Disc Jockey Follows Sun Back to the Beginnings of Rock : Program Documents History of Memphis Record Company That First Recorded Elvis

Patrick Milligan moved to Los Angeles from Denver 4 1/2 years ago hoping to start a career as a rock 'n' roll musician. The big break never came, and a disillusioned Milligan has given up trying.

But he's not about to move back to Denver. He's staying in Southern California because he loves a job that doesn't pay anything, only happens once a week and requires many hours of work at home.

Milligan's passion is a program he conceived and produces, "Sun: Revolution in Memphis," which can be heard at 10 tonight on KCSN (FM 88.5), the radio station at Cal State Northridge. Sun Records, of course, was Elvis Presley's first label, and also recorded the early work of Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison.

But Sun was much more than a starting place for seminal rock 'n' rollers. Company owner Sam Phillips had been in business four years, recording blues and country acts, before he signed Elvis in 1954. Milligan's 10-part retrospective on Sun includes songs by these lesser-knowns, along with accounts of their backgrounds and recording sessions. Milligan has read widely about music of the early 1950s. His interest sprang from his upbringing; his father is a bluegrass musician.

Tonight's installment, part three of the series, is about Sun's country artists. Late this week Milligan, a typesetter at TRW in Manhattan Beach, was still putting it together in his Redondo Beach home.

"This is something I'm new at, so it takes shape as it goes along," said Milligan, 29. "The first show was the hardest, and I was up 'til 1 and 2 in the morning getting it together."

Mark Humphrey, KCSN's program director, said he knows of no other special that takes an extensive look at the Sun catalogue. Humphrey plans to rebroadcast the series in September during daytime hours.

Music historians offer several candidates for the title of rock's first record, among them Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock" in April, 1954, and Chuck Berry's first single, "Maybellene," in May, 1955. But for Milligan, the choice is simple. As he says in part one of his series:

"Most people agree that it all came together on a hot summer night 35 years ago in an old converted radiator shop in Memphis, Tenn., when Sam Phillips, owner and founder ot the Memphis Recording Service and Sun Records, finally found that different sound he had been looking for--a fusion of the local black blues and white country that he'd been recording since 1950.

"On July 5, 1954, Elvis Presley, Scotty Moore and Bill Black recorded 'That's All Right Mama,' and rock 'n' roll was born."

Moore and Black had recorded for Sun as members of a country group. Elvis was a walk-on, a truck driver

who first came to Sun in January, 1953, when he paid to make a demonstration record that was a gift to his mother. Elvis didn't meet Phillips until a later visit, although a secretary gave him a favorable review.

Milligan was a walk-on too, showing up at KCSN one night last summer simply because he liked the station's "American roots" format (traditional country, bluegrass, early blues, zydeco). The DJ on duty urged him to talk to program director Humphrey about getting on air, and Milligan did.

"A lot of people come around and want to be DJs," Humphrey said. "They want to be on the radio, and the music is secondary, but Patrick wasn't like that. He had a real good ear for choosing material."

Last August, Milligan became KCSN's DJ from 8 to 11 on Friday nights. He continues in that slot, airing his Sun series during the shift's last hour. Milligan got his feet wet as a producer with an earlier series on Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly, which he made with fellow KCSN DJ Ben Eller.

The Sun series became possible because a British company, Charly Records, has released a vast amount of the company's recordings. Sun stayed in business until 1968, but the fertile period was from 1954 to 1959. The Charly material includes studio conversations, outtakes and songs that previously were unreleased.

"There's probably two-thirds more stuff out now than when Sun was in business," Milligan said. "There's so much material that I thought it would make a good radio show."

He finds the studio chatter especially interesting. One snippet shows a Jerry Lee Lewis quite different from the unrepentant wild man depicted in "Great Balls of Fire," the current movie named after one of Lewis's biggest hits.

"Before the first take of 'Great Balls of Fire,' he and some others are talking about religion," Milligan said. "Jerry Lee Lewis is saying he's not sure about putting out the record because it's religiously inappropriate."

Upcoming installments of "Sun: Revolution in Memphis" will look at individual artists. Next Friday's show will be devoted to Elvis, who had just five singles released by Sun before moving to the RCA label.

"I think it was the best stuff Elvis ever did, and a lot of people agree with that," Milligan said. "After Sun it was a long slide downhill."

Milligan notes that Phillips made some of the early recordings of blues great Chester (Howlin' Wolf) Burnett and was an ardent backer of his music.

"He's always quoted as saying, 'If I could find a white man who sings like a black man, I could make a million dollars.' He's denied saying that. But he knew that the music he loved--the black blues and R&B; that was all over Memphis--could have a wider audience. It's clear he had an intense affection for the people and the music."

Milligan shares that affection. He holds a M.S. degree in music from the University of Colorado and plays guitar, bass, banjo and saxophone. He hoped to make a living as a rocker in Los Angeles, but said the music scene's emphasis on heavy metal and a performer's appearance has dissuaded him.

"There doesn't seem to be room for less commercial things," he said. "If you're not into hype and hair extensions, it's very tough to make it."

But Milligan is far from unhappy.

"I love being on the radio," he said.

And he has his eye on another project: a series on Hank Williams and yodeler Jimmie Rodgers.

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