Peter Guralnick, Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ’n’ Roll (Little, Brown; 661 pages)
Sam Phillips: The Man Who
Invented Rock ’n’ Roll (YepRoc Records)
That descriptive identifier, “The Man Who Invented Rock ’n’ Roll,” says biographer Peter Guralnick in his author’s note at the front of the book, is one that Sam Phillips “would have both claimed and
disclaimed . . . , as he frequently did, more often than not in the same elongated sentence.”
If we unpack Guralnick’s sentence, we begin to get a picture of the complex, charming, exasperating, visionary, and profoundly human being whose ear caught something new and different—“different” being the Sam Phillips’ standard of excellence—in the air as various strands of American music were entwining themselves into rock ’n’ roll. His
Memphis Recording Services studio and Sun Records label provided a laboratory where he and a host of artists, black and white, explored the possibilities of that new music in the 1950s and ’60s.
His role in the birth of rock ’n’ roll is certainly what Sam Phillips is best remembered for, and that contribution is ably covered in Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ’n’ Roll, but Guralnick is after something larger in this biography. It’s a Boswellian effort, unlike his prize-winning two volumes on Elvis Presley (Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love) and his impressive bio of Sam Cooke (Dream Boogie: the Triumph of Sam Cooke), because while he was never an intimate of Presley or Cooke, he personally knew and became a trusted friend of Sam Phillips, as well as many of the scores of Phillips’ friends and family members whom he interviewed over decades for the book. This allows him to tell the story, as he said in a recent phone interview, “as much as possible from the inside out—telling the story in terms of the subject’s hopes, dreams,
aspirations, triumphs, disappointments, not in terms of my judgment of those things, but . . . telling the story as it might have been reflected in the subject’s own telling of the story.”
Capturing the Spirit
The familiarity with his subject, said Guralnick, did not present any special challenge—aside from the one he set himself: “From the beginning, I knew it offered a different sort of landscape, and also I wanted to write a book that did justice to Sam’s
capacious spirit. I wanted to blow up the whole idea of the polite linear progression and have what I think Sam would have appreciated—not a three-ring circus but a nine-ring circus.”
That sprawling “nine-ring circus” is peopled with a cast of characters worthy of a novel or a Greek myth. There are those living on the margins of
society, such as Silas Payne, aka Uncle Silas, a seer disguised as a blind black sharecropper whom the Phillips family took in and who, with vatic authority, predicted a life of success for the sickly child. Then, there are figures of power, such as the governor of the state of Tennessee, who, at Phillips’
urging, granted day passes to five convicts so that they could record and tour under the moniker of the Prisonaires. There are colleagues and co-conspirators, such as Dewey Phillips (no relation), the irrepressible DJ, a lifelong friend who might play a record he liked eight or nine times in a row on his manic, free-form radio show Red Hot and Blue; and Marion Keisker MacInnes, Phillips’ right hand at the studio who carried a torch for him. There is the inner family circle, including Phillips’ wife, Becky, who remained as faithful as Penelope despite her
husband’s wanderings from the hearth; his longtime extramarital companion, Sally Wilbourn; his well-loved but maddening brother and sometime partner Jud; his Aunt Emma, blind in one eye and completely deaf, who stoked the boy’s intellectual curiosity; and his children, Knox and Jerry, whom Phillips schooled in the business of music and radio.
Oh, yes, there’s also the star-studded roster of artists who passed through the studio’s door at 706 Union Street in Memphis, most of whom had never been previously recorded—Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King, Elvis Presley, Ike Turner, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Charlie Rich (who started his career as a jazz pianist!), among others—and the distributors,
manufacturers, jukebox magnates, competitors, financial partners, and more.
Beyond the recording business lies another full cast of characters who orbited around Phillips’ first and last love, radio. It was a medium that he felt had immense potential as a
transformative cultural tool, and one which he persistently labored to improve, both
technologically and with a number of programming innovations, such as introducing the first all-female station in the country, WHER.
Guralnick might have wanted to blow up the “polite linear progression,” but that does not mean that he has stinted on chronicling the long arc of Phillips’ life. His personal and professional lives were entwined at the root, with several family members, his wife, lovers, and close friends all part of his business ventures, and with his business colleagues sometimes incorporated into the family. A solitary man who nevertheless seemed to dread solitude, Phillips surrounded
himself with a close cadre of the faithful and was dedicated to their well-being, sometimes to the detriment of his own.
The Mission and the Musical Legacy
Phillips felt from early in life that he was called to a higher purpose and that events in his life conspired to push him in the direction of fulfilling that purpose. Guralnick tells us that this
conviction was grounded in “a belief not just in the possibilities but in the necessity of human communication . . . in the potential of ordinary men and women to communicate, to do
something—to be recognized for the achievement of something—truly great.”
It was more fate, then, than a series of coincidences that brought him to open the Memphis Recording Services studio, inspired in part by the profound music he’d heard black field hands making as he worked beside them picking cotton as a child—and by a need to make that music heard in the wider world.
Whoever the artist was that came through the door, Phillips purpose remained the same: “My mission was to bring out of a person what was in him, to recognize that individual’s unique quality and then to find the key to unlock it.”
It was a mission for which he seemed uniquely well suited, blessed with a gift that allowed him, as Johnny Cash said, to “see something happening that nobody else could.” Like a gifted teacher or preacher, he also had the power, as employee Jack Clement expressed it, “to make people want to please him.”
For Phillips, Guralnick said over the phone, the music was “all about the feel.” He prized emotion over technical perfection and strived for what he called “perfect imperfection,” making the
music perfect in its own terms.
It was a recipe perfectly suited to the emotional energy of the music. Perhaps the most
emblematic example of how that worked in the studio was in the 1951 recording of “Rocket 88,” a song some cite as the first rock ’n’ roll record. On the way to the studio, the guitar amp was dropped. The speaker cone broke, and the amp made a horrible sound when the guitarist plugged in. But Phillips heard something different. He wadded up some paper into the speaker, creating a distinctive fuzz sound that helped catapult the record to number one on the Billboard rhythm and blues chart.
Phillips may not have “invented” rock ’n’ roll, but this very able sound technician and architect certainly created a sonic
environment that captured in an intimate way the exuberance and raw emotional
energy that is the hallmark of rock ’n’ roll. The double album Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ’n’ Roll (YepRoc Records), with 58 tracks chosen by Guralnick, could serve as exhibit one of Phillips’ essential contribution to the music’s sound.
The admittedly idiosyncratic selection of tracks, with informative, entertaining, and extensive liner notes by Guralnick,
showcases Phillips’ recording genius, the wide variety of musical styles, and his
commitment to reflect as best he could—as Guralnick says in the biography—“the unmodified fulfillment of [the artists’] inspiration.”
Blues, hillbilly, country, doo-wop, rhythm and blues, singer/songwriter—they are all
represented, sometimes in a relatively pure form, but often in that combination of styles that came to be called rock ’n’ roll. Well-known tracks, such as Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes,” Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On,” and Elvis Presley’s “That’s All Right,” share space with lesser-known but equally engaging numbers, such as “The Boogie Disease” by Doctor Ross and “Rats in My Kitchen” by Sleepy John Estes. All of the iconic artists recorded by Phillips—from Howlin’ Wolf to John Prine—are well represented.
The album serves as a valuable companion to the book, especially for those unfamiliar with the music, but it also stands well enough on its own as a broad survey of Phillips’ musical legacy—and pure listening fun.
No one writing today is more passionate about Sam Phillips or better positioned to capture
either his character or his revolutionary contributions to American music than Guralnick. With what must be the definitive biography of this musical explorer, Sam Phillips: The Man Who
Invented Rock ’n’ Roll, he has made yet another signal contribution to the history of American popular music. Those interested in the subject—and possibly those intrigued by outsize
personalities of great achievement—will find the book essential reading, and the album (as well as the documentary film of the same name, written and coproduced by Guralnick and easily found on You Tube) provide entertaining ancillary support.
Sam Phillips had thought to write an autobiography one day, but instead, he chose Peter
Guralnick to pen this rich, rigorously researched biography, written with love and honesty. It’s an excellent alternative, and as close as we’ll ever get to that autobiography.
© 2016 Mel Minter. All rights reserved.