Storied music label Sun Records purchased by Primary Wave in reported $30 million deal

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Bob Mehr, Memphis Commercial Appeal
·4 min read
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Sun Records — the storied Memphis label that helped birth rock 'n' roll — has been sold to New York-based music company Primary Wave.

The sale, first reported by The New York Times, includes nearly 6,000 master recordings as well as the Sun Records logo and branding.

The Sun label, founded by visionary producer Sam Phillips in 1952, first sold in 1969 to Nashville music entrepreneur Shelby Singleton. After purchasing the company from Phillips, Singleton formed the Sun Entertainment Corporation, which controlled the Sun music and logo for the next 52 years (though the Phillips family would continue to maintain a small interest in the company).

Singleton died in 2009, but this week his brother, John A. Singleton, confirmed that the Sun holdings had sold — for an undisclosed price, though estimated to be around $30 million — to Primary Wave, continuing the recent trend of high-profile music asset sales.

Shelby Singleton, record producer and record label owner, gives an interview in his office at 3106 Belmont Blvd. June 24, 1969. He is talking about how he recorded the first female black country and western singer, Linda Martell, on his Plantation Records label.
Shelby Singleton, record producer and record label owner, gives an interview in his office at 3106 Belmont Blvd. June 24, 1969. He is talking about how he recorded the first female black country and western singer, Linda Martell, on his Plantation Records label.

In the past few months alone, Bob Dylan has sold his publishing catalog to Universal for an estimated $300 million to $400 million, while companies like the Hipgnosis Song Fund have gobbled up the rights to the work of Neil Young and Blondie, among others.

Founded in 2006 by veteran music executive Larry Mestel, Primary Wave has made its reputation working with and purchasing stakes in the estates of artists including Kurt Cobain and Whitney Houston, and the publishing on songwriters ranging from Smokey Robinson to Stevie Nicks, Burt Bacharach to Bob Marley.

With the Sun sale, Primary Wave will now control one of the most historically significant catalogs in American music. This includes the hits of Jerry Lee Lewis (“Great Balls of Fire”), the early recordings of Johnny Cash (“Folsom Prison Blues”) and Roy Orbison (“Ooby Dooby”), and music by an array of blues, roots and rockabilly artists like Little Milton, Carl Perkins and Billy Lee Riley. (Notably, Elvis Presley’s early recordings for Sun were previously sold by Sam Phillips to RCA in 1955 as part of the purchase of Presley’s contract, and remain controlled by Sony Music.)

“Sun was literally one of the birthplaces of rock and roll. Its influence helped spread music not only across America, but culturally across the globe," said Mestel, Primary Wave CEO. "These songs are some of the most important gems in music history and we intend to treat it with the same respect and care that Shelby and John Singleton have over the years.”

Rock 'n' roll musician Jerry Lee Lewis plays the piano in this 1957 photo.
Rock 'n' roll musician Jerry Lee Lewis plays the piano in this 1957 photo.

Sam Phillips died in 2003, but the Phillips family — which still owns publishing rights to numerous Sun classics through their Hi-Lo Music and Knox Music companies — will benefit from the sale, and from Primary Wave's efforts to reinvigorate the Sun brand.

“I’m glad to see it happen,” said Jerry Phillips, Sam Phillips’ son. “The Singleton family did great work with Sun, but I think Primary Wave is going to take it to a new level. These guys have some pretty big plans to step things up and have a lot of tools at their disposal to do that. From my perspective, that’s good for the legacy of Sam Phillips and the legacy of Sun.”

Sun Studios — the Memphis-based attraction located at the site of Sam Phillips’ former studio, the Memphis Recording Service — was not affiliated with the Sun Entertainment Corporation and remains unaffected by the sale.

Although specific plans have not been announced yet, it’s expected that Primary Wave will be aggressive in expanding the Sun Records profile, in terms of its digital presence, sync and licensing opportunities, and as an intellectual property asset.

“We are going to begin by organizing, cataloging and making available digitally all the music in the Sun catalog,” Mestel said. “We believe there is an enormous opportunity to reintroduce these classic records to a new youth culture and to market the importance of Sun historically as well as the iconic logo. You’ll see interesting marketing support for the music, which is Primary Wave’s trademark.”

For Jerry Phillips, the Sun deal means that the vision of his father will continue to live on for generations to come. “It’s amazing that after 60 years, people still have that kind of interest, and put that kind of value on Sun," said Phillips. "It’s an iconic record label, man. There’s no doubt about it.”

This article originally appeared on Memphis Commercial Appeal: Sun Records sold: Sam Phillips' Memphis label bought by Primary Wave