December 5, 2008
Arkansas State University-Jonesboro

Can you believe that we are near the end of another semester and calendar year? The elections are over, the Thanksgiving break is behind us, fall class syllabi have almost reached the end of their usefulness, hunting seasons have begun, football and other fall sports are winding down, the exciting basketball season is just beginning and our world is in the middle of the worst recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s. For me, this is both an exciting and a challenging time to be alive and at Arkansas State University-Jonesboro.

Since my last report, I have had an unusual amount of travel and time alone in automobiles and airplanes. In addition to trips to Little Rock for business pertaining to ASUJ, I drove to Carbondale, Ill., to participate as a member of an accrediting team that conducted a three-day site visit to the Southern Illinois University School of Law; traveled to Sweden to meet my wife Irene for a four-day visit with her mother and siblings and their families; and upon my return, drove to Alabama to spend the Thanksgiving break with my parents and other family members. Since the holiday season is also a good time to share ideas, conversation and gifts, I have decided this month to depart from my usual practice of discussing ASUJ issues in First Friday and instead include a potpourri of thoughts I have had and stories generated or recalled during my recent trips.

Memories From the Past
The first story involves family memorabilia. While I was in Sweden, my brother-in-law Lars approached Irene and me in my mother-in-law Anna Greta Johanssonís presence and indicated she would like for us to take back to America with us, if we wanted to do so, a collection of photographs of Irene from her childhood and teenage years (and a picture from our wedding day) along with Mr. Johanssonís small hand-labeled rock collection, which she had carefully preserved since he passed away in 1992. While these items hold little intrinsic value, they were very meaningful to us and of course we enthusiastically accepted them with gratitude.

A few days later I was in Alabama at my parentsí home and my sister Nancy approached me with a stack of childhood artwork, old letters, newspaper clippings and mementoes of scholastic achievements that my mother had collected about me and now wanted me to have. Nancy indicated that there was a similar stack for each of our siblings. Of course I accepted them and was fascinated to see these items that I had no idea she had collected that brought back memories of times in my life long ago.

On my drive back to Jonesboro from Alabama last Sunday, I thought about the meaning of these two unrelated but similar gifts from our mothers. Why did two people from two cultures and two continents, in the twilight of their lives, do this for their children in the same week? Why did each use intermediaries to ask us if we wanted these items, when each easily could have presented them personally? Why did they not tell us they were carefully saving these items in "secret" places? I am not sure that there are easy answers to these questions. What I am sure of is that worldwide human beings who live in different countries and cultures are more similar than dissimilar; we all share a sentimental attachment to family and an indescribable bond of affection and love for our children; and little gestures such as these become more meaningful as we grow older.

Musical Heritage of the Mid-South
While at our house in Alabama I found two compact disc recordings that I do not even remember buying. They were titled "The Best of Sun Records Ė 50th Anniversary Edition," volumes one and two. As you will probably recall, Sun Records Ė Memphis Recording Service, was founded by disc jockey Sam Phillips in the early 1950s and was located at 706 Union Avenue in Memphis. It was in that location that Sam and his artists created a new musical genre called "Rock Ďní Roll" by combining the best from blues, hillbilly, country and gospel styles. The little storefront recording studio had a stable full of young musicians who later became big stars. Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and Charlie Rich all did their early recording there. Others, such as Carl Mann, Warren Smith, Sonny Burgess, Bill Justis, Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats, and Little Junior Parker and his Blue Flames, also did excellent work at Sun but never achieved widespread fame.

I listened to both of these Sun Records CDs on my way back from Florence to Jonesboro last Sunday afternoon. Hearing these old recordings with their slightly tinny but captivating sounds reminded me of my familyís friendship with the Phillips family over the years. I also reflected about visiting Sam Phillips in his home in the early 1990s, but I will come back to that in a moment.

Sam was born at Florence in 1923 and graduated from Coffee High School, where he led the band. He attended what is now Auburn University to study engineering, but dropped out after his father died and took a disc jockey job at WLAY, a local radio station. He moved first to Nashville, then later to Memphis where he became a popular DJ at WREC. From there, he opened Memphis Recording Service in 1950 and developed his own label, Sun Records. He was a genius for getting the best out of young, raw talent and making records that had broad popular appeal. Nevertheless, he had difficulty making ends meet in the early days, so he decided to sell Elvisís contract to RCA in 1955. By taking the money and investing it wisely in Holiday Inn stock, real estate and radio stations, he became a very wealthy man. He maintained close ties with his hometown of Florence and the Muscle Shoals area, which developed its own recording industry in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Sam also purchased WJOI, a popular radio station there.

Our familiesí lives were intertwined for almost a half century. In 1954, my father moved our family to a small truck farm in rural Lauderdale County. Horace Phillips, one of Samís brothers, lived just down the road, and two of his sons, David and Donnie, became my good friends. Later, I coached another of Samís nephews in Little League. He employed my father as his North Alabama attorney, and they maintained a warm friendship throughout the remainder of Samís life. In his later years, in the 1990s, Sam would frequently come to see me on the campus of the University of North Alabama when he returned home. He was a great story teller.

As with many who lived through the Great Depression, Sam had frugal ways, although he could be incredibly generous with his time and talent. He often visited the university where I was working in the early 1990s to assist with the Entertainment Industry Center, which had more than 100 commercial music majors. After the university launched a capital campaign, I decided to call on him at his home in Memphis to ask for a gift for the school. The university relations director at that time, Bill Jernigan, accompanied me because he is an expert in the music history of the South and also knew Sam and Sally Wilbourn, Samís assistant and companion since his Sun Recording Studio days. The home was a nice but modest ranch-style house on a residential street in Memphis. After Sally ushered us into the house, Sam took us to the living room. He told us that this was one of Elvis Presleyís favorite places to come following road trips after he had become a big star under Col. Parkerís management and RCAís recording contract. Sam said Elvis would show up unannounced late at night with several of his buddies, have something to eat, and shoot pool or just talk into the wee hours of the morning. Bill and I had a great conversation with Sam that evening but never convinced him to make that large gift!

In January 2000, just three years before his death, Sam, Kris Kristofferson and a number of other famous musicians came to the campus in Florence to perform a benefit concert for Donnie Fritts, a talented musician from the area who had worked in Nashville and Hollywood but needed money for treatment of a life-threatening condition. (See photo made with Billy Swan, Sam Phillips and Delbert McClinton at that event). Sam helped raise the money for the expenses of Donnie's successful operation.  He was a remarkable man and his memory lives on, not only in the Memphis and Muscle Shoals areas, but among popular music fans from around the world.

Clay Jenkinson to Speak at Commencement
My recollections of Sam Phillips were stirred for another special reason. Our commencement speaker on Saturday, Dec. 13, is Clay Jenkinson of Bismarck, N.D. A humanities scholar, author, Rhodes Scholar and social commentator, Clay will be an entertaining and informative speaker for our winter graduates. Irene and I saw him last year on a visit to Bismarck just before Christmas and invited him to come to ASU to speak to our graduates. He said he would do so on one condition: that I take him on a tour of Graceland, Elvis's home in Memphis. That tour has been arranged for Dec. 14. So, thanks to Sam Phillips, Sun Records, Elvis Presley and the musical heritage of the Mid-South, we have attracted a great speaker here next week! I hope each of you will have an opportunity to hear Clay.

Irene and I wish you health and happiness during the upcoming Holiday Season and throughout the new year.

Best regards,

Robert L. Potts

First Friday Archive | Back to the Top