Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘N’ Roll (Little, Brown and Company) by Peter Guralnick is American cultural history at its finest. Guralnick has to be considered the dean of rock ‘n’ roll storytellers. His Dream Boogie: The Triumph Of Sam Cooke (2005), Careless Love: The Unmaking Of Elvis Presley (1999), Last Train To Memphis: The Rise Of Elvis Presley (1994) and Searching For Robert Johnson (1989) were among the best books of those years.
He’s done it again.
You’d think at first glance that everything has already been written about that era. You’d be wrong. There is so much new information that this reporter stayed up late nights not wanting to put it down. Sure, everybody knows the quote: “If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.”
Sam found his man.
Elvis, 19, walked into the studio with acne, long sideburns and greasy hair. But, as Guralnick writes, “what struck Sam most was his quality of genuine humility…mixed with intense determination. He was, innately…one of the most introverted people who had ever come into the studio, but for that reason one of the bravest too. Sam said, ‘his insecurity was so markedly like that of a black person.’
“Sam had him run down just about every song he knew. He didn’t need much of an invitation and he didn’t finish every song but what Sam sensed was a breadth of knowledge, a passion for the music that didn’t come along every day.”
What Sam was looking for was uniqueness. He didn’t care about mistakes or musical dexterity, he opened his little studio to give blacks free rein on their expression. To that end, he recorded a guy who walked in named Chester Burnett (who ultimately became Howlin’ Wolf at Chess Records in Chicago), Ike Turner whose “Rocket 88” (under the name of Jackie Brenston) in 1951, has long been credited to be the very first rock ‘n’ roll song. To that end, you could call Sam Phillips [1923-2003] a pioneer of civil rights.
Once Elvis opened the gates for whites as well, Sam recorded Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, gave legendary Nashville producer Jack Clement his start, and became close with the widow of Hank Williams, Audry Williams, when nobody wanted to have anything to do with her.
Guralnick becomes a character in his own book when he and Sam get close. Still, he doesn’t sugar-coat Sam’s many affairs while married to his long-suffering wife. One of the those affairs, early on, was with Marian Keisker, his right-hand woman who was the one who suggested he call back the pimply kid Elvis because she was the one who actually heard the voice first.
Sam’s later career, once he sold Sun to Shelby Singleton, also has great stories about the recording of John Prine, the infamous appearance on Late Night With David Letterman, the drinking, the carousing, and the realization that not only did he fulfill his wildest dreams, but he did it unflinchingly, sparing no emotion and argumentative passion for what he believed. Yeah, Sam was some character all right, larger-than-life and he carried himself that way. Cash and Perkins might have been upset with Sam’s ceaseless devotion to Jerry Lee Lewis, but Sam made no apologies for anything he ever did. Even to his wife.
American history is filled with stories of such grandeur and oversized personalities. Sam Phillips has to be looked on as one of those types of characters who moved the culture—kicking and screaming—forward. His children, his brothers, his lovers and his artists all played their roles. This, then, is the ultimate book on the subject. It’s amazing it hasn’t been written like this before. Peter Guralnick just rolls on. He puts you right there, sweating with Sam when Sun looked like it was going to go down the tubes. He puts you right in the neighborhood when Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips (no relation) unleashes a torrent of attention on Elvis by playing his first record (“That’s All Right”) over and over again with a crazed passion in-between each time he played it yelling and hollering like a Deep South preacher man over this new never-before-heard kind of music. (Dewey would meet a tragic end too as his passion would reach heights that even he couldn’t control.)
Studio geeks will love the inception of Sam’s slap-back echo techniques that practically invented rockabilly music, but you don’t have to be a studio geek to love this 727-page epic tale of success won, success lost, and the mythological Phoenix-like rebirth of Sam’s intent.