SUN RECORDS gives an origin story to the birth of rock ‘n’ roll when Sam Phillips moves in to “706 Union.” Like all origin stories there may be discussions about exclusions and timelines but Sun Records does a great job at placing a star in the middle of this musical system when Sam Phillips moves from Nashville to Memphis to open a recording studio for local talent to make quality records on a budget. The gravity of this tiny little office begins to draw talent from all over the south the minute he opens the doors.
The year is 1950 and the United States suffers from government sponsored segregation and systemic racism. Sun Records gives us a glimpse of the divisive language and community divide throughout the “706 Union,” it’s part of the show’s texture. An emerging theme is how music transcends division.
“706 Union” open with a young Elvis Presley strumming his guitar at his mother’s apartment in Lauderdale Courts, Memphis. Gladys Presley is caring and supportive mother, but his father, Vernon, comes off as an angry drunk. Vernon wants Elvis to spend less time on his guitar and more time in his school books. Not likely. When he isn’t pissing off pops, Elvis hangs out with his girlfriend, Trixie. Elvis dreams of getting out of Memphis and moving to a big city. Trixie dreams of raising a family. At this point in time, Elvis already enjoys bluesy music, but Trixie doesn’t feel comfortable in the “colored” part of town.
Later, we’ll see Elvis leave the boring service happening at the church his family attends and sneak into the more lively service down the street. Elvis sits in one of the back rows where some elderly women notice him. When the singing starts, one of the ladies invites Elvis to sing along. Afterwards, Trixie and her family drive by the church. Trixie’s father sees Elvis talking with other members of the congregation and forbids her from ever seeing him again.
Elvis catches up to Trixie at a diner and samples a new song for her. It’s a striking sound that gets the attention of the other patrons but Trixie is embarrassed. She tells him he ruined everything and runs out the door. This show is partly about dreamers and all dreamers have anchors, for better or worse. Sam Phillips has barely opened the doors at the Memphis Recording Service and Elvis is already feeling the pull.
Sam Phillips pulls the car over on his way into Memphis when he sees a sign for a local DJ, Dewey Phillips. Dewey runs a live show from a local dive, but he also has a studio at a radio station. He’s a good source of intelligence and marketing for Sam and listens to his pitch. Sam is opening a local recording studio, Memphis Recording Services, where local talent can come in, record music, and get a record pressed for them within days. He also has a mobile set up to record special events, like weddings and funerals. This is probably the same pitch Sam told his wife, Becky, but Sam has other plans and another woman to share them with.
Later, Dewey invites Sam over to the radio station for a chat where Sam talks about his quest for great music. This is really why he came to Memphis. Dewey says he knows a manager from Los Angeles headed to town with one of his artists, B.B. King. They’re going to need a place to record and Dewey promises to send them to the Memphis Recoding Service. Sam is happy for the business, recording the local hounds pays the electric bill, but he has plans to finds his own acts and he wants to have one on deck when B.B. King and his manager arrive.
Sam grabs Marion, his trusty studio sidekick, and they hit the town looking for local talent. Marion shares Sam’s love for music and his enthusiasm for the Memphis Recording Service. She handles everything from billing to technical equipment issues and she clearly knows her way around Sam’s mic. She adds an interesting layer to the mix, Sam doesn’t have a studio without her. They find Joe Hill Louis, The Be-Bop Boy, a talented one man band. Sam invites him to record few of his songs at the studio and plans on pitching him to King’s label.
Johnny Cash is the third main act introduced in “706 Union.” Cash lives in Dyess, Arkansas on a run down farm. His daddy is ten times the A-hole Vernon Presley and throws a huge fit when the neighboring property is sold to a black family. The sales agent explains the only color the banks see is green. The same could be said about government and the justice department. Cash enlists in the Air Force to further enrage his papa. We don’t see much of his musical future and his main purpose is escaping the farm and his father, but we know Sun Records will be tugging at him soon.
We also get a couple of scenes with Col. Tom Parker. At first Col. Parker works at a carnival where he has an act that involves dancing ducks. People pay to watch a pair of ducks dance to a music. However, they get enraged when the record stops and the ducks keep dancing. One of the angry audience members pulls back the duck-stage skirting to reveal a small fire underneath, heating the metal floor the ducks dance on. There couldn’t be a better introduction to the man that ran Elvis into the ground. “706 Union” set the tone, the time, and the core characters while teasing drama and many other exciting artists.
Season 1, Episode 1 (S01E01)
Sun Records airs Thursdays at 10PM on CMT
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Eric Rodriguez | Contributor