This month marks the 17th anniversary of Steve Jobs launching the iPhone at Macworld 2007, an occasion that’s reminded me of what might be my favorite story about the late Apple co-founder. It’s one that I’m not sure many people have heard before — and while Walter Isaacson included some of these details in his 2011 biography of Steve, I got everything straight from the source.
Long story short, all of this dates back to the aughts when I was still a newspaper reporter here in Memphis. Steve, as everyone would find out after the fact, came here in secret in 2009 for a liver transplant at one of our hospitals that’s renowned for its transplant department. After the surgery, he recuperated at a private home here in the city. Obviously, nobody knew anything about him being in town beforehand, but I do remember there started to be random sightings here and there that trickled into the newsroom. There was one, in particular, from someone who was convinced they saw Steve being pushed around in a wheelchair in Midtown’s Overton Park.
I don’t know how long he spent here in Memphis recovering, nor do I know much of anything about what he did while he was here — with one exception.
An engineer at Sun Studio, where Elvis recorded the early hits that catapulted him to superstardom, recounted to me how the studio got a call out of the blue one day from someone identifying himself as an Apple lawyer. “He asked if we could stay open late to give a tour to someone who’s a heavy-hitter in the music industry,” the engineer told me. “He also said at that time that he couldn’t say who it is for now.”
This kind of thing happens all the time at Sun. The studio frequently gives after-hours tours to VIPs — like Bob Dylan, who, the story goes, dropped to his feet and kissed the ground when his tour guide pointed out the tape strips marking where Elvis would have stood when he was recording (2024, by the way, marks the 70th anniversary of Elvis’ debut single That’s All Right).
The music industry “heavy-hitter” the Apple lawyer was referring to, meanwhile, turned out to be Jobs, who arrived on this particular day with his family at 7 p.m. — a couple of hours after Sun had closed to the public.
I should say a word here about how well-preserved Sun is, and what a treat it can be for music fans who visit. It still very much resembles the way it would have looked decades ago, when Elvis roamed throughout. The old equipment is still there, and guests get a very immersive tour. Old tapes are played to visitors (like Steve), who can listen as, for example, Carl Perkins is peeking through a window and trying to make Elvis laugh — while the tour guide points out that the conversation you’re hearing takes place in that room, right over there.
The tour guides are generally local musicians, and they’ll do things like wrap a dollar bill behind the strings of a guitar to show how to achieve that distinctive Sun rhythm sound. This all would have no doubt been enthralling and a welcome respite for Steve, who hung out for a little while after his tour and chatted a bit before he left. He also took home some gifts from the gift shop. His tour guide had been David Brookings, a local musician and Beatles obsessive who also recorded three albums at Sun and sold them in the studio’s gift shop.
Brookings, it turns out, even handed Steve one of his own albums, describing it as mostly influenced by The Beatles and Bob Dylan (not realizing that those were Steve’s two favorites).
The musician didn’t recognize Steve at the time (he was still pretty emaciated from his surgery), but he nevertheless made a big impression on the Apple co-founder — so much so that he got an email a few weeks after the encounter. It was an invite to come out to California, because Steve had thought Brookings would be a perfect fit at what was then iTunes. In fact, Steve said as much to the Apple lawyer who was also there for the tour, as they were all leaving.
The lawyer relayed everything to Eddy Cue, who is now Apple’s senior vice president of services and who flew Brookings out for an interview. Cue ended up hiring him to build out the early R&B and rock portions of iTunes. Brookings has spent 14 years at what’s now Apple Music, where he remains today and where he’s worked as a major and indie label rep, as a music programmer, and as a playlist builder across the Apple Music ecosystem.
“The Steve I met (that day in Memphis) was a really nice guy, and he changed one of my best friends’ lives forever,” the Sun engineer later told me.