“Music is the international language – can make friends, bridge the geographical and cultural barriers, and perhaps promote a bit of international understanding.” – Sam Phillips, founder of Sun Records.
“Nothing really affected me until Elvis. I always wanted to be this tough James Dean type, but Elvis was bigger than religion in my life. When I heard Heartbreak Hotel it was so great I couldn’t speak, I didn’t want to say anything against Elvis, not even in my mind. I’m an Elvis fan because it was Elvis who really got me out of Liverpool.” – John Lennon
This book is subtitled “How One Man Discovered Howlin’ Wolf, Ike Turner, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley.” (Somehow completely overlooking that he also initially recorded Charlie Rich, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and B.B. King.) It is written by Peter Guralnick, arguably the leading writer on American roots music. (He also wrote the definitive two-volume Elvis Presley biographies, “Last Train to Memphis” and “Careless Love” which I devoured years ago. Guralnick knew Phillips personally for twenty-five years.)
This fascinating – and often surprising – book details how one man, Sam Phillips, founded Memphis Recording Service in 1950, which begat Sun Records, a label which went on to revolutionize popular music.
What I had not understood – and this book fleshes out in some detail – was Phillips’ initial single-minded dedication and focus on recording music performed specifically by black Southern performers. He truly believed not only that this music should be heard, but that it should be enjoyed by both black and white and not segregated into “race records.”
Because at this time, in the fifties, America was a racially segregated country and nowhere more than in the South. Phillips, to his credit, not only was never a bigot but was a man who believed to his very soul that “I knew the physical separation of the races – but I knew the integration of their souls.”1
By all accounts he was a dynamic entrepreneur – and a real, real character – who would turn no one away who could sing or play an instrument authentically. “We Record Anything-Anywhere- Anytime” was his slogan. His first love was radio so he personally engineered those early records.
He couldn’t articulate “that sound” but he knew it when he heard it. It was the sound he heard down on Beale Street. It was the sound of the dirty blues in the back-alley, black-cat night. He wanted the world to hear that. He wanted artists who were different.
Some have claimed that “Rocket 88” – named for a car – is the very first rock n’ roll record. (Up till that time, all it had for a song was a hilarious commercial.) But that claim can be (and has been) made by so many different songs, that I think it’s safest to say it’s the first song that really captured the sound that Sam was looking for. A busted speaker cone from an amp that fell out of Ike’s car contributed to the fuzzy sound. Sam, believing in “perfect imperfection,” left it in much as he’d left a ringing telephone from the front office on another song.
And even though the record label has singer Jackie Brenston’s name, it’s actually Ike Turner (yes that Ike Turner) and the Kings of Rhythm. (Phillips recorded it, Chess records released it).
Phillips had a special affection for – and kinship with – bluesman Howlin’ Wolf. (born Chester Arthur Burnett). He was blown away by Wolf’s very presence. According to Guralnick, “Most of all, though, he was just stunned by the uniqueness, the overwhelming thrust, subtlety, and power of the Wolf’s voice, as riveting an instrument as he had ever encountered in all his life.”2 I find Wolf’s voice a bit of an acquired taste. But there’s no denying the power of that moan, that howl on “Moanin’ at Midnight”:
Phillips struggled for years, working around the clock, more or less always on the brink of bankruptcy. And even when the records started to sell, he knew he’d never push enough product to keep the studio afloat. And so even though he wanted to record black artists, in 1955 doing that exclusively was not a viable option. He famously said, “If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.”
L-R, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, aka The “Million Dollar Quartet.”
Enter Elvis Presley. Eighteen-year-old Presley had wandered into the studio in 1953, ostensibly to record a single for his mother. (Some think he did it to get Sam to notice him. The Presleys didn’t even own a record player at the time). Phillips liked him but wasn’t particularly impressed. But his employee/lover Marion Keisker keep bugging him to get that Presley boy back in. (Sam was married but was also, shall we say, incredibly casual about that fact).
The story of how Elvis, guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black came up with what would later be called rockabilly (Sam hated that name) is way beyond the scope of this post. But suffice it to say there was a lot of trial and error with Sam goading them on till they got something fresh and new, till they got “that sound.” (I never fully understood how important a good producer could be till I read this book. Sam was relentless.)
“That’s All Right” was Elvis’ first hit. But I like his cover of bluesman Junior Parker’s “Mystery Train,” released in August, 1955. Even the title is cool.
While Phillips initially discovered these guys, as a small independent studio, he just did not have the capital to hold onto them. So Elvis left for RCA. But Sam still had Perkins and Cash. At least for a while. And he had the guy they thought was the most outrageously talented of them all, Jerry Lee Lewis. What I didn’t realize is that while Jerry Lee’s forte was boogie-woogie rock and roll, he could play everything – jazz, Gershwin, you name it.
All these guys came to know each other and tour together through Sun. As God-fearing Southern boys of a certain age, they all had similar backgrounds, all knew their Bible. (If you click on Million Dollar Quartet above, you’ll hear the day they sang together, pretty much by accident. A lot of hymns in there). And they all idolized Chuck Berry. (Even Jerry Lee’s mother said, “You and Elvis are good, son – but you’re no Chuck Berry. Chuck is rock n’ roll from his head to his toes.”3).
By this time, Elvis had already been on the Ed Sullivan show (filmed from the waist up so as not to scandalize the youth of America). But nobody’d seen anything like Jerry Lee, the Killer (a childhood nickname). I uncovered his wild-ass first visit to the Steve Allen show in 1957. Listen to how, despite their 1950’s-ness, the audience claps along. (“Martha, bring me the smelling salts. This white boy is playing and singing like a Negro! And I can’t stop moving my feet. Lord have mercy.”)
In the video, all of a sudden Jerry Lee’s chair is gone, then it comes flying back. There’s a band alright but the show is all Jer-uh. Over the top and out-of control! (Steve Allen was a pianist and songwriter and so greatly appreciated Lewis’ talent even though he was sometimes scornful of rock and roll.)
Jerry didn’t help his career much by marrying his 13-year-old cousin, thereby confirming what everyone (older than 15) already knew about rock n’ roll – it was the devil’s music! (And yet, at the same time, Lewis was a Bible expert, often spending precious studio time arguing with Phillips about whether he should record “Great Balls of Fire.”)
It took several years but his career eventually recovered, if not quite to the level it used to be. Of the main players in the Sun era, he’s the only one still around, BTW. Eighty years old and per his web site, playing at a club in Mississippi next month!
By the early ’60’s, Phillips had lost his edge, had gotten less hungry. He’d done what he set out to do and got tired of fighting the larger record companies. He did branch out into Nashville with some success. But he never again had – or I think ever even wanted – the success he had in the 1950’s. “Back then,” he said later, “I felt almost like a preacher feeding the gospel to hungry souls.”4
According to the book, on February 10, 1964 he sold his Nashville studio. (Interestingly, Guralnick does not make the connection that the Beatles first appearance on Ed Sullivan was the previous night. In fact, they don’t even show up in the index).
In the year 1965, Sun released exactly four records. In 1969, Sam sold the original studio. He was by then a pretty rich guy and still dabbled in radio. But I think it was pretty clear to everyone – himself included – that his major life’s work was over and there wasn’t going to be a second act.
Personal note: Some years ago I had the privilege of visiting Memphis as part of a road trip I intend to detail one day. Naturally I toured Graceland. (More on that when I inevitably do an Elvis series). I also went out to Sun studio which, if memory serves me well, was at that time much more of a museum piece than anything else. (The place is tiny).
And just a month or so ago someone clued me in to the fact that Guralnick was appearing locally. So I listened to him detail stories from the book and got my copy signed. I also got to speak to him briefly, mostly about the Elvis books. Nice guy, quiet, more like an accountant or something. Probably the last guy you’d expect to be an expert on this music.
Somehow Guralnick convinced the (increasingly eccentric) Mr. Phillips to do a biography which was aired on the A&E channel in 2000. If you’re interested in a pretty concise summary of a 600+ page book, well check out YouTube where you can see the documentary in two parts.
In 1986 Sam Phillips was part of the first group inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and his pioneering contribution to the genre has been recognized by the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. He was the first ever non-performer inducted.
In 1987, he was inducted into the Alabama (his home state) Music Hall of Fame. He received a Grammy Trustees Award for his lifetime achievements in 1991. In 1998, he was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame, and in October 2001 he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Sam Phillips died at 80 years of age in 2003. No one, I think, ever had a fuller life.
Hail, hail rock n’ roll!
- Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘N’ Roll, Peter Guralnick. Little, Brown. p xii
- Ibid, p. 119
- Ibid, p. 387
- Ibid, p. 512