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‘Sam Phillips’ review: Peter Guralnick on Elvis’ discoverer

Sam Phillips of Sun Records with his discovery

Sam Phillips of Sun Records with his discovery Elvis Presley in the studio, 1956. Phillips is the subject of a new biography by Peter Guralnick. Credit: Elvis Presley Enterprises

SAM PHILLIPS: The Man Who Invented Rock ’n’ Roll, by Peter Guralnick. Little, Brown and Co., 763 pp., $32.

The origins of rock and roll — as with baseball, television and hamburgers — are too complex and variegated to be easily attributed to a single “inventor.”

So the subtitle of Peter Guralnick’s biography of Sam Phillips, “The Man Who Invented Rock ’n’ Roll,” is both a misnomer and a provocation. Anybody who knows cultural history as well as Guralnick — whose body of work includes a definitive two-volume biography of Elvis Presley — can think of many 1950s entrepreneurs who helped enable the widespread musical explosion in which a big beat fused with a mélange of racial and cultural influences to galvanize generations and change the world.

But whether you ultimately agree or disagree that Sam Phillips invented rock and roll, there’s one thing you can’t dispute: Sam Phillips was a singular, endlessly fascinating piece of work.

He was huckster, trickster, dreamer and architect compressed in one roiling, flamboyant package. If he hadn’t existed, it would have been necessary for Mark Twain to invent him, as the Phillips evoked in these pages carries Tom Sawyer’s adventurous cunning and Hank Morgan’s “Connecticut Yankee” ingenuity in his trick bag, along with Huck Finn’s desperate yearning for freedom.

For most, Phillips’ story begins and ends with the moment he discovered the callow young Presley who, as legend has it, wandered into the Memphis, Tennessee, recording studio owned and operated by Phillips in 1954 and, within months, cut several records on the studio’s Sun label that formed the foundation of a pop phenomenon. In this legend’s reductive shorthand, Presley is seen as the realization of the oft-quoted remark Phillips made before Elvis showed up at his doorstep: “If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars!”

All of this happens about 200 pages into Guralnick’s 700-plus-page book. So you need to know there’s much more to this story — and to Phillips — than meets the eye.

For starters, everything in Phillips’ background up to that point proves that his sentiment came not from avarice, but from deeply held convictions about cultural connections shared by black and white Southerners. Growing up poor and white in Depression-era Alabama, Phillips loved music — whether country, gospel or blues — and believed what these songs had in common was far more significant than their differences. He promoted and recorded African-American blues artists such as B.B. King; Little Milton; Howlin’ Wolf, who sang, Phillips believed, “with his damn soul”; and Ike Turner, whose band put forth the first of Sun’s signature hits, “Rocket 88.” The latter drew not just black listeners, but whites as well, exemplifying for Phillips “the mystery of sound, the freshness of an idea that was entering the world for the very first time.”

Guralnick also adds illuminating accounts of how Phillips worked at framing these distinctive voices in a studio environment where a “sound of unforced intimacy” could be achieved: “a perfection of feeling, not perfection of technique.” He sought something both raw and pure, uninhibited, but genuine, rural and urban; what would in later years be categorized in derogatory terms as “mongrel music,” but would be accepted and honored as pop music whose appeal wasn’t confined to any one race, but to all races and cultures. Call it “racial crossover,” even though neither Guralnick nor Phillips (whose rich and oracular storytelling permeates this book) ever does. Whatever it’s called, one could argue that in the long run it changed more than the hit parade.

The Sun artists who followed Presley in the label’s 1950s heyday — notably Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and Charlie Rich — all made their own distinctive contributions to this legacy, though all of them had complex (and not always amicable) relationships with Phillips. Phillips himself was a complex “cat” (a term he liked to use), especially in his relationships with women (his wife Becky, his longtime business partner Marion Keisker and various lovers) and with his sons, Knox and Jerry. The book describes his mental breakdowns and hospitalizations, the robust late-in-life drinking sessions and the erratic blend of inspired and kooky behavior he exhibited between 1961, when he retreated from active studio work, and his death in 2003.

You may not always like or understand Sam Phillips, but by the time you put down the book, you somehow wish you’d gotten to know him. If you’ve heard a Sun record, whether by Presley or Cash or anyone else, you did, even if only a little.

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