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