There are many films about musicians, that we watch and enjoy. Behind those musicians are the people who helped them along the way. Those people include, everyone from family and friends, to managers and road people. If it was not for these supporting people, we may not have their music and the films about them to entertain us. If not for that one person, that saw something in the musician, and gave them that first big break, their music and the films about them, would never be heard or seen. One such person that is responsible for many music films is Sam Phillips. Born Samuel Cornelius Phillips, on January,5, 1923, in Florence, Alabama, Sam brought many artists to the publics attention. Sam originally wanted to attend Law School, however, he did not have enough money to do so. Sam did have enough money to go to Broadcasting school, and in the 1940s, became a DJ at WLAY, in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. WLAY was “Open Format”, which means they played both “black” and “white” music.
In 1950, Sam opened the Memphis Recording Service. He allowed amateurs to perform and recorded them, then selling these performances to large record labels. In 1952, Sam opened Sun Records. Sun Records allowed Sam to bring many artists to the attention of the world. Therefore, if it had not been for Sam and his company Sun Records, two of the greatest music biopics would not have been made. Strangely, these two films portray Sam Phillips very differently. One film has Sam, as a larger than life, secondary character, while the other has Sam, portrayed in a somewhat minor role. Both films are well known.
Great Balls of Fire
This film about, “The Killer”, Jerry Lee Lewis, was based on the autobiography of his wife, Myra Lewis, co-written with Murry M. Silver Jr. Released in 1989, the film starred Dennis Quaid, as Jerry Lee, and Winona Ryder, as Myra. The film depicts Lewis’ raise to fame, and his romance and marriage to Myra, his 13 year old cousin. Trey Wilson portrays Sam Phillips in this film. Although, a secondary character, Phillips is seen throughout the film as a robust, somewhat comical, presence.
Great Balls of Fire-Trailer
I Walked The Line
A 2005 film, that was nominated for 5 Academy Awards, about the life of Johnny Cash, played by Joaquin Phoenix. The film takes us from Cash’s early years, through his raise to fame and the trials that came about along the way. Much of the film involves Cash’s romance with June Carter, played by Reese Witherspoon, who won a Best Actress Oscar, for the role. In this film Sam Phillips is a minor character, played by Dallas Roberts. Roberts plays a more subdued Phillips than Wilson did in Great Balls of Fire. This may have to do with the amount of screen time that the character held in the film.
I Walked The Line- Trailer
Other screen portrayals of Sam Phillips, include Charles Cyphers, in the 1979 film, Elvis, Tim Guniee, in the 2005 CBS Miniseries, Elvis, Gregory Itzin, in the 1993, Quantum Leap episode “Memphis Melody”, and by his son Knox Phillips, in the 1981 release, This is Elvis.
If you enjoyed any of these films, you owe a debt of gratitude to Sam Phillips. Also, if you enjoyed any of the films, made by Elvis Presley, including Viva Las Vegas, Blue Hawaii, or my personal favorite, Follow That Dream, you owe a debt of gratitude to Sam Phillips, for helping to bring Elvis to the attention of the world, just as he did with Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash. Great Balls of Fire and I Walked The Line would not have been made, if Sam Phillips had not hear something in the music of the two men, for whom those films profiled.