In his newest book, Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll (Little, Brown, out Nov. 10), veteran music historian Peter Guralnick turns us onto rock and roll through the story of Sun Records producer Phillips, who shaped and inspired this new sound from his tiny Memphis, Tennessee, studio. In this delightful, comprehensive, candid biography, Guralnick builds the story on the skeleton of the facts of Phillips’ life — his birth outside of Florence, Alabama; his production of the jam session among Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, and Elvis Presley, that was later released as the “Million Dollar Quartet tapes”; his marriage to his wife, Becky, and his relationships with his sons, Sam and Knox; and his tireless work ethic. Guralnick portrays a man deeply passionate about giving African-American artists opportunities to share their music and voices in a South that seldom allowed them to do so. For Phillips, “music was not confined to the drawing room … there was something profound in the lives of ordinary people — there was great art to be discovered in the experience of those who had been marginalized and written off because of their race, their class, or their lack of formal education.”
Drawing on extensive interviews from his 25-year friendship with Phillips — plus interviews with many of the musicians Phillips produced such as Howlin’ Wolf and Ike Turner, among others — Guralnick energetically tells the must-read tale of a Southern boy intent on enacting his vision of freedom and justice through music. Phillips’ message from the start was “the inherent nobility not so much of man as of freedom, and the implied responsibility — no, the obligation — for each of us to be as different as our individuated natures allowed us to be.” And, as Guralnick points out, Phillips succeeded in giving each of his musicians the freedom to express themselves fully on records that changed the musical landscape forever.
Guralnick’s journey to Sam Phillips took many turns before he reached his destination. He “fell into the blues” — at about age 15, and never climbed out. Five years later, he began turning his fandom into a career, writing about James Brown, Muddy Waters, and Bo Diddley, for Crawdaddy magazine and then for Boston After Dark. “I just wanted to turn people on to this music,” he told me in a recent interview.
During this time, Guralnick was also writing one novel after another, sharing them with his editor friend Larry Stark of Larry Stark Press, and discussing the possibility of publication. Stark told Guralnick that the novels weren’t to his taste, but he asked whether Guralnick would want to write a history of the blues.
After some initial hesitation, Guralnick dove in. The result was Feel Like Going Home: Portraits in Blues, Country, and Rock ‘n’ Roll (Outerbridge & Dienstfrey, 1971; reprinted by Little, Brown/Back Bay, 1999), which offers profiles of, among others, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Skip James, Charlie Rich, and Jerry Lee Lewis.
Over the next two decades, Guralnick published nuanced portraits of blues, soul, and rock musicians, from Robert Johnson (Searching for Robert Johnson, Dutton, 1989) and Sam Cooke (Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke, Little, Brown, 2005) to his definitive two-volume biography of Elvis Presley: Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley (Little, Brown, 1994) and Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley (Little, Brown, 1999).
“Elvis had his own manner of expressing himself with passion, feeling, soulfulness,” says Guralnick, who didn’t set out to write a two-volume biography. But in the course of his research, he discovered that after Presley’s mother’s death in 1958, Elvis emerged as a completely different person — one who had lost his most ardent supporter and visionary — and Guralnick had to write about marked changes he saw in Elvis’ view of himself and in his career.
In his first volume, Guralnick draws on over 6,000 interviews with Elvis from 1954-1956, tracing the rise to fame of a young, self-confident Presley and his earliest recordings such as “Mystery Train” at Sun Records. In his second volume, the writer chronicles Presley’s lack of confidence after his mother’s death and the unraveling of his career. Like Howlin’ Wolf and B.B. King, and many of the other musicians about whom Guralnick has written, Presley recorded his first songs in a Memphis studio under the direction of a producer named Sam Phillips.
“The link to all these musicians and this music was Sun Records,” Guralnick says. He had been trying to interview studio head Sam Phillips since in 1967, and finally got the chance to talk to him in 1979 for Crawdaddy. “The studio at radio station WVLS in Memphis, Tennessee had flooded, and I helped out with the clean up.” Gurlanick says he watched Phillips oversee the cleanup, and Phillips directed the effort just as if he were producing a record session. “Even though I had never seen Phillips produce a recording session, I realized that day that he was producing a session right there.”
More than 30 years later, Guralnick has written the definitive biography of Phillips. He says that Phillips wanted to create a music that was no longer dependent on specific categories.
When Phillips was 8 years old, he worked side-by-side with black field hands picking cotton on his family’s farm. He couldn’t understand why the same black boys and girls he worked and played with couldn’t go to the same country school he attended. Even then, says Guralnick, Phillips registered the unfairness of the way people were arbitrarily set apart by the color of their skin. By the time Phillips was 19, he had discovered that “radio was the greatest form of communication there was,” says Guralnick, and Phillips set out “to sell the world on the greatness — the eloquence, beauty, and diversity — of the music he heard growing up in Florence, Alabama.”
When he launched Sun Records in 1952, Phillips opened up his studio to black musicians, “giving them a means of self-expression,” says Guralnick, and recording the blues that got blacks and whites to think about life and sing about it. At a very early age, Guralnick says, Phillips had a vision of righting the wrongs that society had done, and “he wanted to sell the world on the greatness — the eloquence, beauty, and diversity — of the music he heard growing up.” So, he opened up his studio as a means of giving people self-expression, says Guralnick.
Guralnick’s book is comprehensive, warm, thorough, captivating, and compulsively readable — even though the book comes in at 752 pages, Guralinck possesses such a gift for patiently yet vigorously telling a good story that the narrative doesn’t slow down — and it may just be the best music book of 2015. He captures Phillips’ personality with bright color, illustrating the reasons that Phillips indeed deserves to be called “the man who invented rock and roll.”