In the spring of 1951, Sun Studios founder Sam Phillips had just produced his first major hit in the shape of “Rocket 88” by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats. The rough-and-ready R&B track (co-written by a young Ike Turner) topped sales charts for weeks, and laid one of the main foundations for what would soon be known all over the world as “rock ’n’ roll.”
What should have been a moment of celebration for Phillips and his nascent Memphis, Tenn., studio was actually marred by personal disaster. “He was working night and day, living on no money, dealing with the stresses of two kids and a wife who didn’t understand his world at all,” says Chad Michael Murray, who plays Phillips in the new CMT series “Sun Records” (premiering Thursday at 9 p.m.). “That’s a great burden to carry. Then there was the alcohol, the prescription drugs and late nights — it all took a big toll.”
Phillips’ history with mental illness also began to surface. Before his commercial success, he had suffered from bouts of anxiety and depression, and had even willingly undergone brutal electroshock treatment in 1944. The debilitating symptoms and intensity of his lifestyle led him to another round at a nearby hospital.
After “Rocket 88” became a hit, Phillips explored the treatment again, even though the science hadn’t advanced much. A physician with the unlikely name of Dr. McCool warned him there was no guarantee he would emerge without long-term damage, but he proceeded anyway. According to Peter Guralnick’s biography “Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll” (released in 2015), Phillips also read up on other techniques, including bibliotherapy and “reciting the expression ‘feeling fine’ 20 times each day.”
“While I was researching, I spoke to some nurses, and I was surprised to learn that this is something that is still practiced today,” says Murray. “It’s believed that electroshock therapy helps anxiety and depression. Everyone on set couldn’t believe it!”
Phillips came out of the treatment and continued with his one-man music revolution. In the ensuing years, he recorded music by Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, and, most famously, saw the potential in a teenage Elvis Presley when he walked through the Sun Studio doors in 1954. Phillips eventually died in 2003, of respiratory failure.
So did the electroshock therapy help him at all? Murray says it depends on whom you ask. “He was ahead of his time, so maybe he was prone to other perspectives because of everything he went through,” says Murray.
It was Phillips’ erratic flair that attracted the actor to the part — especially his legendary 1986 interview with David Letterman. During the segment, Phillips appeared intoxicated and asked Letterman if he was planning on getting his “teeth fixed,” as a clearly mortified Paul Shaffer sat next to him Letterman rapidly ended the segment, dryly remarking, “It’s a shame Sam Phillips had to leave.”
“Sam was an enigmatic and insane man,” adds Murray. “But in the most beautiful way.”
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