weeks with us. We'd shoot marbles together.
When Jerry Lee played the Paramount Theatre in New York, Sam took us to see him. Jerry Lee was the hottest thing in the world at the time. I was about 12, and it was an amazing thing to see. It's also pretty amazing to watch movies about it now because I was there — and it never seems quite the way it was!
My dad needed a bigger space, so he built Phillips Recording Studio at 639 Madison in 1959. He designed every echo chamber. This was a fabulous facility: two studios, two Neumann lathes, one stereo lathe, and one mono.
I worked there all through high school and college — packaging records, learning the console, engineering, producing. I recorded some bands during college, and it was pretty much jumping into the deep end of the swimming pool. I didn't know what I was doing; the band didn't know what they were doing; so we figured if we didn't know what we were doing together, maybe we'd get something! And that's what happened.
When I graduated from Rhodes — Southwestern — Sam encouraged me to go into law and definitely discouraged me from going into the music business mainly because he thought the independent record companies, like Sun, Chess, or Atlantic, didn’t have much of a future. He may have been right, and I was sufficiently convinced to get acceptance to, and enroll at, Vanderbilt Law School. But when it came right down to it, at the last minute, I thought: I don’t want to miss all this. If it doesn’t work out, I can always go to law school later. I just wasn't sure that if I didn't give this a shot, I might regret it.
One of my best memories of all of us together was when Jerry and I did an album with John Prine for Warner Bros. In the middle of the session, I called up Sam. I said, "Dad, we're stuck on a song called 'Saigon.' Could you come down?" Well, he did, and he listened, and then he said to the band, which was playing the song at 160 miles an hour, "Do you know what half speed is? Well, play half of half speed." We got it on the next take! It's a great album, and John Prine is one of my best friends in the world. But the greatest thing about it for me is that it was the one creative musical project that Jerry, Sam, and I all worked on together. To me, that's one of the highlights music-wise because it brings together family and history. I'm real proud of that.
In the late '60s and early '70s, Memphis was going through some pretty serious changes, just like the rest of the music industry. That's when we put together Memphis Music Inc., Memphis's first music organization.
Memphis is a hard place to organize because everyone has such an extreme sense of individuality — that’s what’s always made it so great. And that quality definitely is great for creating unusual, amazing music, but it's not so great for organizational thinking. But we did put it together, and it was the precursor to the Memphis chapter of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.
I could see there were going to be a lot of lean music years ahead. I knew we had to have some voice in the national decision-making in the music business mainstream. The most prominent organization was NARAS. I thought maybe the best thing to do was affiliate with Nashville and try to get some membership over here. There were only six chapters at the time. The more members you had in your chapter, the more board members you had on the national decision-making board.
So we affiliated with Nashville and signed up as many people as we could. I was elected to the Board of Governors and, around 1970, elected national trustee. My entire thrust, effort, and purpose was on the National Board of Trustees' decision-making process.
In 1973, after three years of hard work, it came down that the board was going to choose one chapter to expand The Recording Academy. I made all the presentations for Memphis, and when they finally voted, we won over Miami, Detroit, Toronto, London, and a number of others.
When we got it, it was a really great feeling. We finally had a Recording Academy chapter of our own! Even when times are bad, there's going to be some hope! When the music business that employs the musicians are making decisions, we're going to have a voice!
It was one of the first times everybody in the music community came together on anything. That's a pretty seminal event in the history of Memphis music. There were some pretty lean years that followed, but I always felt that our Recording Academy chapter was one of the things that helped hold the community together.
In 2004, I was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer and told I needed to get my affairs in order. I was in the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston for 10 months and was dosed with the most chemotherapy and radiation a person can have and still live. Diane Duncan is my diamond person. We've been together more than 30 years, and she helped get me through cancer. The entire music community rallied behind me, encouraging me, telling me not to even think about giving up. Three surgeries, terribly hard chemotherapy, and radiation. I said, "Well, I'm just going to get well." I'm telling you, the music community will come to your rescue, and they will do it unselfishly.
Memphis is nothing if not creative. It's independent people with a free-thinking human spirit. Every piece of music you hear, it's in there. At what point in my life did I consciously decide that I would make music for a living? I don't know. Music seeped into me by osmosis. I was around it, immersed in it. I lived it. Music became not just a part of my upbringing, but a part of my spirit, my education, and my soul. As I look back on it, that's how it happened.
In my experience, musicians tend to work hard and give their all whether in the studio or on stage.
From my father, I got a life philosophy. He tried to transfer it not only to me, but to his recording artists. Things like: "Be yourself, no matter what that self might be." "Praise difference and individuality." "Do your best to work for the greater good." Things like that. He was always trying to inspire everyone he came into contact with to be a better person.
I have never consciously tried to hurt anybody or intentionally taken advantage of another person. I believe we're all in this life together.
There are no original followers!
One of my greatest pleasures was working with musicians in the studio, not just because of their beautiful originality, but for their constant effort to make what we were working on better. They're neither fish nor fowl, and they're brilliant.
My favorite memory of Jerry Lee Lewis When we recorded, we'd usually do all-nighters. He was a night guy. We'd take a break, and he'd want to go down to an adult club. I'm just riding with him. As soon as Jerry Lee came in, everybody would start jumping around and dancing on tables. He was just a very big deal. On the way back to the studio, he'd always play a tape of Jimmy Swaggart — all gospel songs after we'd been to this adult club! Then we'd go back into the studio, and we'd do a song like, "Don't Boogie-Woogie When You Say Your Prayers Tonight." It was just this odd, but somehow profound, intersection of values!
Beyond the crazy stories, Jerry Lee is a genius with a generous, sensitive heart that the world rarely sees. In the studio, he is a virtuoso piano player whose left hand was almost hypnotic to me. You've never heard anybody with a left hand like his. It's hard to believe a brain can operate both creatively and mathematically in that manner. Totally amazing.
The music business taught me that in the world of creativity, you give out but you never give up.
To me, Memphis has been, more than anything, the home of the independent spirit.
The worst moment of my life was being told that my daughter, Kimberly Layne, had died. She was a renaissance kind of girl, a consummate dancer, and an unbelievable choreographer. She died from an infection of the sac that encases the heart. It happened about a month before getting her master's degree from Pepperdine University. But it teaches you to enjoy the happenings inside each moment.
I wouldn't be where I am if it weren't for Sam, it weren't for Diane, if it weren't for rock 'n' roll.
It's hard to believe that I've enjoyed my life as much as I have. I think mainly because I was brought up during a very revolutionary musical period that my father played a big role in. It brought people together, changed the world, and changed me.
My first true love was my father's studio and the music within — and that love of music has stayed with me all my life.
The most difficult thing was getting through my daughter's death and learning from it.
It hurts me when I unintentionally disappoint anybody. When that happens, it's a bad moment.
The last words I said to my father before he died were "I'll be over there tomorrow to watch the Cubs." Then he was gone. He was a big baseball fan. When he opened his studio in the '50s, he did all the sound and the organ for Russwood Park, the minor league baseball park in Memphis at the time.
I'm always mistrustful of somebody who wants me to make a snap judgment.
Fighting cancer is like riding a motorcycle through the hills. It's valleys and hills and valleys and hills — hope and despair. And then you get through most of those hills and you say, "Well, these hills aren't so bad. I'm just going to get through them and get well." Once I got used to the ride, I didn't notice the hills and valleys as much.
If I had a magic wand, I would try to get people to listen to music with their ears, hearts, and souls in a way that would connect them and open them up to the emotional components in music that can change the world and bring people closer together.
The one person I'd like to meet is Martin Luther King, Jr. — but there are so many others.
I liked writing songs but I wouldn't hire myself!
My biggest fear is that I'll let someone down — and that includes myself.
From my mother, I got kindness, a sense of grace, and a heart that gave off unequivocal love not only to her family but everyone she encountered.
My first thought when I learned of my daughter's death was if this is true, I'm going to handle this well for myself and my family, and I'm not going to fall apart. Kim was such a strong person, it would dishonor her memory to fall apart.
People today don't realize I'm handicapped! I've tried to learn to live with it and look as normal as possible, but the cancer chemotherapy treatment did some extreme peripheral nerve damage to my system. I'm here, but I'm numb!
My all-time favorite thing in life is making records!
I try not to think about what if my cancer comes back? I can't really take any more chemotherapy, so if it comes back, I've got one less bullet in the gun to fight with. When you don't have a full deck, you don't want to get in a game where you need one.
One of my greatest honors is receiving the Distinguished Achievement Award from the University of Memphis in the Creative and Performing Arts. My dad received the very first award; I received the one this year. On the large plaque listing the winners, Sam's name is the first one, and I'm the very last one that fits on that same plaque. It's the only award that he and I share.
I want to be remembered as a true individual who made a difference and gave himself over to the larger purpose of community. My life has been all about telling and shaping the Memphis music story, doing whatever I could do to help the music community, help the mission of it — locally, nationally, globally.
My final 2 cents is this: Define yourself and never let anyone else define you; believe in yourself and prize your individuality. There is no greater accomplishment in life than pursuing a goal that you believe in with every fiber of your being and being recognized and remembered as a true individual. It’s all about finding your song.