When Colin Escott, Martin Hawkins and I produced the three Bear Family Sun box sets that came out earlier this year, we were dealing with music history – and some pretty special history at that. For us, little was more important than Memphis music in the mid 1950s: the birth of rock & roll with Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, BB King, Howlin’ Wolf, and a host of seminal artists who cut their teeth at Sun Records.
We were faced with selecting the 250-plus tracks for each box set,choosing the photos and writing the liner notes. We were delving deep into rock and roll history, but there were also some opportunities to deal in the present tense. We could use the gala release event at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum to bring out of the shadows some of the less famous artists who were actually there when Sam Phillips was busy making music history in his tiny storefront studio on Union Avenue in Memphis.
There weren’t many chances. Most of the artists who had recorded for Sun during its Golden era were gone. But not all. The Miller Sisters recorded about a dozen titles for Sun. Three singles were released under their own name and two more featured them as backup singers. They hadn’t seen each other in decades. What if we could bring them together at the Rock Hall?
This was going to take some work. Jo Miller was 86 years old. She lived in Mississippi and hadn’t been out of the state in decades. Her sister-in-law Millie lived in Indiana, in a life far removed from the music business. When I co-produced the original, vinyl-edition Sun Country box 26 years ago, I had corresponded with Jo to ask her some questions. I had also contacted Millie, and she and her husband and young daughter had traveled to my house. They wondered if I was for real. And now I had come calling again, nearly 30 years later.
Only this time I wanted her to come to Cleveland, to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and I was talking about reuniting her with her old singing partner. Millie wasn’t in the greatest health and to make matters even more difficult, she suffered a serious fall just days before the event was scheduled. She would have to travel in a wheelchair. The journey north was no picnic for Jo either, but like Millie, she was a trooper. Their tearful reunion was worth the wait.
Both women were terrified to face an audience, but they were won over by the crowd’s warm response. They received a standing ovation when “Finders Keepers” (Sun 255) was played for the crowd. They reminisced about Elvis wandering into their recording session to watch. “He called us punks,” Jo recalled. They remembered that rockabilly legend Charlie Feathers played spoons on their first record. They admitted not liking “Ten Cats Down” (the flipside of “Finders Keepers”) but were persuaded to reconsider their opinion when the crowd cheered it. (pictured, left: the author, Hank Davis, arrives at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, Ohio, with Jo Miller)
I watched Millie during the show. She seemed to be in shock. I sat next to Jo on stage and held her hand for some of the event. She too seemed to disbelieve what was happening. During the final applause I whispered to her, “That’s for you.” I know she heard me, but I’m still not sure she fully believed me. Their families who traveled with them will help remind them that it really happened.
They never thought they were part of music history when they made those little yellow Sun records back in the mid-‘50s. They never saw a dime for their work. They performed on their own radio show, broadcast on WTUP in Tupelo. They shared a stage with Elvis before he was a national figure. And then their lives moved on. They assumed everyone had forgotten about them.
They were wrong.
Hank Davis: Davis' early Sun-influenced music has been released on a Bear Family CD called One Way Track (BCD 17319).