"Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock 'n' Roll," by...

"Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock 'n' Roll," by Peter Guralnick, looks at the man who discovered Elvis Presley and other musical greats. Credit: Little, Brown

It was mid-August before Sam Phillips decided on the format he wanted to establish for the new radio station — but then it was an idea as revolutionary as the original concept for the studio had been, as defiant in its own way of established tradition and something in which he believed just as strongly. He was going to establish the first All-Girl radio station in the nation.

He could advance any number of good reasons for pursuing this course, and he continued to go over them with his brother-in-law, even though Jimmy at this point had no formal role in the new venture. Number one, women, like Negroes, were an underutilized resource, a vast pool of unappreciated talent in a highly competitive world. He had no question about the talent. Becky [Phillips’ wife], for one — he had never known a better announcer than Becky, from the time he first met her when she was just a seventeen-year-old high school student. Desire, for another — that could play both ways. Oh, I know what you’re thinking, he said to Jimmy, and it was true, the idea had natural sex appeal. And certainly there would be some “sexiness” on his station — radio, after all, was a product of the imagination. But the other aspect of desire was the desire these women would have to prove themselves, a determination no less intense, if more femininely expressed, than all his untrained, untried musicians. Plus, the music that they would play would have nothing to do with the music he was recording — it would be “beautiful music,” “easy-listening” music, programming with “glamour, sparkle [and] spice,” for the housewife at home and the girls at the office, Doris Day and Percy Faith and the Glenn Miller Orchestra, the kind of music in many instances that Sam had broadcast from the Skyway Ballroom at the Hotel Peabody and that Becky had always presented with such incandescent charm.

Becky took it as a tribute. It was just what they had always talked about, it would serve as a true partnership, it represented a mutual love for the very thing that had first drawn them together. She immediately started making plans for the kind of shows that she would do, for the way she would have to train the other girls (because nearly all of them would come in without any prior experience) — she even knew the motto she would use: “A smile on your face puts a smile in your voice.” She was positive it would be a big success, she was sure it would bring them closer together.

Marion [Keisker, a Memphis radio personality] was just as excited. She took it almost as much as a tribute to her. She would quit her job as assistant program director at WREC, she told Sam, as soon as he was ready to go on the air. Don’t do that, he tried to tell her — he needed her at the recording studio, and besides, it would be a mistake to put all her eggs in one basket before the station proved itself. But she was not to be gainsaid. She didn’t think she’d ever been as excited about anything in her life, even if it meant giving up a guaranteed salary. And besides — she didn’t tell Sam this, she was barely able to admit it to herself — she was not going to be left behind.

Sam applied to the FCC for the station’s new call letters at the end of August. To match its new identity he had come up with the acronym WHER. At the same time he placed a classified ad in Broadcasting-Telecasting magazine:

“Wanted: Fresh, friendly, female voice for metropolitan station. Must be versatile, experienced, good looking. Unparalleled opportunity for girl who can qualify.”

The underlying pretext was that there was a single position open, and all responses were to be referred to Radio Station WSLC (the station’s most recent designation), Tri-State Broadcasting Service, at 706 Union Avenue in Memphis.

One of the first responses came from a woman named Margie Abbott, a former Memphian with an extensive background in radio, music, and theater who was presently assistant station manager at KONI in Phoenix, Arizona. “Dear Margie,” Sam wrote back on September 8:

“I received your audition tape and letter this morning. I have given all the material close attention and am very, very well pleased with your qualifications. I believe we have a job here that you would enjoy tremendously and which you could handle capably. We mean to have a facility that we — and the community — will be proud of. We are going to handpick our personnel, being as sure as is humanly possible that each person is suited to the job and is extremely versatile and flexible. The job we have in mind for you will be one of responsibility and importance, and you will be called on to do a variety of things, all of which you are apparently well trained and qualified to do. It will also mean that you will have to work hard. As we all intend to do, but believe me, the work will pay off.”

The salary would only be $80 a week to start off with, Sam wrote, nothing like what she was worth, but they were a new operation, who “must of necessity proceed with caution insofar as salaries and all expenses are concerned.” But he was confident both of her success and the success of the operation, and once they all had their feet on the ground, she could certainly expect more.

From “Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ’n’ Roll,” by Peter Guralnick. Copyright © 2015 by Peter Guralnick. Published by Little, Brown and Co., a division of the Hachette Book Group.

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