The Man Who Invented Rock 'n' Roll
Author: Peter Guralnick
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Date of Publication: November 10, 2015
If you have even a passing interest in rock and roll music then you owe it to yourself to read this book. It is just as entertaining as it is informative. Sam Phillips was a young man from Alabama who grew up in the 1930s hearing African-Americans singing spiritual music. He became fascinated with radio and began a career in broadcasting. This eventually led to a job offer in Memphis, broadcasting big band shows from the Peabody Hotel. He started the Memphis Recording Service at 706 Union Avenue, initially specializing in recording special events and weddings. He then began recording black musicians who were coming to Memphis to perform on Beale Street. These recordings were sold to Chess Records in Chicago and other distributors. Eventually Sam started his own record label: Sun Records.
Peter Guralnick is a music critic, screenwriter and author who has also written The Last Train to Memphis, the definitive biography of Elvis Presley. He had a long-time friendship with Sam Phillips and that is clearly evident in the details he includes in this biography. The story really picks up its pace when the author shows how Phillips used the Memphis Recording Service to record black artists from Mississippi who no one else would record. What is generally regarded as the first rock and roll record, "Rocket 88" by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats was recorded by Sam in 1951. Phillips went on to record Howlin' Wolf, Little Milton, Ike Turner, B. B. King and many other African-American artists. Sam Phillips also made a social statement by recording The Prisonaires - four black inmates in a Tennessee penitentiary. This was all done before the Supreme Court ruled against segregated schools and decades before any integration would happen in Memphis.
The Sam Phillips story really got exciting when a recent high school graduate came in to record a song for his mother. That young fellow was Elvis Presley. Sam was not initially sold on Elvis until he recorded Elvis letting loose with the late Scotty Moore and Bill Black on "That's All Right (Mama)" which became the first Elvis single released ("Blue Moon of Kentucky" was the B side). The sections of the book dealing with Presley and subsequent white artists such as Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison are fascinating. Rock and roll music was born and Sam Phillips was there to capture it. He invented recording techniques as he went along, often by necessity. Once, when Ike Turner's guitar amplifier fell off of his truck and the speaker broke, Sam crammed newspaper into the housing, creating a distorted but very unique sound. Sam was also instrumental in getting his artists air play on the radio, often traveling thousands of miles to promote his artists to local disk jockeys.
The author devotes many pages to Sam's personal life, particularly the women in his life. Although he maintained a long-term marriage to his wife Becky, with whom he had two sons, Sam at various times also lived with other women. He also had mental health issues, even being hospitalized in 1951 for a "nervous breakdown" and undergoing electroconvulsive therapy. The last half of the book is mostly about Sam's later ups and downs in the music business and his relationship with his two sons.
Towards the end of this exhaustive biography, the author relates an anecdote which occurred during the filming of an A & E television special being produced about and with the help of Sam himself. The videographer stopped the cameras when some dump trucks rolled by the group, Sam couldn't understand why he did that and chastised the fellow for missing the opportunity to record something real. The author then relates why Sam Phillips felt that way:
"He loved perfect imperfection, he insisted. And he cited his recordings to prove it - the inspired accident was what you were always looking for, so long as it didn't drown out what you were trying to get across." He quotes Sam further (this time while watching the high school marching band in his home town of Florence, Alabama): 'Music is something that you will always remember as long as you live. Don't cheat yourself by not getting everything you can out of music - but in the meantime... HAVE A HELLUVA LOT OF FUN DOING IT.'"
Sam Phillips was indeed a very unique, inventive and pioneering man in the fledgling field of music recording. He started before there were any real rules and helped shape an industry. One aspect of all of this which is particularly striking is how color blind Sam Phillips was. He was looking for sound and for style and didn't care what race the performer was. This is a truly remarkable aspect of this brilliant but flawed man.
There were several recordings I bought while reading this which helped bring this story to life. These include "Sun Records: The Definitive Hits" Volumes 1 and 2 and "Sun Records: Ultimate Blues Collection". These CDs are actually fun to listen to even if you pass on the book! This book has been optioned for a movie starring Leonardo Dicaprio as Sam Phillips. I hope that they keep the essence of the portrait that Peter Guralnick painted in this wonderful biography.
If you are ever in Memphis, I highly recommend the tour of the old Sun Studios on Union Avenue. The studio is basically the same as it was in the 1950s with many of the old instruments still there. After seeing that it is hard to believe the number and magnitude of artists that recorded there.
With one of the original RCA microphones used by Sun artists. The "X"on the floor is where Elvis Presley was standing while recording "That's All Right"