VOL. 127 | NO. 164 | Wednesday, August 22, 2012
By Bill Dries
For years, business owners in a row of four Quonset huts on the north side of Chelsea Avenue near McLean Boulevard have become accustomed to visitors from across the country and around the world stopping by for a look.
Robert Williams, son of Plastic Products founder Buster Williams, unveils a historical marker outside the North Memphis site along with Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau president Kevin Kane and others.
(Photo: Bill Dries)
The hardcore music fans from around the world read about the Plastic Products record pressing plant in the books “It Came From Memphis” by Robert Gordon and “Soulsville U.S.A.,” the Stax records chronicle by Rob Bowman.
The visitors and others now have a new marker from the Shelby County Historical Commission to aid in finding the factory that sent the Memphis sound – Elvis Presley to Isaac Hayes and beyond – around the world.
The marker was unveiled on a rainy end of the recent Elvis Week activities and drew almost a hundred people on an open lot by the huts.
Shortly after World War II, Buster Williams started a jukebox business in the huts that included other coin-operated machines.
“It was kind of a natural progression for him. He was in the business from the standpoint of jukebox and coin machines,” said his son, Robert Williams, who worked in the business too including as a plant manager. “The next step was the wholesale distribution of records. He was using so many records himself, he thought why not start a wholesale business and save himself some money. The next progression from that was actually making the records.”
And it all had the gift of timing.
Plastic Products was born as the market for vinyl – rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm and blues records in particular – grew to become the bedrock of a new youth culture. Without Plastic Products, the music made at such independent recording studios as Sun Records and Stax and Hi might have had a much tougher time getting heard on a national basis.
In its prime, Plastic Products was about two miles from American Sound studios at the corner of Chelsea and Danny Thomas Boulevard. At American, Chips Moman turned out hundreds of hits for numerous record labels who sent their artists to him while another part of the same label had contracts with Plastic Products to press the records and distribute them.
Williams offered credit and other favorable terms to such legendary Memphis music icons as Sam Phillips of Sun and Jim Stewart of Stax. Williams pressed records for Leonard Chess, cofounder of Chess Records in Chicago, as well as Atlantic and other major labels.
Plastic Products made and distributed the rhythm and blues records that Presley bought and a few years later made and distributed his records.
“It’s interesting that back in the late ’40s and ’50s we were America’s distribution center all right. But it wasn’t FedEx packages,” said Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau president Kevin Kane. “It was in the pressing of plastic and 45 (rpm) records that were being shipped and being pressed 24/7 365 and were being shipped to the major record companies all over the country.”
Among those who came last week for another look around the old buildings was J.M. Van Eaton who played on those Sun Record sides as the drummer in Jerry Lee Lewis’ band and others.
Van Eaton talked of the excitement of seeing his first single with Lewis “Crazy Arms” being pressed.
“When we found out you could actually come over here and get your records off the press, it was a cool thing,” he said.
Van Eaton remembered several record presses working at the same time, making the 45s and putting what became the historic gold Sun label on each and every one of them.
“It was a wonderful thing to come over here and get your hands on a first copy,” he said.
“You’d get them to the distributor and let them get them to the radio station. I can’t even put into words how you feel when you hear something that you’ve created played on the radio. I’m 17 or 18 years old when all of this was first starting. It was something to behold.”
Williams pressed the records, owned the jukeboxes they would go in and supplied the stores that sold the records to people who first heard them on his jukeboxes and the radio stations he also distributed to.
“This thing grew very rapidly and I think was a surprise to Dad really,” the younger Williams said of his father, who died in 1992. “He didn’t expect it to grow to the size that it became.”
With another larger plant in Coldwater, Miss., Plastic Products could turn out 150,000 singles a day, not counting albums.
By the 1970s, the company had a third plant in Philadelphia.