A companion to The Sun Country Box and The Sun Rock Box, Bear Family's 2013 The Sun Blues Box greatly expands the original 1983 LP box of the same title. That vinyl box concentrated solely on singles released on Sun and its related imprints during the '50s, but this hefty ten-CD box encompasses sides Sam Phillips produced at Sun Studios but licensed out to Chess, Trumpet, and RPM. These cuts, combined with other rarities -- mainly unreleased recordings but also outtakes and such rarities as a Sam Phillips radio spot for a medicine called "Tree of Life" and a clutch of recordings from unknown vocal groups and gospel singers tucked away on the tenth disc -- provides a testament to the considerable achievement Phillips achieved at Sun between 1950 and 1958. Many other studios, producers, and labels were instrumental in the development of recorded electric blues but Phillips at Sun was pivotal in 20th century blues' transition from the country to the city, Sun being an important stop on the road from the Mississippi Delta to Chicago. This is true geographically and aesthetically, as the blues recorded at Sun were often as primitive as those made deep in the Delta, but soon into Phillips' run of blues, the subjects of the songs quickly turned to urban concerns and the sound leaped from the backwoods to the steel and concrete of the city. The first disc, naturally, leans toward primitive Delta blues, but once Howlin' Wolf arrives at the start of the second disc, everything changes. Wolf was Phillips first great discovery and his great, gravelly groan on "Moanin' at Midnight" ushers in much more than the golden age of Sun Blues: licensed to Chess, the recording became a hit and put Chicago blues on a different path, one that would greatly change the sound of popular music, from the blues to rock & roll, and it also made Phillips eager to get another hitmaker into his studio. Shortly thereafter, he cut Jackie Brenston's "Rocket 88" with Ike Turner's band -- a jumping single often acknowledged as the first rock & roll single -- and then brought in B.B. King and Rufus Thomas, capturing the sound of not just Memphis blues but the whole swinging south.
Much of this story was told on the original LP box, but the 2013 ten-disc set is drawn on an epic scale, thanks to the inclusion of all the sides Phillips licensed to other labels (although the unreleased rarities are of a high grade and are certainly welcome), singles that fill out the story with necessary detail. What's striking is how vital it all sounds, from the early Wolf and Ike through the Junior Parker, Earl Hooker, Joe Hill Louis, and Walter Horton who come later, to all the one-shots and cult favorites, ranging from the murderous Pat Hare to the inspirational Prisonaires. Phillips always sought musicians who tapped into some primal essence but he wasn't a purist, he was eager to make money out of his discoveries and the way to make money was to live in the modern world, not the past. And that's why the music on The Sun Blues Box feels like the beginning of modern music as we know it: it was recorded just as the blues moved out of the sticks and into the city, and it was recorded when any number of small-time record hustlers could maybe strike it big. Phillips didn't make his money here -- that is documented on the accompanying The Sun Rock Box -- but time and time again he captured lightning in his studio, and that's why The Sun Blues Box isn't simply a history album, it is music that is bracingly, thrillingly alive.