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CMT’s ‘Sun Records’ Recalls a Prime Time in American Culture
February 23, 2017  | By David Hinckley

The independent record business of the early 1950s was as crazy as the music was wonderful, and CMT’s new series Sun Records captures that spirit.

Sun Records, which launches Thursday at 10 p.m. ET, began as a television adaptation of the Broadway hit Million Dollar Quartet and expanded into an eight-episode series focusing more on the larger story of this amazingly influential label and its founder, Sam Phillips (Chad Michael Murray, Agent Carter, below).

That was a good decision. Million Dollar Quartet was (and in road companies still is) a fun jukebox musical, but there’s so much more to the Sun story than a round robin songfest with four of its most famous artists.

How far Sun Records can dig into that story isn’t wholly clear. Based on the first couple of episodes, it isn’t afraid to spend time in critical and somewhat obscure areas.

It also enlivens the drama with sharply drawn non-musical characters. Johnny Cash’s father Ray (J. Thomas Bailey) comes off as a cold racist, and we quickly dive into the affair between Phillips and his assistant Marion Keisker (Margaret Anne Florence), who seems flirtier here than most accounts suggest she was in real life.

The music itself, contemporary remakes of the blues, pop, gospel, country, and rock ‘n’ roll tunes that infused the Sun story, rarely captures the electricity of the originals.

Still, the songs generally convey what Sun was about, and how Phillips understood and helped shape the chaotic music revolution of those years.

To vastly oversimplify, the big bands and popular crooning were being supplanted by a younger sound, primarily what we’d call blues, rhythm and blues and rockabilly, that would merge with pop and gospel to create the broad hybrid of rock ‘n’ roll.

The first episode focuses on Johnny Cash (Kevin Fonteyne, top, far left), who came up on the country side; Elvis Presley (Drake Milligan, top, center), whose musical taste ran from Dean Martin to black gospel choirs; and Phillips, who heard these new sounds in his head and was desperately trying to figure out how he could harness them and turn it into a living.

He began by finding black Southern singers like one-man band Joe Hill Louis and making recordings he sold to rhythm and blues labels. He also worked with Ike Turner (Kerry Holiday, top, second from left), who hustled as hard as Phillips himself in the music biz.

We get quick biographies of the early Sun artists, sufficient to illustrate the range of backgrounds from which they came and the personalities they brought to the game.

We meet Jerry Lee Lewis (Christian Lees, top, far right), who came in a later wave, at the same time we meet his cousin Jimmy Swaggart (Jonah Lees, Christian's twin brother). The way the paths of those two men soon diverged is way too intriguing a story for Sun Records not to explore.

To its credit, the show dives early into the racial divide of the early 1950s South. Beyond Ray Cash’s violent response to a black family living in his neighborhood, the parents of a girl Elvis is dating tell her she must break it off after they see Elvis talking with parishioners outside a black church.

There’s little doubt scenes like that are true to the culture of the times. Their dramatizations can feel stilted, as it does when we see Elvis tiptoe up to the black church, very tentatively make his way inside and sit in the back row, where two “church ladies” are surprised and welcoming.

The scene makes a valid and critical point, about Elvis, music, and the congregation. Purely as drama, it feels a little too neatly packaged.

We get more depth and nuance with the racial component of Phillips and his music. While he became most famous and successful for the white artists he recorded – Elvis, Cash, Lewis, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison – the first several dozen releases on Sun were by black artists. His talent scouting involved almost exclusively black performers.

That’s a critical foundation of the Sun and Phillips stories. What he was hearing wasn’t white kids playing black music. It was music that could get everyone’s fingers popping and feet dancing.

Not to romanticize Phillips too much, because he was hardly without sin, he heard color-blind music at a time when so many of his fellow citizens still saw color first.

Sun Records at times recounts history literally enough to feel like docudrama. At other times it’s an imagining of what could have happened with this fascinating mix of imperfect and marvelously skilled people.

Collectively, it tells us something important about a pivotal time for America, America’s vision of itself, American popular culture, and American music.

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