Sam Phillips, who founded a small Memphis record label that made Elvis Presley a star and turned black blues and country music into what the world came to know as rock 'n' roll, died on Wednesday in Memphis, where he lived. He was 80.
The cause was respiratory failure, said Jenny Robertson, a spokeswoman for the family.
It might have seemed enough to discover Presley, who Mr. Phillips once suggested was the greatest man to walk the earth since Jesus. But it wasn't, any more than beginning the careers of Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and Charlie Rich, among many other musical luminaries.
Mr. Phillips's crowning achievement was creating, or at least being one of the first to stir the broth of the pounding, exuberant American popular music that emanated from his tiny hand-built studio at 706 Union Avenue in Memphis — Sun Records.
"Teenagers did not have, before rock 'n' roll and rhythm-and-blues — they did not have any type of music they could call their own once they got over 4 or 5 years old until they were well into their 20's and considered adults," Mr. Phillips said during an interview on the NPR show "Fresh Air" in 2001.
He was in the first group of 10 to be inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, and he is the only person to belong to that hall of fame plus the halls of fame for country, blues and rockabilly.
Much of his legendary status revolves around just five singles — 10 songs — that he recorded for Presley. Although he later made many fortunate investments, including an early stake in Holiday Inn, Mr. Phillips, to his chagrin, remained almost equally famous for the decidedly unprescient move of selling Presley's contract in 1954 to RCA for about $35,000, a minuscule fraction of what he would prove to be worth.
Mr. Phillips used the proceeds from selling the Presley rights to develop other musicians and their work, including Mr. Perkins's hit "Blue Suede Shoes," which later became a hit for Presley as well.
Peter Guralnick, in his book "Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley" (Little, Brown, 1994), said that Mr. Phillips's accomplishment was realizing "the unlimited possibilities, and untapped potential, in the popular appetite for African-American culture."
This sort of talk irritated Mr. Phillips, who denied that before Presley he had said he could make a million dollars if he could find a white man who sang black rhythms with a black feel — an oft-reported statement.
"That quote is an injustice both to the whites and the blacks," Mr. Phillips said in an interview with The New York Times in 1978. "I was trying to establish an identity in music, and black and white had nothing to do with it."
Before he discovered Presley, Mr. Phillips's Sun Records, known for its distinctive yellow sunburst logo, recorded future blues greats like B. B. King, Roscoe Gordon and others.
Mr. Phillips insisted that the raw sounds he elicited from his performers percolated from the hardscrabble background that both blacks and whites experienced during his Depression youth. (He was the youngest of eight children in a farm family that lost everything.)
His ambition, he told The Dallas Morning News last year, was to record "the real gutbucket stuff that other labels weren't putting out."
Sam Phillips was born on Jan. 5, 1923, in Florence, Ala., and learned how to pick cotton young.
"A day didn't go by when I didn't hear black folks singing in the cotton fields," he said in an interview posted on www.worldandI.com. "Did I feel sorry for them? In a way I did. But they could do things I couldn't do. They could outpick me. They could sing on pitch. That made a big impression on me."
In high school Mr. Phillips played the sousaphone, trombone and drums, and led a 72-piece marching band. While still in school he began working as a disc jockey at a little 250-watt radio station in Muscle Shoals, Ala. After working at stations in Decatur, Ala., and Nashville, he became an announcer on WREC in Memphis, having given up his ambition to be a criminal lawyer.
In 1942 he married Rebecca Burns, who survives him, along with their sons, Knox and Jerry, both of Memphis, two granddaughters and a great-grandson.
While at WREC Mr. Phillips was the host of "Saturday Afternoon Tea Dance," on which he played jazz, blues and pop from the Skyway Room of the Peabody Hotel.
In October 1949 he signed a lease for a small storefront on Union Avenue renting for $150 a month. With the help of Buck Turner, a regular performer at WREC, he installed recording equipment and called the business Memphis Recording Service.
Much of the business was recording weddings, funerals and the like. The motto: "We record anything, anywhere, anytime."
The studio's first paying musical job was to make recordings of Mr. Turner's band for the Arkansas Rural Electrification Program. These were distributed to other stations.
Mr. Phillips then began producing blues artists for independent labels like Chess, Duke and RPM. One record he produced for Chess, "Rocket `88' " by Jackie Brenston, is often called the first rock 'n' roll record.
Mr. Phillips, who also recorded Howlin' Wolf, considered him the greatest talent he had ever worked with, according to a family statement.