Sun Records cashes in with sale to Primary Wave

Sun Records, the US label credited with the birth of rock and roll, has been sold to Primary Wave as a scramble for the rights to the biggest hits of yesteryear continues in the streaming era.

Primary Wave, a specialist music fund that competes with Hipgnosis and Round Hill for music rights, will acquire the master recordings of the label’s output in the 1950s and 1960s, as well as the publishing rights and the label’s signature yellow and black logo featuring a rooster. It has even acquired a diner in Nashville as part of what it said was a “multimillion-dollar deal”. The exact terms were not disclosed.

The catalogue includes some of the best known rock and roll songs of all time including “Great Balls of Fire” by Jerry Lee Lewis, “I Walk the Line” by Johnny Cash and “Blue Suede Shoes” by Carl Perkins. Songs recorded by Elvis Presley — the label’s first star — are not included, as RCA, now a division of Sony, bought the singer’s rights in 1955.

Sun was established in 1949 by Sam Phillips in Memphis, initially as a recording studio. Three years later, Phillips launched the record label and quickly discovered a generation of artists that would come to define the era as singers such as Presley, Cash and Roy Orbison blended the styles of country, gospel and blues.

Cash wrote in his biography: “If there hadn’t been a Sam Phillips, I might still be working in a cotton field.”

Phillips sold the label in 1969 to producer Shelby Singleton after it struggled to maintain its run of hits and its biggest artists left. Charlie Rich, a country singer, defected to a rival label complaining that Phillips was too wealthy “and was more interested in Holiday Inn stock than the record business”.

Singleton and his brother John later moved Sun Records to Nashville and ran it as a legacy label concentrating on reissues.

Publishing rights, particularly those linked to older established hits, have in effect doubled in value over the past decade as buyers such as Primary Wave have battled to buy a share of songs that have been given a new lease of life in the streaming era. The Sun Records deal also includes the master rights, which generate a larger share of the revenue when a recording of a song is played.

“We are extremely pleased to pass the Sun Records baton to Primary Wave and are confident that they will continue to reach new heights for the crown jewel of the music business created by Sam Phillips, which my brother, Shelby, and I have kept alive and relevant for the past 50 years,” John Singleton said in a statement.

Primary Wave bought the rights to Stevie Nicks’ catalogue last year. The US group owns the rights to thousands of songs from artists as diverse as Smokey Robinson, Whitney Houston, Burt Bacharach, Prince and Devo.

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