Sun Records Episode 3: In The Third Person


The big news from the third episode of Sun Records is that Johnny Cash finally got something cool to do.
The episode opened with him hanging with his buddies in a beer hall in Landsberg, Germany where he was stationed in the early 1950s. (Idlewild Presbyterian Church's Fellowship Hall gets a featured cameo as the watering hole.) At the prodding of his buddies, Cash busts out into an impromptu oom-pah song, wowing the crowd. This is the first time Kevin Fonteyne has shown believable talent as a singer—although I have no idea if he actually sang himself—and I started to possibly buy into his Cash portrayal. Later, Cash shows his introspective side as he passes up the opportunity to see a movie in the base lounge to sit by himself with his guitar, working out some songs. He gets a big idea when his buddy casually mentions Folsom prison. We all know where that's going.


Col. Tom continues to be the most compelling character in the series. When he first see him this week, he's getting some heat from his bookie—turns out the Colonel likes to gamble, and his eye for the ponies is not as well developed as his eye for singing talent. Nevertheless, his grandiosity is in full effect. He's already starting to refer to himself in the third person. “Are you proposing impropriety on the Colonel's part?” he says to Eddy Arnold.

But while his gambling instincts may be faulty, his hucksterism is on point. He sells fans to the fans at the un-air conditioned Peabody Dog Patch Jamboree. The show is a Memphis musician cameo-fest: The Subteens' Mark Aiken gets a line as the stage manager, and guitar slinger John Paul Keith gets a double cameo as two different guitar players! He's like Clark Kent, just take off the glasses and you're somebody else. Had I not been familiar with JPK, I might not have noticed his duplicity, which is a tribute to the skill of the makeup and costume folks. If there's one thing Sun Records has been consistently good at, it's deploying all of the budget- and time-saving tricks in the book.

Meanwhile, Eddy Arnold's career is blowing up, but he's getting wise to Col. Tom's chicanery. The Colonel's already got another mark—Hank Snow, played by St. Louis musician Pokey LaFarge—so he fires the client before Snow releases him.

Back at our titular studio, Sam, Dewey, and B.B. King are pretty pleased with their recordings, but label head Joe Bihari (Mike Horton) is not so turned on to "all the hep stuff blasting out of Beale Street." The future arrives out front of Sun in the form of Ike Turner (Kerry D. Holliday in his screen debut) and his band, causing a commotion with the racist proprietors of the car dealership across the street. On the one hand, I applaud the show for taking the controversial "racism is bad, OK?" stance, but the whole sequence where Sam and Dewey stand up to the bigots—as well as the characterization of Ike is pretty cringeworthy.

Not that Ike Turner was a good guy in real life. Far from it. When they can't come up with the $3.98 it takes to record at Sun, they naturally head down to Beale Street, where Ike tries to pimp a waitress named Wanda into singing for his band at Sun and paying the bill all herself. When that's unsuccessful, he just grabs the tip jar and runs out the door, leading the establishment's proprietor to fire off a blast from a shotgun that damages a guitar amp.

The story of how the damaged guitar amp accidentally created fuzz guitar is the stuff of rock legend, and its treatment here is an example of how Sun Record's flawed approach to history is counterproductive. As Ike Turner told it, the amp fell off the back of the car. There was no dramatic shotgun chase. Wouldn't the simple fact that Ike and boys were flat broke, scrounged up just enough to cut the record, and then had to play with a damaged guitar amp that turned out to actually sound good be more relatable? Injecting unnecessary crime hijinx adds nothing. Furthermore, when they actually cut "Rocket 88", Sam makes noise about being impressed with the novel guitar tone, but we never actually hear the guitar tone isolated so the lay audience can understand what he's talking about. The good news is, the take of "Rocket 88" recorded for the show is pretty rocking, and Ike's resentment at being told what to do by Sam, and his subsequent outmaneuvering of Sam is believable and in character.

Sam and Marion takes "Rocket 88" to a pool party where Leonard Chess of Chess Records fame is cavorting with teenage hotties. Marion record scratches the anemic swing on the turntable and busts out "Rocket 88", sending the greasers and bobby soxers into a spasm of uncontrollable dancing. Mr. Chess is impressed, and soon Sam is hanging his first hit record on the wall—only to find out that Ike Turner has jumped ship, so he's back to square one. Sam responds to the setback with a one-man, Marshall Avenue DUI party. Marion, meanwhile, gets a radio gig with Dewey to help support the company, setting her up for either an illicit love triangle with her boss or some Mad Men-style sexual harassment. Time will tell.

Down in Louisiana, Jerry Lee and Jimmy Swaggart are getting into more teenage hijinx, stealing porno mags and breaking into the church so Jerry Lee can chase skirts and play the upright piano. Jimmy makes some noise about how Jerry Lee's sinful ways are going to send him to the pit of fire ("Spill not your seed on the ground! Stay away from loose women!"), but we all know how effective that's going to turn out to be. Besides, Jimmy's heart doesn't seem to be in it. He's clearly having too much fun tagging along with his cousin. In this comedic sub plot, playing fast and loose with history is yielding some fun comic dividends.

Unfortunately, it's Elvis' turn to spin his wheels. He sneaks into Trixie's room at night and, trying to explain his ahistorical black church attendance, tunes her radio to Dewey's R&B show. This attracts negative attention from her father, and as Elvis flees through the window, he yells at Trixie "This is the kind of music that makes good girls go bad!"

Dad's got a point, Trixie. Dad's got a point.

[Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the site of the beer hall shoot as Rhodes College's cafeteria.]

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