Sun Records' legacy has been on the rise. Occasionally eclipsed by other luminaries of rock-and-roll, these days it would seem to be at high noon. The Country Music Hall of Fame recently hosted a special exhibit on Sam Phillips, Sun's visionary founder. Meanwhile, Peter Guralnick recently published the definitive biography of Phillips. And then we have the CMT series, Sun Records, which was well-received despite not being renewed for a second season.
But the most telling sign of a rejuvenated Sun has been the revival of the studios that originally captured the music. Engineer/producer Matt Ross-Spang began his career at Sun Studio, helping to stock its recording facility with vintage gear, and more recently moved to Sam Phillips Recording, helping to renovate it. Fittingly, the first project done in the newly reorganized space was the tribute Feel Like Going Home: The Songs of Charlie Rich. Now, recorded jointly at Phillips and Sun, we have another tribute album about to drop nationally, Red Hot: A Memphis Celebration of Sun Records, with all sales revenue benefiting the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.
This album, already available in Memphis, is notable for relying only on local talent. Originating well before the television series, it leapt from the imaginations of Bryan Hayes and Steve Dunavant, of the local Americana Music Society. They contacted co-producer Tamara Saviano. "Steve and I first reached out to Tamara," says Hayes. "She had done several of these tribute albums. She won a Grammy for Beautiful Dreamer: The songs of Stephen Foster. And when we reached out to her, she said she wanted to work with Luther [Dickinson]." As it turned out, Dickinson would become both co-producer and band leader. This was especially fitting given that his father, the late Jim Dickinson, cut the "Cadillac Man" single for Sun in 1966.
A crack team of Memphis players steeped in the Sun tradition was recruited: Luther Dickinson on guitar, his brother Cody on drums, John Paul Keith on guitar, Amy LaVere on bass, and Rick Steff on piano. This house band drew on the vocal talents of the players for some numbers. "We knew everybody was going to honor the original compositions and recordings, but we wanted to have a little bit of leeway for our players to put their stamp on it," says Hayes.
John Paul Keith, whose voice (since he quit smoking) conjures up the young Roy Orbison, kicks things off, with a sax cameo from Jim Spake. Amy LaVere offers a smooth version of "Ten Cats Down" by the Miller Sisters. And Luther Dickinson offers a two-part workout of Howlin' Wolf's "Moanin' at Midnight." But the band also backs notable guest vocalists, including Jimbo Mathus, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Shawn Camp, and Bryan Hayes himself. The most vintage sounds blossom in Valerie June's "Sure to Fall (In Love with You)." Chuck Mead, musical director for the CMT series, also leads several Sun Records cast members and the house band through an impromptu version of "Red Hot."
I asked John Paul Keith if there were any rehearsals. "Oh no!" he said. "We just showed up. They didn't rehearse when they made the records. Why should we? We even had the advantage of hearing it all our lives." Simply being in the old studios put the band in the right frame of mind as they cut most of the album live. "In some cases, we were using the exact same microphones used in the original sessions," notes Hayes. "Rick Steff was playing the same piano that Charlie Rich recorded on. The band would do a run-through, Matt would set the mics up, and we were rolling tape. There were a couple of them that were one-takers."
Staying true to the spirit of Sun also informed the song selection. Keith notes, "I was really pleased when I saw the final track listing. There was some really well-known stuff, but there were some deep cuts as well." The only deviation from this was the album's one original song, "Tough Titty" by Bobby Rush. His contribution highlights Sun's blues legacy, which is often overlooked. Says Keith, "You could argue that Sun was one of the most important blues labels ever." In view of Phillips' quest for the unique, Rush's tune may conjure the label's original spirit best of all. Though there was never a Sun version of the song, as Keith notes, "Bobby recorded it there, so there is one now."