Beyond The Sun
My parents had a cupboard at the house where they kept the records. It wasn’t a big stack but it was all great singers: Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, and a bunch of Elvis.
My brothers and I would listen to these records over and over. I remember starting off to school every day and the last song I heard would be a Jerry Lee Lewis tune. The record player was one of those old fashioned ones that looked like a suitcase and folded out. It had two little speakers, one on each side, about the size of a box of Kleenex. We thought it sounded fantastic, and scratchy sound or not, the records moved you.
The years went by. They always do. But those songs that I grew up listening to stuck with me. My parents, always the bohemians, would have parties at the house. These were usually just a bunch of people and somebody brought some wine and somebody had some food and everybody got loud and laughed a lot...but in the middle of the party my brothers and I would be singing and playing guitar and we always played a bunch of the songs that we grew up listening to.
More years went by. I was in Japan going to college and boxing. I was missing home like crazy, and one day walking down the street in Kyoto I saw a store selling records and guitars. I walked in and saw an album called Elvis Sun Sessions. It had a painting of Elvis on the cover (the painting made Elvis look like he might even be half Japanese) and I looked at the list of songs on the record and I recognized a couple from my folks’ records. I bought the record and to say it changed the direction of my life would be precise. I still have that record. I think I just about wore it out playing it. It was the first time that I realized that all those Elvis songs I had been listening to had come out of Sun Studio. Years before when I had been shopping in the secondhand store (we bought EVERYTHING secondhand) I had found an old 45 of Elvis on Sun Records. It was like finding a part of a puzzle…I LOVED the music. I listened to “I’ll Never Let You Go” until the record skipped and then I stacked pennies on the record arm and kept playing it. But as much as it was instant connection to the music, I really didn’t know much about Sun Studio or all the great music that came out of there. Standing in Japan with that record in my hands brought me a lot closer. I loved the sound of the records. They were simple, straight ahead...I felt like I was in the room listening to the singers. It changed everything for me. At the time I bought the record I was fighting as a light heavyweight and had a flat top or “sports cut” as part of the boxing team. I immediately struck a bargain with my coach to let me keep my hair long as long as I was boxing well. I started wearing my hair greased up, my clothes started being a lot wilder. I sang so much that my Japanese landlady learned the words to “I Forgot to Remember to Forget” by osmosis!
When I got back to the States I was playing guitar all the time at home and listening to Elvis, Jerry Lee, Orbison, Perkins, Johnny Cash...all the singers I grew up with.
They were as exciting as ever and I was getting better at picking out the songs. Little by little I found myself thinking less about getting a “real” job when I got out of college and more and more thinking about where I could find a great band. I was hooked on music. I didn’t really have any big ideas of fame or fortune but I was just dying to have an electric guitar, a flashy suit, and a real microphone stand instead of the broom stick taped to the back of a chair that I was using at home. It took a lot of looking, but I got the guitar, the microphone stand, and finally the great band I had always been looking for. We played every honkytonk and bar, and little by little made a name for ourselves. We got the flashy stage suits (at first we all had secondhand blue gabardine...it was the only color we could all find at the junkstore!). I was writing a lot of songs, and we were recording and putting out records and the action never stopped…touring, filming, TV…and if you saw us on the records you might not have known that we were still playing those Sun Sessions tunes. We would sneak one or two into our live shows. For years we closed our live show with a version of an old Jerry Lee Lewis tune that was my Dad’s favorite and mine too, “Bonnie B.”
Show business is a small tent and a small circus. I kept bumping into the singers I had grown up idolizing. I worked with Roy Orbison and was thrilled to find he was everything I had imagined and more. He was a great singer and a really kind, funny, down to earth guy. I worked with Johnny Cash and was so excited that
I brought along an early picture of Johnny, Sun Studios era, for him to sign. I asked if he would sign it for me and he was gracious, but then when I handed him the photo he just stopped still and looked at it for a long, quiet time. I wasn’t sure if I had upset him or done something wrong, but I was wishing I could crawl away when he turned to me and smiled and said “I was a GOOD looking man.” I have two pictures hanging in my house. One is my mom, the other is that picture of Johnny Cash. I was in a crowd of record executives and trying to sneak out of some kind of radio conference when I looked and saw a guy who looked as uncomfortable as me. It was Carl Perkins. I just thought it was surreal that he could be standing there...I guess I expected him to have a guitar on at all times or something. I remember asking him about one of my favorites of his, a crazy song with wild bending guitars and words I could barely make out. I had listened to it a million times and couldn’t figure out the words…“Carl, what is that song about?” I asked him. I still remember his answer. “That song’s about a quart too many. I was drunk, it was late in the studio, and I was just letting it rip!”
I was asked to play with Jerry Lee Lewis, and have to say it was one of the most fun and the scariest things I ever did. I had seen Jerry play live before, and I knew just about all of his music by heart. We didn’t rehearse, not at all, and I just hoped he was going to like my singing. People kept telling me things before I went out on stage like “you know he shot his bass player once.” I didn’t think getting shot was a possibility, but when you respect and idolize somebody as much as I do Jerry Lee, then you want to please them. I was really happy when it came my turn to sing and no shots rang out.
These singers and their music just seem to always be a part of my life, always there somehow…a chance meeting, a record I find in a store in Japan, or a junkstore in my hometown. I guess I just love the music and keep looking for it and finding it in strange ways and places. When I was filming my television show I was really tired and I remember getting a copy of Oxford American Magazine. It’s a magazine that actually writes readable articles about cool music. I was saving the magazine to read on a break as a treat because I knew it had an article about Sam Phillips, the guy who pretty much got rock and roll going. I know there are lots of others who helped, but I really don’t think without Sam we would have rock and roll. I can’t explain all he did...it’s too much for the notes from a singer on the back of a record. You need to listen to his records, read a couple of books. I have and I still feel like I don’t know much, but I do strongly believe he is a bonafide genius, one of those guys who looks and sees how things are going to be, only he is fifty or a hundred years ahead of his time. He found Elvis. He found Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Orbison, and Jerry Lee. He recorded Howlin’ Wolf and BB King! (I saw BB King play at the state fair in my hometown. “King” is an appropriate name).
If somebody had found ONE of those artists they would have a claim to fame. Two would put you on a short list for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. But to have built the studio in the middle of Memphis way back when, to set up your recorder, and to have found ALL those singers…and got all those amazing performances. He was really way out there on his own. I think just about anybody else would have turned away a young, sweaty, mumbling Elvis. Or they would have tried to turn him into a second rate Dean Martin. But Sam Phillips put Elvis, Bill Black (bass), and Scotty Moore (guitar) together (God bless Scotty Moore. If you like rock music you better believe HE deserves a bow). So I finally took a break from filming and took out the article about Sam Phillips...he is always fun to read. He tells it like he sees it and it is fun to hear that honesty in print just like it is to hear it on his records. But at the end of the article the interviewer asked Sam what new artists he listened to. When he said my name I just about fell out of my chair. It just felt like all that music that I had grown up listening to, his music, Sun Sessions, those great artists...it had all come full circle. I think it meant more to me than any gold record or award I ever received, because Sam Phillips was really the thread that connected all that music that I had been loving all of my life.
I have always wanted to make this record. When I first came to town I made a list of songs that I knew (I didn’t know anything about how the music business worked. I thought maybe someone would let me sing with their band...I must have seen that in a movie.) The songs were just about all Sun Sessions tunes from the recording studio out in Memphis, Tennessee. Well, after making a lot of records of my own, I finally got to make this album of all the tunes I have been singing and playing at practices and soundchecks and in my house all these years. I took the band to Memphis to record at Sun Studio, it’s still a recording studio and it is an AMAZING room! We recorded in the late afternoon and stayed up till way too late and we had a ball! We played, not worked. We had rehearsed the songs. We knew most of the tunes we were going to record. Then we added a few. And I wrote a few. I remember scribbling the second and third verses on pieces of paper on the floor between takes. Maybe that room and all the great music that has been made there made everybody bring their best...It was just flat out FUN to sing and record there. We really went for the style of recording that was used on those records early on. We were all playing in the room together, nobody had any headphones, we just listened to each other and went for it. Of course I told the guys, “if I’m singing good you better play good ‘cause that’s gonna be the take we use!” We cut way more music than we intended...we just couldn’t and didn’t want to stop. It’s the most fun I ever had making a record. And I always have fun singing!
We hope you like this record as much as we do. I have tried to mix in the heartbreakers with the rockers and even a few that I wrote myself. We called the record Beyond the Sun, because the music starts at Sun Studio and just keeps growing and going. I think Mr. Phillips would have liked that. He probably foresaw it…