Knox Phillips

Lived in Florence, AL

Rock Engineer, Producer Sam's son

Source: Alabama Music Hall of Fame

Knox Phillips


Knox Phillips Will Receive Creative Achievement Award Oct. 17

For release: September 30, 2008

The University of Memphis College of Communication and Fine Arts will salute Knox Phillips with the 2008 Distinguished Achievement Award in the Creative and Performing Arts. The award will be presented at a luncheon Friday, Oct. 17, at 11:30 a.m. at Charles Vergos Rendezvous

Phillips has been an important force behind the music scene as an engineer, producer, studio owner, and tireless supporter of local music. Phillips learned the production business from his father, Sun Records founder Sam Phillips, and from Elvis Presley’s guitarist, Scotty Moore.

While attending college, Phillips began recording local garage bands. As an engineer, he worked on a succession of milestone releases, many of them for Atlantic Records’ Jerry Wexler, including Willie Nelson’s Shotgun Willie and Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles.” He also worked closely with original Sun artist Jerry Lee Lewis.

Phillips has continued to record and produce, expanding into placement of songs in film and television. He serves on the Rudi E. Scheidt School of Music Advisory Board.

“Twenty-nine years ago, when the College of Communication and Fine Arts began presenting the Distinguished Achievement Award in the Creative and Performing Arts, the very first award went to the legendary producer, engineer, and recording studio and record label executive Sam Phillips,” said Dr. Richard Ranta, dean of the college. “We are so very pleased to bestow this year’s award on another producer, engineer, and recording executive of the Phillips family – Knox Phillips. For almost 40 years, Knox has been one of the major players in, and supporters of, Memphis music.  And, as a trustee of the Nashville chapter of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences in the early 1970s, he was instrumental in creating perhaps Memphis’ most important continuing musical asset, the Memphis chapter of the Recording Academy.”

Source: The University of Memphis :: Knox Phillips Will Receive Creative Achievement Award Oct. 17 at the U of M :: University of Memphis



Growing up the scion of Sun Records founder Sam Phillips might have been a hard shadow for most people to escape. But his oldest son, Knox Phillips, has found his own unique place in Memphis history. For the last 40 years, Phillips has been an important presence behind the scenes -- as an engineer, producer, studio owner and unwavering supporter of local music.

Tonight, however, he'll be front and center, at the bi-annual Recording Academy Honors. Along with a group of Lifetime Achievement Award winners, who include Booker T. & the MGs and Willie Mitchell, Phillips will be honored with a "Special Legacy Presentation" for his work and paid tribute with a performance by singer-songwriter John Prine.

"As we're celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Recording Academy, each chapter was asked to single out one person for their unique role or special contribution," says local NARAS president Jon Hornyak. "Knox was an easy choice. In a city that can be divided in a lot of different ways, he's someone who's always been able to pull people together."

The oldest of two boys, Knox was born in Memphis in 1945. His father had recently arrived in town from his native Alabama, via Nashville, to take a job at WREC as a disc jockey and engineer. Sam worked at the radio station to support his family, while chasing his own musical aspirations recording black blues artists in his fledgling studio at 706 Union, which he opened in 1950.

"As a little kid, I watched him just knock himself out for something that he totally believed in," says Phillips. "He loved that music so much, he thought, 'If I can just get it out there then people will love it as much as I do.' That enthusiasm and belief always stuck with me."

Growing up in the Phillips household -- mother Becky was just as outsized a character as Sam -- was an exceptional upbringing on many levels for Knox and his brother Jerry. Knox recalls seeing the Prisonaires record at Sun under the watchful eye of armed guards, and playing spaceship in Ike Turner's tour bus, with "Rocket 88" painted on the side. "To us, guys like Ike Turner and Howlin' Wolf, they were a big deal," says Phillips. "But if you went to The Peabody hotel or something in those days, nobody had ever heard of these guys. But in my world, they were the pinnacle of achievement."

That disparity was made clear on the trips Phillips would make Downtown with his mother and brother. After stopping at his father's studio and watching him work closely with African-American musicians, he'd go to the shops on Main and see the "white only" signs. It was, says Phillips, "the antithesis of what I was used to."

As Phillips hit his teenage years, rock and roll took hold at Sun, where Elvis Presley recorded his first hit in 1954. "In those days, Elvis would come over to our house at midnight and we'd stay up all night. My mother would cook breakfast for him at dawn and then they'd leave," recalls Phillips. "That was normal to me. So we didn't have the usual restrictions that most teenagers rebelled against."

After school would let out, Phillips would go to the studio and help package records, eventually learning the nuts and bolts of production from his father and Elvis guitarist Scotty Moore. "Through Scotty and Sam, I learned about the consoles and how to really cut things," he says.

While attending college at Rhodes in the mid-'60s, Phillips began recording local garage bands, and soon was running sessions for everyone from Randy and the Radiants to the Gentrys. "As time went on I really enjoyed recording and I realized was pretty good at it," says Phillips.

As an engineer, Phillips worked on a succession of milestone releases, a number of them for Atlantic's Jerry Wexler, including Willie Nelson's Shotgun Willie and Jerry Jeff Walker's "Mr. Bojangles." Later, he would score a huge success with the Amazing Rhythm Aces' million-selling, Grammy-winning "Third Rate Romance."

While running the Phillips Recording Studio in the '70s and '80s, he also welcomed Midtown crazies like Jim Dickinson, Alex Chilton and Tav Falco's Panther Burns.

"In a way, Knox was the godfather of the '70s scene in Memphis," says author and local music historian Robert Gordon. "He allowed the Midtown crowd to work at [Phillips] and he created this atmosphere where the artist could be totally uninhibited and try almost anything. I think of Knox at sessions for [notorious biker/bodyguard] Campbell Kensinger or Jerry McGill, where people are riding motorcycles right into the studio and firing guns, and it's all getting recorded. Those are some amazing Memphis rock-and-roll moments and Knox is right there in the thick of it."

For a long period beginning in the late-'70s, Phillips also worked closely with original Sun star Jerry Lee Lewis. At the time Lewis was cutting mostly uninspired sides in Nashville and giving his producers there fits. Desperate, his label sent him to Memphis hoping Phillips might be able to wrangle The Killer.

"Talk about going to school! Man, that was the University of Jerry Lee for me," says Phillips who worked on half a dozen albums with Lewis. "I knew I had to get something on tape Jerry Lee wasn't giving anybody at the time."

But perhaps the highlight of Phillips' discography came with Pink Cadillac, the 1979 masterwork he produced for John Prine. The loose, convivial-sounding record was steeped in the spirit of Memphis -- featuring rockabilly covers like "Baby Let's Play House" and a guest appearance by Sun legend Billy Lee Riley. The project was also notable in that it brought together all the Phillips men -- Knox, Jerry and Sam -- to help produce.

"John was so distinctive. Most people think he's just a great songwriter -- well, he's beyond a great songwriter," says Phillips. "But his voice is so unusual; I knew Sam would love him. One night, I called Dad and said you need to come down here, we're kind of stumped on this one song."

The elder Phillips arrived to hear the band cutting a version of a track called "Saigon." They were playing at breakneck speed and somehow not capturing it very well. "Sam listened for a while, then called the band into the control room and said, 'You know what half-speed is? Well, play at half of half speed.' Then he looked at John, got right up in his face, and growled, 'And, John, could you put some sex into it?!' Well, sir, we got it on the next take," says Phillips, laughing. "See, Sam's production was all psychological. To him, music didn't have much to do with the notes on a page."

Throughout the '80s and '90s, Phillips continued to record and produce, but also expanded his efforts in placing songs in film and television projects, often working with his close friend, TV composer Mike Post.

In 1996, however, Phillips was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer in his tear duct gland that quickly metastasized to his neck. It was an experience that would change his life. "At first they didn't give me a whole lot of chances to survive," he says.

Phillips, aided by his longtime girlfriend Diane Duncan, spent the better part of a year living in Houston, Texas, receiving treatment at the renowned M.D. Anderson clinic. "After you go through something like that and survive," says Phillips, "there's no such thing as a bad day."

Unfortunately, due to the intense radiation treatments he received, Phillips lost a good bit of his hearing, and was forced to pull back from his studio and recording work. Since then he's devoted much of his energy to serving as a goodwill ambassador and lobbyist for Memphis music.

A national Grammy trustee since 1971, it was Phillips who played a leading role in securing Memphis its own Grammy-nominating chapter in 1973 -- keeping the city viable as a music center in the wake of Stax Records' collapse. "He was really able to orchestrate that," says Memphis Recording Academy President Jon Hornyak. "Knox pulled all the forces together locally and regionally to make that happen. . . . He's given a lot of his time and energy to us for the last 35 years."

Phillips has also been a vocal advocate in promoting Memphis' musical heritage, "to make sure the past isn't forgotten, but also to make sure the future is paid attention to." But, he adds, that the city still isn't where it could or should be in terms of a unified local body or a national presence. "Over the years it's been hard to pull people together in this town. It doesn't come easy for Memphians because we have such an extreme sense of individuality," says Phillips. "I've gone through so many failed Memphis music organizations, I can't even tell you. But you don't just give up."

Beyond his industry efforts, these days Phillips spends most of his time managing the family's various interests: this includes the Phillips studio, a publishing company (the family still owns copyrights to much of the Sun catalog) and a group of radio stations in Florida and the Muscle Shoals area of Alabama, where his father got started as a disc jockey in the 1940s.

For Phillips, tonight's Grammy recognition was an unexpected honor, but one that caps years of effort and support for the city and its lifeblood: music. "The thing that music offers us most is a freedom of expression," says Phillips, for a moment sounding eerily like his late father. "It's the greatest avenue of human connection for good there is. To have been able to revel in that since I was a little kid -- man, I tell you, it's been a life well spent."

Source: Phillips legacy lives on » The Commercial Appeal

More info: Knox Phillips My 2 Cents: Knox Phillips


Mr. Bojangles, Jerry Jeff WalkerShotgun Willie, Willie NelsonSun Essentials, Jerry Lee LewisRide Again (Re-Recorded Versions), The Amazing Rhythm Aces

Listen: Mr. Bojangles by Jerry Jeff Walker - Download Mr. Bojangles on iTunes

Listen: Mr Bojangles: Jerry Jeff Walker: Music

Listen: Shotgun Willie by Willie Nelson - Download Shotgun Willie on iTunes

Listen: Shotgun Willie: Willie Nelson: Music

Listen: Sun Essentials by Jerry Lee Lewis - Download Sun Essentials on iTunes

Listen: Sun Essentials: Jerry Lee Lewis: Music

Listen: Pink Cadillac: John Prine: Music

Listen: Ride Again (Re-Recorded Versions) by The Amazing Rhythm Aces - Download Ride Again (Re-Recorded Versions) on iTunes

Listen: Third Rate Romance: The Amazing Rhythm Aces: MP3 Downloads











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