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From Presley to Hell: How Sun Records and Ork Records defined rock ’n’ roll

In March of 1956, Roy Orbison and his band The Teen Kings left their home in Odessa, Texas to record a session in Memphis for producer Sam Phillips, at Sun Studios. Over Orbison’s objection, Phillips had the band record “Ooby Dooby,” a novelty song that had raised The Teen Kings’ profile when they’d played it on local television, but which didn’t fit the singer’s vision for a more sophisticated kind of pop music. Phillips though liked the simplicity of the song, which allowed him to do what he did best as a producer: getting musicians to loosen up and record something that sounded as spontaneous and ingratiating as what they might play on their front porch.

In June of 1977, displaced Memphis kid Alex Chilton stumbled into Big Apple Recording in SoHo and with drummer Lloyd Fonoroff and bassist Chris Stamey and recorded “Bangkok,” a crude proto-rock throwback build around the dirty homophone of the title. The former Big Star frontman had been lured to New York by the burgeoning punk scene, and by indie impresario Terry Ork, who’d previously bought a batch of rough Chilton sessions to release on his label Ork Records. But Chilton was a frail, wasted wreck at the time, and his impulsiveness and sloppiness put him at odds with the New York punk culture of the mid-1970s, which was moving toward refined artistic statements and starting to cross over to the mainstream—albeit tentatively.

“Ooby Dooby” and “Bangkok” have a lot in common. They’re both intentionally goofy, meant to appeal to adolescents and arrested adolescents alike. And when they came out, both were somewhat at odds with the dominant trends in popular music. Phillips was fighting in the mid-1950s to keep his Sun Records’ roster of blues and rockabilly acts as raw and authentic as possible, to offer a true alternative to the smooth, homogenized pop on the radio. And Terry Ork (born William Terry Collins, renamed because of his Ork-like physique) was doing much the same 20 years later in New York, helping to build an entire artistic movement around the wastrel poets and garage-rock nostalgists congregating in the city’s dingier quarters.


Both songs also appear on new CD box sets, released on the same day. Yep Roc’s Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ’N’ Roll is a sort of soundtrack to an upcoming Peter Guralnick biography of Phillips, and features over 50 songs personally selected (and annotated) by the author, tracking the evolution of the producer’s work before, during, and after his Sun Records heyday. Similarly, The Numero Group’s Ork Records: New York, New York collects 49 songs either released by Ork or recorded as part of projects that never fully came to fruition. The collections make fine—if unintended—companion pieces, each in their own way asking where rock ’n’ roll comes from, and to whom it really belongs.

The Phillips anthology is more aggressive about digging deep into rock’s roots. (The purpose of the set is right there in the title, which is intentionally provocative.) What stands out about The Man Who Invented Rock ’N’ Roll is its eclecticism. Phillips started out as a disc jockey and a recording engineer, who’d been raised in a rural community where he heard hillbilly music on the radio and blues in the cotton fields. When he started Sun, he made it his mission to seek out musicians that no one else would’ve signed.


Phillips worked with actual prisoners, dubbed The Prisonaires. He discovered Howlin’ Wolf, and encouraged Johnny Cash to ditch gospel and go secular. He recorded what’s considered the first real rock ’n’ roll record, the still-thrilling 1951 single “Rocket 88” by Ike Turner’s Kings Of Rhythm (but released as Jackie Brenston & His Delta Cats, because Phillips preferred Brenston’s voice to Turner’s). And, most famously, Phillips saw the potential in a nice, handsome young man named Elvis Presley, coaxing him to unite pop, R&B, and country music into something that could sell in any market.

Presley did so well for Sun that RCA offered Phillips a sum of money that he couldn’t refuse for Elvis’ contract. But for a time he still had Orbison and Cash, and Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis, and scattered folk, blues, and bluegrass acts—the best of whom are represented on The Man Who Invented Rock ’N’ Roll. Phillips was a businessman, and a visionary, who certainly didn’t mind making money. But he also used to go into recording sessions trying to capture a feeling, not necessarily to engineer a hit. As a result, Sun was vulnerable to bigger labels, which would poach its biggest money-makers and offer to polish them up.

Ork had similar problems. Terry Ork had been kicking around the vestiges of Andy Warhol’s Factory since the late 1960s, before becoming a mentor and manager to two combative old friends who were trying to make the leap from poetry to rock ’n’ roll: Thomas Miller (who called himself “Tom Verlaine”) and Richard Meyers (who took the name “Richard Hell”). Ork introduced the duo to a talented young guitarist, Richard Lloyd, and helped get their new band Television gigs at CBGB in the Bowery—which in turn helped establish the reputation of the fledgling nightclub as the place to hear New York’s exciting, original new bands. Major labels quickly came sniffing around, and a couple of different big-time producers (including Brian Eno) took a crack at recording Television, ultimately exacerbating the tensions between Verlaine and Hell and prompting the latter to quit.


Tired of waiting for the majors to stop dithering, in 1975 Ork and Television cheaply recorded a set of demos, and pressed one sprawling song—the seven-minute “Little Johnny Jewel”—across two-sides of a 45, and sold it by mail-order for $2. The success of the single launched Ork Records, but Television quickly moved on to Elektra, joining CBGB cohorts like Patti Smith Group (Arista), Ramones (Sire), Talking Heads (Sire), Dead Boys (Sire), and Blondie (Chrysalis) in taking advantage of the mainstream music industry’s rush to co-opt New York’s punk/New Wave scene. Ork did continue working with Richard Hell, releasing his seminal single “Blank Generation” in 1976; but even Hell and his band The Voidoids eventually decamped to Sire.

So while Ork Records and Terry Ork were important players in New York punk, The Numero Group’s Ork Records: New York, New York only briefly covers three of the most influential musicians to share the CBGB stage: Verlaine, Hell, and Lloyd. The rest of the set is filled with forgotten fellow travelers and important figures like Chilton who were in the middle of particularly weird stretches in their careers. Ork worked with The Feelies before the band had figured how best to capture its polyrhythmic drone on tape. (A couple of songs from The Feelies’ multiple unreleased sessions for Ork are included in this box set, and they’re so different from the versions that later appeared on the album Crazy Rhythms that it whets the appetite for a genuinely comprehensive Feelies reissue project.) Ork gave critic Lester Bangs a home for his art-rock projects, and helped nurture the transplanted North Carolinians Chris Stamey, Peter Holsapple, and Mitch Easter as they developed their jangly college-rock sound. He also took chances on stalwart CBGB-dwellers like Marbles, The Revelons, and The Erasers who otherwise couldn’t catch a break.


In both The Man Who Invented Rock ’N’ Roll and Ork Records: New York, New York, it’s the relative unknowns who define what the sets are about—sometimes because they help clarify what made the more famous acts special, and sometimes because they offer a fresh alternative to some well-worn rock classics. Hearing “That’s All Right” or “Blank Generation” for the umpteenth time becomes more meaningful when they’re in the proximity of something like Harmonica Frank’s unhinged “Rockin’ Chair Daddy” or Prix’s sparkling power-pop anthem “Girl” (co-produced by Big Star’s Chris Bell). What were these musicians all working toward, and why did some of these songs connect with a larger audience and some not? Sometimes the obscurity makes sense. The sound’s too raw, the vocals too grating, or the song too askew. It’s enlightening to hear how musical peers process similar influences to produce different results.


It’s just as revealing to dump the contents of both sets into the same playlist and click “shuffle.” Hearing 1950s roadhouse rave-ups like Roscoe Gordon’s “Booted” or Sonny Burgess’ “Red-Headed Woman” followed by Ork’s reissue of a lost 1960s garage-rock single by Link Cromwell (a.k.a Patti Smith group guitarist Lenny Kaye) clarifies the vibe the latter was seeking. There’s an undeniable gulf between the style and experiences of Susan Springfield (a photographer who fronted The Erasers with a voice that sounded uncannily like Patti Smith’s) and James Cotton (a Mississippian who idolized Sonny Boy Williamson); but both were drawing from what they’d been hearing their entire lives, adding it to what their friends were doing, and were trying to record something with a rare immediacy and personality, as unadulterated as possible. The Sun and Ork rosters laid down markers, staking out ground within rock ’n’ roll for laborers and artists, journeymen and dilettantes—anyone jumping out of their skin to tell their story.


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