In a lot of ways, Phillips was the embodiment of what was going on in the South during that time. In the shadows cast by legal segregation, in the nooks and crannies of the region's back alleys, the margins of the two races created their own nuclear era by fusing elements of their cultures into new, hybrid artforms.
The South was waking up, and new possibilities -- social and artistic as well as economic -- were slowly coming into view.
And that's where a Southern wild-ass like Sam Phillips found his niche. He had an independent streak a mile wide, and was full of himself to the point of being obnoxious, but he let musicians play what they wanted to play and be what they wanted to be. He let Presley and Sun house musicians, for instance, play around in the studio for days until they hit upon a sound that hadn't been heard before: beat-heavy R&B played with country accents and sung in Elvis' pop-friendly voice.
According to rock mythology, and Phillips himself, he immediately knew that this was the "million-dollar sound" he'd been looking for. Who knows? It may be true, maybe not, but it's not that important. The important thing is that Phillips had the open-ended vision to encourage the kind of experimentation that blew away musical, racial and even political conventions. In time, his wild streak and daring -- and Sun artists Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison -- played a central role in setting off the cultural explosion that was 50s' rock & roll.
Later in life, Phillips was part of the inaugural batch of honorees elected to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1986 and he became a bit of a blowhard, trumpeting his historic importance to anyone who'd listen. But never mind. The adage is right: if you can do it (or did it) it ain't braggin'.