Sam Phillips: 1923 to 2003
Sam Phillips didn’t invent rock ‘n’ roll; no one person could ever lay claim to such a complex series of events. Phillips, however, comes closer than anyone to actually deserving the title “Father of Rock ‘n’ Roll.”
Born in hard times and raised on a farm just outside of Florence, Alabama, Phillips — who died in Memphis on July 30 at age 80 — was the son of sharecroppers in one of the poorest regions of the country. Phillips worked in the fields alongside other laborers, white and black, picking cotton and planting crops. He grew up hearing the music of the blacks as well as the hymns sung in the white church. Memories of that intermingling of musical cultures surely influenced the rest of his life.
The farm Phillips grew up on was two farms over from my family’s homestead in a tiny community known as McGee Town. Fifty years later, I grew up there, occasionally hearing stories about “those wild Phillips boys” and their antics. I was a teenager before I figured out that one of them was Sam. I later got to meet the very colorful Mr. Phillips a couple of times, and I hold him in high regard as much for his outspokenness and forthrightness as for his historical achievements.
Phillips moved to Memphis in 1945 and opened Sun Recording Studios (originally named Memphis Recording Service) in 1950. He opened his doors to then-unknown artists such as Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King and Rufus Thomas.
In the early 1950s, Phillips recorded Jackie Brentson’s immortal single “Rocket 88”, featuring a guitarist named Ike Turner; the record is considered by many to have been the first rock ‘n’ roll single. Enamored by this raw new form of music, Phillips went looking for an artist to take it to the masses. Against this backdrop, a young white man stepped into the studio one afternoon to record a song for his mother’s birthday.
According to legend, Phillips was out of town when Elvis Presley recorded the song for his mother, but Phillips’ secretary Marion Keisker saw something in the shy, handsome young man and convinced Phillips to get Elvis back into the studio. The rest is history, sort of.
Discovering Elvis is just a small piece of the enigma that was Sam Phillips. He also discovered Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash — but he frequently claimed that his most talented discovery was Charlie Rich, and that his proudest accomplishment was being the first man to record Howlin’ Wolf.
Phillips sold Elvis’ contract to RCA Records for $35,000 in 1956, using the money to revitalize his small company and subsequently having a series of successes. By the mid-’60s he had pretty much retired from the record business, devoting his time to a handful of radio stations he bought and operated.
The first encounter I had with him was the evening he was inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in 1987. Phillips was well aware of the respect he deserved and never suffered fools gladly. The crew taping the ceremony caused frequent delays, and Sam’s induction didn’t occur until almost three in the morning, long after the majority of the crowd had left. Phillips, in the meantime, had sat there, no doubt drinking and becoming increasingly angry at each delay and vodka.
Upon receiving his award, the now-intoxicated and very pissed-off Sam Phillips launched into a twenty-minute tirade that all there would remember for the rest of our lives. His tone was a cold slap in the face to an audience raised by our mamas to put a polite front on our anger. Sam called us on our hypocrisy and demanded that we not settle for mediocrity or pander to pretension. We left the ceremony feeling bitchslapped and somewhat pissed ourselves, but I can’t honestly bring myself to disagree with a single statement he made that night.
Phillips was a rebel not just in what he chose to record, but also in how he presented it. Forgoing “bland perfection,” he gravitated toward the earlier, more inspired take of a song. That same spirit has been “reinvented” and renamed with each generation, from punk rock to lo-fi. Such phrases, as well as alternative rock, alt-country, rockabilly and a host of others, are really just new ways of marketing and promoting what is essentially an idea from the early 1950s. In many ways, Sam Phillips personified rock ‘n’ roll.