Books: Sam Phillips - Man who invented rock 'n' roll
Music: Sam Phillips, Peter Guralnick, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, tpbk, 576 pages, €23.70
Published 22/11/2015 | 02:30
Our reviewer on a biography of Sam Phillips, legendary boss of Sun Records
Having written the definitive, two-volume biography of Elvis Presley, Peter Guralnick here delves deeper into the Memphis psyche with the life story of the man who discovered not just him but Howlin' Wolf, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and a host of other artists. To call this enigmatic "little white guy" the man who invented rock 'n' roll is perhaps bordering on hyperbole, but, as Guralnick reveals, this talent spotter, label owner and record producer deserves the accolade more than most.
Phillips had the good fortune to be in the right place at the right time, when the musical strands of country, gospel, blues and hillbilly coalesced into a musical revolution spearheaded by a lank-haired truck driver called Elvis Presley. It was Phillips' genius that turned Presley from a second-rate Dean Martin impersonator, which seemed to be Presley's original aim, and gave him the earthiness and directness of the blues with a looser, fresher feeling ("simplify, simplify" was Phillips' catchphrase) to produce Presley's first release, the groundbreaking 'That's All Right, Mama'.
Phillips was born into a poor farming family near Florence, Alabama, in 1923, where the work songs he heard in the surrounding cotton fields would leave an indelible impression. An early obsession with music led to a job on radio. He married another radio presenter and eventually moved to the city where he'd always felt a magical draw, Memphis. He arrived during the immediate post-war years when, as Guralnick notes, hundreds of electrified blues, rhythm and blues and gospel recordings were being released by independent labels for a growing black audience. Phillips saw an opportunity. "I had heard the innate rhythms of a people. My conviction was that the world was missing out on not having heard what I had heard as a child," he said.
So he went looking for a studio, and found one at what would become one of the most illustrious addresses in rock history: 706 Union Avenue, an 18ft by 30ft space with a tiny reception at the front. He began recording local blues acts for labels in Los Angeles and Chicago. One of the first in 1950 was "the singing black boy", a Memphis DJ, who, wisely, decided to call himself BB King on record.
A year or so later, Phillips was recording teenage pianist Ike Turner and his band. They were crestfallen that their guitar amplifier had been dropped and damaged. Phillips was nonplussed. He stuffed it with lots of brown paper and told them to play. It'll sound like another sax, he told them, "it would sound different". The result, 'Rocket 88' with its driving horns and fuzz-tone guitar, is now hailed by many as the first true rock 'n' roll record.
But it was an imposing blues singer named Chester Burnett, but better known as Howlin' Wolf who would make the biggest impression on Phillips. With a voice, says Guralnick, that "mixed the roughest elements of the Delta blues… with its most graceful modulations" he cut through the studio atmosphere "with a sandpaper rasp" and an "almost overwhelming ferocity". Phillips was more than impressed. He was overwhelmed. His music, he would later famously say, was where "the soul of a man never dies".
Phillips quickly realised that he'd be better off making records that he could release himself, instead of selling his tracks to other labels. The famous, yellow-hued Sun label was born. A host of superb blues records followed, discs that would impress the young Presley and lead him to 706 Union Avenue.
With Presley on board, the dynamics changed. Phillips realised he had a white man who could sing the blues. Now the emphasis was on finding young singers who could appeal to a white teenage market. Presley was followed by country singer, Johnny Cash. Phillips' advice when Cash turned up with his band was short and to the point. He turned to Cash's bass player and said: "When you play, slap the hell out of it." Outside the studio, his words of wisdom to the young Cash were even more succinct. He took the young singer into his office, pushed his finger hard into Cash's chest and said: "Let me give you some advice - don't ever get fat."
One song, from a young piano player from Louisiana, made him jump up and shout as a cascade of bass-driven, rock solid boogie-woogie came out of the speakers. "Where in the hell did this man come from?" Phillips asked and signed the unknown artist and Jerry Lee Lewis joined the roster.
Guralnick excels in recording the everyday minutiae of running a record label, especially one run by such a maverick figure as Phillips. As Presley's contract is sold to RCA and the "raw-boned county boy" Carl Perkins comes up with the rock anthem 'Blue Suede Shoes', Phillips is everywhere, settling deals, setting up new ones, organising a full and varied love life and listening to audition tapes.
The years of success led to a new studio and new artists but the flames began to dim a little.
Sun in the Sixties wasn't the same label it was in the Fifties and Phillips, "to all intents and purposes stepped off the world stage and disappeared from public view for the greater part of two decades," says Guralnick. When he did return, it was to be lionised and honoured as a rock icon.
Guralnick's book is exhaustive but exhilarating. Writing about music is notoriously difficult but he manages to do so with ease, so that every description of a recording gets you scurrying to YouTube, to check if he's right. He invariably is. It's a big book about a huge personality whose influence on popular music has been enormous.
If rock follows rules, then, as this work shows, Phillips was the man who set them.