In the summer of 1957, Barbara Barnes Sims was a twenty-four-year-old sales promotion coordinator at WMCT-TV in Memphis when she got a call from the head of Sun Records, Sam Phillips. At the time, it seemed like simply an interesting job offer, a chance to work for a small, local record label making some of the most exciting discs of the day. In fact, Sims witnessed rock’n’roll history. In her new book, The Next Elvis: Searching for Stardom at Sun Records, she tells the fascinating tale of her time at the legendary record label.
The history of Sun Records has been written many times. The artists Sam Phillips discovered—B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Charlie Rich—became musical icons, but rather than focus on the stars, Sims presents a look at the day-to-day operations of the record label and the many interesting personalities who came together to make Sun Records a creative dynamo.
Working as the in-house publicist and sales-promotion coordinator for the label from 1957 to 1960, Sims learned about the record business from the ground up, writing press releases, working with distributors, buttering up radio deejays, and occasionally crossing paths with the artists she was promoting, as when she first met one of Sun’s biggest stars:
On a dark and gloomy Friday morning at the end of January 1958, the front door crashed open, a booted foot kicked in before the whole person could be seen, and lo, there appeared Mr. Jerry Lee Lewis in the flesh. I had anticipated this moment, and now I was finally getting to meet the singer I had been praising in print and conversation since last summer. I wasn’t surprised by his swagger, that redneck stride that announced “better get out of my way,” but I was unprepared to see how young he looked and how tall…. The famous mop of hair was quite noticeable, long on top and wavy, and he had barely gotten in the door when he whipped out a comb from his back pocket and ran it through the peroxided golden locks. Perhaps “immature” is a better word, not “young,” but I wouldn’t have guessed we were about the same age.
Sims’s straightforward prose style is spiced with frank assessments of over-the-top personalities; she gives a refreshing view of the young men who went on to become legends in American music. But some of the most interesting characters Sims describes are not household names. Jud Phillips, Sam’s sharp-dressed and business-minded brother, mentored Sims in the crazy world of the record business in the late 50s; hard-partying, safari-helmet-wearing recording engineer Jack Clement produced many of the label’s records as Sam Phillips became occupied with business dealings; Bill Justis, the hepcat, was a jazz-loving music arranger and instrumental hit maker; Billy Riley, the handsome, talented, and mercurial rocker, may be the greatest of all Sun’s “could-have-been” stars. Even minor characters come alive as Sims describes the mix of eccentrics that made Sun Records a special place:
The mail was delivered by a temperamental postman who was fed up with the lot of us, chiefly because we handed back to him all the packages containing unsolicited demos. Sam had instructed us to mark them ‘refused’ and return them to the poor, heavily laden postman…. He showed his contempt for us as he would tromp in scowling and leave slamming the door.
In addition to invoking the heady atmosphere of the late-fifties music business, Sims’s memories also include interesting glances into the challenges faced by a young woman working in a field dominated by men. Sam Phillips and most of Sims’s co-workers stand out as very progressive-minded for their time, but that was certainly not the case for many in the music business, as Sims discovered in the summer of 1959 at a juke-box operators’ convention in Chicago.
It wasn’t just the language of these record-industry men. They were so crude that I began to wonder what they thought of me. Maybe they’d never seen a woman in a professional role at these meetings. Surely they didn’t think I was a hooker! With Jud, everyone I met had been reasonably polite, now I came to believe only in deference to him, not me.
Sims’s time at Sun Records began mid-way through the record label’s glory days, and she loads the first portion of the book with background information that tends to drag the narrative down. Once that groundwork is established, however, her conversational tone and attention for small details keep the story lively, informative, and truly entertaining. The Next Elvis is a fascinating addendum to the story of one of the greatest record labels of all time and a snapshot of the record business during one of the most exciting eras in American music.
Randy Fox is a freelance writer whose writing on music and pop culture has appeared in Vintage Rock, Record Collector, East Nashvillian, Nashville Scene, Jack Kirby Collector, Hardboiled, and many other publications. He lives in Nashville.