Reviewed by Des Cowley.
Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll
By Peter Guralnick (pb, Hachette)
Let’s be clear from the outset: Peter Guralnick is, hands down, one of the great music writers working today. From early classics like Lost Highway (1979), through to his biographies of Elvis Presley and Sam Cooke, Guralnick has mined that particular strain of music that emanated from the South, and subsequently pervaded all manner of American popular music. In the figure of Sun Records founder, Sam Phillips, he has found his perfect subject, an enigmatic and self-possessed southerner whose career straddles blues, country, rhythm & blues, rockabilly, gospel, hillbilly and the birth of rock n’ roll.
Guralnick first met Sam Phillips in 1979, and developed a friendship with the legendary producer that lasted up until his death in 2003. This book, then, has been a long time coming; and it is all the better for it. Spurred on by Phillips’ words – “It ain’t for you to put me in a good light. Just put me in the focus I’m supposed to be in” – Guralnick has expended more than ten years research and nearly 800 pages to write this account, in the process sparing no-one, least of all Sam.
Guralnick provides a detailed account of Phillips’ early years in Florence, Alabama; but the book genuinely hits its stride with the opening of the Memphis Recording Service at 706 Union Avenue, Memphis, in 1950. Phillips’ initial aims were modest: to record the music – blues, gospel, country – he heard as a child, and then to license these recordings, by Joe Hill Louis, Roscoe Gordon and others, to various independents, like the Bihari brothers in California and the Chess brothers in Chicago. There were early successes: the recording of Ike Turner’s ‘Rocket 88’, argued by many to be the first ever rock n’ roll recording, and his discovery of blues great Howlin’ Wolf. It was Wolf, though, who provided the bitter pill – the first of many – in signing on with the Chess brothers and departing Memphis for Chicago. Recording great music was one thing, but with little to show for it, Phillips decided to set up his own label, and Sun Records was born in January 1952.
As Guralnick’s account makes clear, achieving a hit single in the early fifties was something of a crap shoot. Phillips’ recorded all sorts of music – from Rufus Thomas and Little Milton through to novelty records – few of which charted. Through it all, he was searching for something different, a certain sound, a feeling rather than perfection. In the end, though, it felt like all he was doing was running up debt. Until that fateful day in 1954 – a story that has assumed biblical proportions – when a young Elvis wandered into the studio to cut a $4 record for his mother. In that moment, Sam Phillips’ fortunes turned around once and for all.
Guralnick details Phillips’ relationships with the recording artists who made Sun Records the legendary label it is today: Elvis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis first and foremost. Within a few brief years, Elvis was lost to RCA, Cash to Columbia, and Lewis to scandal; but already the future myth of Sam Phillips had been forged. Guralnick pays equal due to Phillips’ private life – his extended family, unconventional marriage to Becky, and simultaneous life-long relationship with Sally Wilbourn.
While Guralnick’s book runs slightly out of puff in the post-Sun Records era, he re-invigorates things by inserting himself into the narrative. Phillips’ later years, in which Guralnick himself played a part, were largely spent cementing his place in history. With a renewed interest in the birth of rock n’ roll, Phillips, who rarely missed an opportunity to ‘set the record straight’, found himself showered with awards and accolades. A man of indefatigable energy, Guralnick’s portrait of his final years and decline is a moving one.
While ‘definitive’ can be an overused term, there can be no doubt that, with this book, Guralnick has given us the definitive portrait, ‘written out of admiration and love’, of Sam Phillips, the man who ‘invented rock n’ roll’.