Sam Phillips’ wife, Becky, died a few months ago, on September 13, 2012. She was eighty-seven, a wonderful woman, and a wonderful friend – and no one who knew her could fail to be inspired by her quiet dignity and dedication.
Although best-known, certainly, for her behind-the-scenes role as wife and mother to America’s first rock ‘n’ roll family (her husband was the visionary prophet of Sun Records, and her sons Knox and Jerry continued the tradition), she possessed a creativity of her own that found expression not only in her pioneering radio work but in the unfailingly nurturing and sustaining role she adopted for her family.
She was a woman of deep-seated religious faith, but it was her sweetness of spirit that communicated itself most of all to everyone she met, whether family, friends, or fellow workers in radio over the years.
She was a seventeen-year-old high school student, already doing a radio show with her sister, when she met her nineteen-year-old husband-to-be at station WLAY in her native Sheffield, Alabama. Sam had only recently gone to work there as an announcer in 1942, and the way she described it, “He had just come in out of the rain. His hair was windblown and full of raindrops. He wore sandals and a smile unlike any I had ever seen. He sat down on the piano bench and began to talk to me. I told my family that night I had met the man I wanted to marry.”
Becky, Sam said, was the inspiration behind WHER, his first radio station, the first All-Girl Station in the Nation, which went on the air on October 29, 1955, just as he was finalizing the deal to sell Elvis Presley’s contract. The idea of giving women a chance they had never had was “based on what I knew Becky could do. Becky was the best I ever heard,” he declared in a 1998 interview for the Peabody Award-winning Kitchen Sisters’ documentary on PBS, WHER: 1000 Beautiful Watts. And what he meant by that had less to do with her exceptional gift for writing, for speaking, for presenting and organizing her thoughts in a cogent and compelling fashion, than what lay behind those thoughts, what Sam would call the innate spirituality of the presentation.
But you didn’t have to hear her on radio (where she continued to broadcast till the mid-1980s) to get the benefit of Becky Phillips’ unmistakable capacity for kindness and connection. Her on-air slogan, “A smile on your face puts a smile in your voice,” could just as easily stand for her chosen path in life. There was no better friend, there was no better partner, there was no better confidence-builder than Becky Phillips – though she would be the last to admit it.
One of my fondest memories of Becky is of holding hands with her. This was when we were making the A&E documentary about Sam in 1999, and Becky was, of course, an integral part of the story. She helped in every way possible, providing pictures, memories, stories, and personal memorabilia. She did everything in fact except cook us breakfast at five o’clock in the morning the way she always did for Elvis when he would come to visit Sam and her and the boys in the middle of the night. The only thing she wasn’t certain about was the idea of doing an on-camera interview herself.
Well, she was certain.
She just didn’t think it was necessary. She said she would be too nervous. She said she wouldn’t be comfortable without a script (she wrote wonderful scripts for all of her radio specials). What it came down to in the end was that, yes, she would be too nervous to do it – but she didn’t want to let us down. Most of all, she didn’t want to let Sam down, because although they had been separated for many years, she never considered herself in any way separate from him.
Knox got her to the interview. He got a really cool suite at the Ridgeway Hotel out east in Memphis, and he had it filled with flowers – and Becky got her hair done and looked really beautiful. But as we sat there, it became more and more clear how nervous she really was. And she grew even more nervous as the crew hurried to set up. She said, “I just don’t think I can do it.” I told her I knew she could, she’d be great. She said, “Maybe if I could just read something I’ve written?” But she knew that just wouldn’t be right. Finally she said, “Maybe if you could just hold my hand.” So we sat there holding hands for ten or fifteen minutes while they finished setting up – and then she did the most beautiful, eloquent, composed interview one could ever imagine, with all the warmth and assurance that informed every other aspect of her life.
We held hands one or two more times in similar situations over the years. And she always liked to act like I was the one giving her support. But the truth is, that was only part of it. Honestly, I don’t know anyone I’d rather be holding hands with than Becky Phillips. Because whatever you may have been doing for her, she could always do so much more for you. She could just do so much for your confidence in yourself, as any member of her family would readily attest – because she always made you feel like you really were something. Because she showed such an immeasurable and unreserved belief in you. The very qualities that Sam Phillips cited as her special gifts for radio could just as well be cited by friends and family, by everyone in fact who were the beneficiaries of that indomitable loyalty, that remarkable sense of order and communication not just of words but of deep-rooted emotion that this quietly remarkable and self-effacing woman sent forth into the world.
Sam, Knox & Becky circa 1957
The Kitchen Sisters excellent piece on WHER aired on NPR. Here’s a link to the archive of the audio story: