'Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ’n’ Roll': How the Sun Records founder ushered in a rock 'n' roll dynasty
January 3, 2016 12:00 AM
By Rich Kienzle
Dubbing one individual “the man who invented rock ’n’ roll” may stir debate, yet there’s no doubt that Sam Phillips, founder of the iconic Memphis-based Sun Records and the subject of Peter Guralnick’s “Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ’n’ Roll” was the music’s pre-eminent catalyst.
"SAM PHILLIPS: THE MAN WHO INVENTED ROCK ’N’ ROLL"
By Peter Guralnick Little Brown & Co. ($32).
His 1950s talent roster says it all: Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Howlin’ Wolf, Carl Perkins, Ike Turner (pre-Tina), Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and Charlie Rich. All were musical outliers when he found them and created much of their most enduring material in Sun’s tiny primitive studio. Phillips, an outlier himself, gave them creative freedom, shaping and focusing, yet never diluting, their raw talents.
Mr. Guralnick, who’s chronicled American roots music for decades and authored the definitive Elvis Presley biography, makes no claims of objectivity in this penetrating, exhaustive work. A longtime friend, he co-produced a 2000 Phillips documentary, and his close relationships with the family are a vital part of his narrative.
Samuel Cornelius Phillips blended Southern intellect and iconoclasm with sharp business sense and a charismatic, near-evangelical persona. Growing up on a northern Alabama farm, the youngest of seven children, he was repelled by racism. As a youth, he embraced Christianity and the secular homilies of the inspirational book “I Dare You!” before becoming an Alabama radio engineer and announcer.
After joining WREC in Memphis in 1945, Mr. Phillips hosted and produced big band broadcasts (white bands only) from the prestigious Peabody Hotel. He opened the Memphis Recording Service in 1950 to record both music and events. Initially, he produced bluesmen like King, Turner and Wolf, licensing their recordings to other labels until he realized real profits came from owning and issuing the material.
Sun was the result.
In July 1954, he was producing Presley’s first groundbreaking single. By late 1955, his growing national visibility led RCA Victor to buy Presley’s Sun contract for a then-sizable $35,000. Cash, Perkins, Lewis and others filled the void. A loose, impromptu jam at a 1956 Perkins session involving Presley, Perkins, Cash and Lewis became the famous Million Dollar Quartet. The others also joined major labels, yet most retained both admiration and affection for Mr. Phillips.
Music made him wealthy enough to own radio stations, to build modern recording studios and invest in a then-new Memphis-based motel chain known as Holiday Inn. Music, however, remained dearest to his heart. After selling Sun in 1969, he regretted it until he died in 2003 at age 80. His final production effort was “Saigon,” a tune on singer-songwriter John Prine’s 1979 rockabilly album “Pink Cadillac.” It remains an explosive performance, one worthy of the Sun legacy.
In unraveling Mr. Phillips’ complex life, Mr. Guralnick often finds more complexities. A true autodidact, he later responded to Mr. Prine’s cancer diagnosis by giving him medical treatment options that proved spot-on. His family situation was complicated as he balanced relationships with wife Becky, sons Knox and Jerry, and his longtime companion Sally Wilbourn.
There were darker sides as well. He suffered two mental breakdowns in the 1940s and ’50s, treated with electroshock therapy that left his intellect unimpaired. Everyone didn’t appreciate his foibles. After his 1986 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, his bizarre, apparently sober behavior during a guest appearance on David Letterman’s NBC show left many shaking their heads.
Today, the Sun Studio is a National Historic Landmark and museum, and Sam Phillips is an icon. “It ain’t for you to put me in a good light,” he once told the author. “Just put me in the focus I’m supposed to be in.” Mr. Guralnick has certainly done that.
Music historian and critic Rich Kienzle records the “Believe Your Ears” podcast and writes the Get Rhythm blog for the Post-Gazette.
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