You don’t have to be a rock ‘n’ roll historian to understand the importance of Sam Phillips and Sun Records in the history of modern American culture. Sun Records was where the super-segregated culture of the South gave birth to the fusion of country white with urban black music that became Rock and Roll.
“I was in Memphis because I was starting a business with my brother, trucking cattle in the South,” said Winston “Wayne” Cogswell, who this spring will become one of the newest members of the Rhode Island Music Hall of Fame. “The special trucks we needed were still being built, so I was selling Kirby vacuum cleaners to make some money. I sold one to Sam Phillips’ wife and in the course of that, I mentioned I played the guitar. She told me I should go and see her husband and I did. The first thing he said to me was, ‘I hate you for selling my wife that vacuum cleaner.’ Well, it did cost about $285.”
That was a lot of money in those days, but Sam Phillips was making some money in his Memphis recording studio. He recorded country artists and sometimes African-American artists who were making what was then called “race records.” Occasionally, someone would wander in from the street to make a personal record. One day, Elvis Presley came in to make a record for his mother. The rest, as they say, is rock ‘n’ roll history.
Sam Phillips was smart enough to see that popular music was evolving in a different direction and that controlling the product from recording to radio airtime would pay for a lot of vacuum cleaners.
“We hit it off and I started working for Sam,” said Cogswell. “He introduced me to Ray Harris, another regular who was looking for someone to work with and write songs.”
Winston Cogswell became Wayne Powers, and watched and worked as the new world of American popular music was born.
Winston Cogswell, the man who shipped cattle and sold vacuum cleaners, was born in Maine in 1928, about two miles from the Canadian border, according to him. His family moved to Warwick. He learned to play guitar well enough to make a living as a teenager, playing area dances and nightclubs before he enlisted in the Merchant Marines during World War II and then moved to the Army after the war.
“I used to fly drones for target practice down in Maryland,” he said. “They were the first remote-controlled target for the military and it was my job to fly them over the troops for target practice and their job to shoot down the drones. They were lousy shots. I brought most of the drones back.”
By the time Cogswell got to Memphis, Phillips was already supplying blues, rhythm & blues, country and western recording services to people like B.B. King, The Howlin’ Wolf, Doug Poindexter & His Starlight Ramblers for records that were released by Sun Records or leased out to other companies. He assembled a group of musicians to write and arrange songs, produce the records and provide backing for artists that included people like Ike Turner, Scotty Moore, “Cowboy” Jack Clement and Roland Janes.
“Sam had the chance to sign B.B. King back then, but he didn’t,” said Cogswell, shaking his head.
He did have the foresight to sign up Elvis Presley in 1955.
“Sam told me that I had to hear this kid,” said Cogswell. “Here was this white kid, singing black music in a higher voice. It was new.”
Cogswell had a ringside seat for those early sessions and, according to legend, was there when Phillips and Presley recorded “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” the most rhythm and blues-like to date for Presley, singing with players like Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black.
After Phillips introduced Cogswell to singer and guitar player Harris, they wrote some seminal songs together, if not chartbusting mega-hits, in what was to be become known as rockabilly. “Come On, Little Mama” in 1956 featured a guitar break by Cogswell that helped solidify his reputation as an equal to other players at Sun. “Where’d You Stay Last Night” and “Greenback Dollar,” a reworking of a traditional tune that was recorded in, according to writer Rick Belaire, “a wild and drunken session” with Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis.
“You know Roy Orbison was driving up to the studio one day and missed it and was trying to make a u-turn when he rolled over his car,” said Cogswell. “He wasn’t hurt … but I must say, Sam Phillips didn’t really know what to do with him. Roy recorded a song called “Oooby-Dooby.’ He [Phillips] didn’t like the way Roy sang some of his songs. He missed out on that.”
One other thing Phillips lost out to was the big payout that Elvis Presley produced after Phillips sold Elvis’ contract to Colonel Parker.
“Sam was broke at the time and needed money, so he sold Elvis for $35,000,” said Cogswell. “But, you know Sam Phillips was a cheap son-of-a-bitch himself. He didn’t pay us all that well and we never saw any royalties.”
But there were other compensations. Cogswell said they were in the middle of a recording session for the song “Point of View,” when Elvis dropped by.
“He ruined the take but we didn’t mind,” said Cogswell. “We went next door to get some cheeseburgers and just hang out.”
Eventually, not getting paid as an artist, seeing any royalties as a songwriter or receiving reliable paychecks for studio work, Cogswell tried to pressure Phillips into giving him royalties and back pay. In 1959, he recorded a dance instrumental he called “Teensville.”
“Knowing he had a smash on his hands, he reckoned that he had some leverage with Phillips. Sam wanted to release the record, but Winston refused to sign it over until he’d seen some back pay and royalties,” according to Rick Bellaire of the Rhode Island Music Hall of Fame. “When Sam was not forthcoming, Cogswell decided to set himself up with another publishing company. Now calling himself ‘Wayne Cogswell’ [a combination of his given and stage names], he pitched it to a Nashville publisher who placed it at RCA with the legendary guitar genius Chet Atkins…”
The song was a hit, and Cogswell began sending his music to his new friends in Nashville. He had two more songs with Atkins, “The Slop” and “Rainbow’s End,” and success with a song he’d written with his then-wife Dolores, “Someday, Someday,” which was a hit for Skeeter Davis.
“He stuck around Memphis for a while attending to his usual duties in the studio, and along the way he composed and produced one more truly classic slice of Sun Records history, ‘Somehow Without You’ by Mickey Milan,” according to Bellaire. “Mickey was one of just a handful of female artists at the company and Wayne knew she’d be perfect for the song … Mickey’s record is now considered one of the finest Memphis recordings of all time and beloved worldwide by fans and collectors.”
Cogswell came back to Warwick with his family while he pondered his future in the music business. He needed a more reliable source of income, and Sun Records was not going to provide it. He could still do business with the publishing companies while living in Rhode Island, and he returned in 1960 and took a job with Grinnell in Cranston.
“I brought an old Webcor tape recorder in for repairs and I met Ken Dutton. He knew who I was and he wanted to start a recording company,” said Cogswell. “We started Wye Records, at 625 Warwick Avenue.”
But always a player and songwriter, Cogswell teamed up with a local musician he hit it off with.
“I met Ray Peterson and we decided to do a dual piano act, one piano, two players, like the old Ferrante and Teicher thing.”
One of the products of the piano thing was “Night Theme,” an atmospheric, blues-infected instrumental that was a favorite for slow dancing at record hops and teen hangouts for many years.
“I’m kinda lucky, I guess,” reflected Cogswell, as he sat in his modest house on Spywood Street. “I still get royalty checks … not a lot of them, but some. I met my wife Claire in 1960. I heard her sing and I liked her voice and Wye Records put out ‘My Ideal’ by her. It sold, not a big hit, but it did sell.”
Cogswell doesn’t do as much playing these days. He’s content to do occasional gigs at nursing homes and retirement communities, bringing back memories for many and secure in the knowledge that some young person, somewhere, is dancing to some version of “Teensville” or “Night Theme.”