New biography illuminates life of Sun Records founder Sam Phillips

November 30, 2015 

For a man who says "I never set out to be a biographer," journalist Peter Guralnick has done pretty well for himself.

His 1994 two-volume Elvis Presley biography "Last Train to Memphis" and "Careless Love," is considered the definitive telling of the King’s life story. A decade ago, Guralnick’s "Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke" was lauded for its insider’s look at the great soul singer-songwriter who was shot to death at age 33 in Los Angeles, just as he seemed poised to embark on a new and rich chapter in his career.

And now he’s just published his book on a man who isn’t even a musician but arguably deserves as much credit for the birth of rock ‘n’ roll as anyone else: Sun Records founder Sam Phillips, who discovered and first recorded not only Presley but Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Howlin’ Wolf, Carl Perkins and many other rock, blues and R&B pioneers.

"He conceived of this music before there was rock ‘n’ roll," said Guralnick, 71, during a stop in the Southland this week as part of a tour for his latest book, "Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll," (Little, Brown and Company, $32).

"He was convinced there was a type of music that could transcend divisions of black and white," Guralnick said of the man perhaps most famous for his oft-quoted prediction — uttered well before Elvis Presley first showed up on his doorstep in 1954 — that "If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars."

Phillips’ aim, as Guralnick documents, wasn’t cultural appropriation or exploitation but a desire to share a certain musical spirit that wasn’t widely disseminated. In fact, one of the most remarkable elements of Guralnick’s book is the picture it paints of Phillips not as someone yearning to get rich but whose fervent wish was to give musicians a forum for sounds he had felt so deeply hearing them while growing up in the 1920s and ‘30s in Florence, Ala.

"I knew what I opened the studio for," Phillips told Guralnick during one of many lengthy interviews, from the first time the men met in 1979 until Phillips’ death at 80 in 2003. "I was looking for a higher ground, for what I knew existed in the soul of mankind. And especially at that time, the black man’s spirit and his [soul]."

Presley certainly did go on to generate at least $1 billion in record sales, but only a fraction of that went into Phillips’ pocket. He sold Presley’s contract in 1956 to RCA Records for $35,000 (plus a $5,000 bonus to Elvis). It was the highest price any record company had ever paid to sign a musician up to that point.

And Phillips always said he never regretted the decision. His virtual one-man operation was struggling financially even though Presley’s popularity was on the rise because he simply wasn’t equipped to keep up with the demands of a hit record.

Phillips’ onetime business partner, Jim Bulleit, is quoted at one point describing to Phillips as the luckiest man alive for being in the right place at the right time with his modest recording studio, originally called Memphis Recording Service and later renamed Sun Records. But Guralnick deftly points out that the great musicians Phillips recorded at Sun didn’t randomly stumble in — they sought out Phillips because of the reputation he established early on for drawing the most invigorating performances from them in his tiny studio at 706 Union Ave.

"Howlin’ Wolf told B.B. King to go see Sam, and Jerry Lee Lewis came from Ferriday [Louisiana, where he lived] because he loved the records B.B. had made with Sam," said Guralnick who, despite his head of curly white hair, projects an almost boyish enthusiasm while discussing his subject.

Guarlnick said his intent — "I don’t claim success; I just claim the aspiration" — in the Phillips book was "to tell the story from the inside out. It’s possible to work for a year and write a biography, but all the extra time and interviews are what you really need to tell a story from the inside."

Along with the book, Guralnick has assembled a companion two-CD, 55-track compilation of Phillips’ work at Sun from beginning with "Rocket 88" from 1951 (credited on the label as Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats but actually the work of Ike Turner’s Rhythm Kings), up through singer-songwriter John Prine’s "How Lucky" in 1979. The latter, Guralnick said, "was kind of Sam’s theme song."

In addition to his biographies, Guralnick has written lauded explorations of R&B and soul music ("Sweet Soul Music"), roots and country ("Lost Highway") and blues and rock ("Feel Like Going Home") between writing articles for Rolling Stone and other publications. He often sounds like he considers himself the lucky one to be immersed in the lives of the people he’s examined in his books.

"You don’t always get the story you think or hope you will," he said. "That’s why I’ve always tried to leave myself open to whatever I find. I had hoped maybe I would get to see Sam produce a session one day, but that never happened. When I first met him in 1979, the sprinklers had gone off and flooded the new radio station he’d just built. I offered to help and spent the next eight or nine hours carrying buckets of water out, moving tape boxes, whatever needed to be done.

"It was the best introduction to him I could have gotten," Guralnick said. "I saw Sam command this whole group of people — friends, members of his family — not by shouting orders but by inspiring them. So even though I never got to see him produce a [recording] session, I did see him produce a session."





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