07 Feb, 2009 – one comment
Sam Phillips founded Sun Records in 1952. The artists he discovered there and that shuffled their feet in the tiny recording studio on the corner of Marshall and Union avenues in Memphis is the stuff of legend: Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Howlin’ Wolf, Jerry Lee Lewis, BB King, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, James Cotton, Bobby Blue Bland and so many others. If you’ve ever visited, and you let the $5 tour of the two room studio leave you behind, it’s hard not to linger and envy the cracked linoleum floors for the genius that stood on them and the music that once reverberated there.
As the story goes, in 1955 Sam was forced to sell Elvis Presley’s recording contract to RCA for the princely sum of $35,000. Sam was forced to sell because he had to pay down the losses he suffered from a major copyright lawsuit where he was found guilty of plagiarism.
You see, Big Mama Thornton recorded the iconic song Hound Dog. Give it a listen.
At the time, Sam was working pretty heavy with Rufus Thomas. He and Rufus got together and recorded a hot little number called Bear Cat. Now, give it a listen. Sound familiar? It should. Bear Cat was conceived to be a humorous answer record for Big Mama’s Hound Dog. Answer records were hugely popular in the early days of rock ‘n roll. Artists used them to ride the coat tails of a popular hit, and deejays loved playing them after the hit song. (Of course, answer songs go much further back into aural tradition than rock ‘n roll.)
Answer records were the remix of their day. Both combine older elements with social currency and entirely new bits to create something unique. The difference between a remix we know and love and an answer song is simply technology. It’s hard to believe a market for this kind of remixing existed back then. Today, when an artist wants to sample a hit song (legally), there are teams of lawyers standing by to cut licensing deals. And artists on both sides of the coin are pretty happy with the product (but perhaps not the process). But in 1953? This was an emerging market meeting an emerging art form; so the answer then (and now) was to sick the lawyers on ‘em.
Is Bear Cat a recombination of Hound Dog? Yes. Is it plagiarism? I’d argue no. Rufus didn’t cover Big Mama or pass off her work as his own. In fact, Bear Cat is incredibly referential to Hound Dog. Nonetheless, Sam took quite a hit from the lawsuit and ultimately lost the most iconic performer in history to a competing label. Rufus never recorded as prolifically again.
When Sam first began recording Elvis, he deliberately added the slap back echo to Elvis’ vocals by running the tape through a second recorder head. When Elvis began recording for RCA they tried everything they could, and still failed, to reproduce that sound.
*the photo above was taken by me, on the move between austin and chicago those years ago.