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Sam Phillips, who discovered and produced Elvis Presley, dead at 80

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) _ Sun Records founder Sam Phillips, who decided that a then-unknown Elvis Presley deserved a recording contract when he heard him sing songs for his mother, has died. He was 80.

``When I first heard Elvis, the essence of what I heard in his voice was such that I knew there might be a number of areas that we could go into,'' Phillips once said.

Phillips, the record producer who helped usher in the rock 'n' roll revolution, died Wednesday of respiratory failure at St. Francis Hospital, his son Knox Phillips said. He said his father had been in declining health for a year.

The elder Phillips founded Sun Records in 1952 and helped launch the career of Presley, then a young singer who had moved from Tupelo, Miss.

In the summer of 1953, Presley went to the Sun studio to record two songs for his mother's birthday. Phillips noticed him and offered Presley a recording contract.

Phillips produced Presley's first record, the 1954 single that featured ``That's All Right, Mama'' and ``Blue Moon of Kentucky,'' and nine more.

``God only knows that we didn't know it would have the response that it would have,'' Phillips said in an interview in 1997. ``But I always knew that the rebellion of young people, which is as natural as breathing, would be a part of that breakthrough.''

Presley was good with ballads, Phillips recalled, but there was no need to challenge the established balladeers like Perry Como, Frankie Laine and Bing Crosby.

``What there was a need for was a rhythm that had a very pronounced beat, a joyous sound and a quality that young people in particular could identify with,'' he said.

By 1956, when Phillips sold Presley's contract to RCA for $35,000, the rock 'n' roll craze had become a cultural phenomenon and a multimillion-dollar industry.

Phillips was elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. In 2000, the A&E cable network ran a two-hour biography called ``Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock and Roll.''

Phillips began in music as a radio station engineer and later as a disc jockey. He started Sun Records so he could record both rhythm & blues singers and country performers.

His plan was to let artists who had no formal training play their music as they felt it, raw and full of life. The Sun motto was ``We Record Anything, Anywhere, Anytime.''

In the early days, before Presley, Phillips worked mostly with black musicians, including B.B. King and Rufus Thomas.

After the success of Presley on Sun, others who recorded for the label under Phillips included Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Conway Twitty and Charlie Rich.

He got out of the recording business in 1962 and sold Sun Records in 1969 to producer Shelby Singleton of Nashville. The Sun studio on Union Avenue in Memphis is now a tourist attraction.

Born Samuel Cornelius Phillips in Florence, Ala., Phillips worked as an announcer at radio stations in Alabama and Nashville, before settling in Memphis in 1945.

In his later years, Phillips spent much of his time operating radio stations in Memphis and in Alabama. He stayed out of the limelight except for some appearances at Presley-related events after Presley's death.

``I'll never retire. I'm just using up somebody else's oxygen if I retire,'' he said in an Associated Press interview in 2000.
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