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Sam Phillips, 1950
Sam Phillips

Sam Phillips, the man who discovered the likes of Howlin’ Wolf, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash, obviously had a great ear for musical talent. But he also was an impressive businessman with a head for investments. If you’ve ever stayed anywhere here in the U.S. such as for your honeymoon at hotels near Niagara Falls or overseas at hotels in London, you partially have Sam to thank because he was one of the original investors in the Holiday Inn motel chain, which greatly influenced the hotel industry. Sam Phillips was accomplished in many arenas, but we especially love his words about the Wolf, excerpted below.

“The Wolf didn’t say a hell of a lot, but then he said it in his quiet way. It was no time until I picked up on his demeanor and manner and everything and I was just impressed with Wolf. Just when I talked with him just for a little while….He came in and it was no time after I heard him open his mouth that I said, ‘Oooooh, I’ve got something interesting here.’ After I heard the first damn song, whatever it was that he sang, I just knew that I had something very, very intriguing and that I really wanted to work with.

“When Wolf sat down in that little old chair with his big feet sticking out and began to sing, this guy didn’t know anything was around him! I mean he was singing to exactly the thing that we all want to make contact with, and that is the ears of the world. Maybe that’s one person. Maybe it is everybody on the globe. But Wolf had nothing in mind but just to make sure that he conveyed everything that was in his mind, and in his heart, and in his soul when he opened his mouth to sing.…He was, boy, pouring out his soul! And I mean you could just see it in addition to feel it…He sung his ass off—and that was a big ass!

“He was totally in charge of his band. He had one person in the band that he would work off of….Willie Johnson was the guy he worked off of, ’cause he knew if Willie was right, the others would fall in line….He depended on Willie a lot, and Willie was somebody that thought a lot like Wolf.

“Wolf’s harmonica playing was always the right amount. He would never do anything on the harmonica that would detract from you waiting to get back to Wolf’s voice….There is a certain lonesomeness about the harmonica that just fit the Wolf’s character in voice, in song, in lyric; and he just played that just enough to titillate things he was going to do next with his voice.

“I think that he had that honest sound and that heartfelt feeling that he gave with that unbelievably different, totally different, voice that the young people that I was looking for that didn’t have anything they could call their own would have heard this man and said, ‘Man, he is…telling it like it is.’ The freedom that he gave you and the truth that he told and felt in his songs were something to hear. And then to hear the way that he sang ’em, it is something that I just wish everybody could hear right now.

“I do not think that the Chess boys—and I am certainly not putting anybody down—I don’t think they heard in the Wolf what I heard. I feel that if I had had the Wolf, that I believed in him so much, that I would have worked hard toward that end that he was heard by a lot more people than he was heard by….I don’t think that anybody in the world could come close to getting out of the Wolf what I could have gotten out of the Wolf had I had the opportunity to work with him over a long period of time, ’cause nobody had any more belief in what this man conveyed in his music than I did….The world missed a lot by not hearing the Wolf!”