New biography illuminates life of Sun Records founder Sam Phillips
For a man who says “I never set out to be a biographer,” music historian and 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 among dozens if not hundreds of other writers’ books devoted to Presley’s life and music.
A decade ago, Guralnick’s “Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke” was lauded for its insider’s look at the great soul and gospel 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 with songs of social conscience that anticipated by several years issues that Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder would take on in the 1970s.
And now he’s just published his book on a man who is neither a household name in the world of popular music nor even a musician but who arguably deserves as much credit for the birth of rock ‘n’ roll as anyone else: Sun Records founder Sam Phillips.
The book’s full title is “Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll,” (Little, Brown and Company, $32). The admittedly brash sobriquet probably would have made Phillips laugh, blush or perhaps curse, as Guralnick concedes in his introduction.
But given that Phillips discovered and first recorded not only Presley but Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins and many other rock, blues and R&B pioneers, Phillips undisputably ranks as one of rock’s founding fathers.
“He conceived of this music before there was rock ‘n’ roll,” Guralnick, 71, said during a stop in the Southland this week that’s part of the West Coast leg of a book tour that also took him to Portland, Seattle and back to Los Angeles on Thursday for a session on his book at the Grammy Museum downtown. He’ll be interviewed that evening by veteran late-night talk show host and pop music aficionado Conan O’Brien.
“He was convinced there was a type of music that could transcend divisions of black and white and appeal to everyone,” 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 convincingly documents, wasn’t cultural appropriation or exploitation but a desire to share a certain musical spirit, artistic individuality and distinctive expression of universal human emotions 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 by selling records but whose fervent wish was to give musicians a forum for sounds he had felt so deeply hearing them sung in cotton fields and in churches around him while growing up in the 1920s and ‘30s in Florence, Ala.
That sounds like something out of a parallel universe in a music industry that for so long has been dominated by watchwords such as “profitability” and “monetization.”
But Phillips was so convinced he was right about capturing the elusive sound he was after that he persuaded virtually everyone he met as a young man trying to carve out a career after moving to Memphis, Tenn., of the sincerity of his efforts.
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).
What sounds like a pittance today 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. The $40,000 he gleaned from the deal helped him keep the doors open at Sun so that he could continue to develop other artists, including Cash, Perkins, Lewis, Orbison, Charlie Rich and Billy Lee Riley.
His virtual one-man operation was struggling financially even though Presley’s popularity was on the rise in 1954 and ’55 because he simply wasn’t equipped to keep up with the demands of a hit record.
Additionally, as Guralnick points out, Phillips also wanted to prove that his overall thesis about music that could transcend racial barriers wasn’t restricted to one-hit performer. He didn’t want Sun’s success with Presley to be written off as a fluke — he wanted to build a stable of artists that could promulgate what he called the “music of ordinary people” and take it to the masses, which is precisely what happened after Presley’s career — and rock ‘n’ roll — exploded nationally in 1956.
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, 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., an address that holds as much mystique for fans of rock’s early years as the Cavern Club does for Beatlemaniacs.
Los Angeles Times photographers document 2015 in music. Read the accompanying reviews by clicking links in captions.(Los Angeles Times)
Madonna performs at the Forum in Inglewood on Oct. 27, 2015. Read the review.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
Don Henley performs at the Forum in Inglewood on Oct. 9, 2015. Read the review.(Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times)
Los Lobos perform at El Gallo Plaza in East Los Angeles on Sept. 29, 2015. Read the review.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
Silversun Pickups perform at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery Masonic Lodge on Sept. 28, 2015. Read the review.(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
R. Kelly, cigar and mike in hand, performs at the Forum in Inglewood on Oct. 10. Read the Times review.(Axel Koester / For the Los Angeles Times)
Grace Jones in concert at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles on Sep. 27.(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
Lauryn Hill performs at the Greek Theatre on Sept. 14, 2015. Read the review.(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
Little Big Town band member Phillip Sweet performs at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles on Sept. 10.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Miguel performs at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery on Sept. 4, 2015. Read the review.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
D’Angelo and the Vanguard performs at FYF Fest at Exposition Park on Aug. 23, 2015. Read the review.(Christina House / For The Times)
Morrissey takes the stage at FYF Fest on Aug. 23, 2015. Read the review.(Christina House / For The Times)
Solange onstage at FYF Fest on Aug. 23, 2015.(Christina House / For The Times)
FKA Twigs performs at FYF Fest at Exposition Park on Aug. 23, 2015.(Christina House / For The Times)
Kanye West performs during FYF Fest on Aug. 22.(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
Jehnny Beth performs with Savages at FYF Fest on Aug. 22, 2015.(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
Taylor Swift performs at Staples Center in August.(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
Aretha Franklin at the Microsoft Theatre in Los Angeles on Aug. 2.(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
The Weeknd performs during Hard Summer at the Fairplex in Pomona on Aug. 1, 2015. Read the review.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Mötley Crüe celebrates the end of another concert, at the Matthew Knight Arena in Eugene, Ore., on July 22.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
John Famiglietti, left, front man Jake Duzsik, and Jupiter Keyes of the L.A. experimental band Health performing at the Echo in Los Angeles on July 22, 2015.(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie performing at the Hollywood Bowl on July 12.(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
Kendrick Lamar performing at the BET Experience at Staples Center on June 27.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Underworld performs at the Hollywood Bowl on June 21. Read the review.(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
Brian Wilson at the Greek Theater on Saturday, June 20. It was also his 73rd birthday.(Michael Robinson Chávez / Los Angeles Times)
D’Angelo performs at Club Nokia on June 8, 2015. Read the review.(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
(Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times)
Sufjan Stevens and his band on the first night of a two-night run in Los Angeles on Wednesday, June 3, 2015.(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
Ciara performs at Club Nokia on May 30, 2015.(Michael Robinson Chávez / Los Angeles Times)
(Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times)
Neil Diamond performs at the Hollywood Bowl on Saturday, May 23, 2015.(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Steve Aoki, EDM DJ, producer and recording artist, performs on Broadway between 4th and 6th streets in downtown Los Angeles, May 16, 2015.(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
Rapper Big Sean performs at
Sia performs during the Wango Tango concert at the StubHub Center on May 9, 2105, in Carson.(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
Justin Bieber performs during the Wango Tango concert at the StubHub Center on May 9, 2105, in Carson.(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
Kanye West performs in shadowy lights during the Wango Tango concert at the StubHub Center on May 9, 2105, in Carson.(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
Ne-Yo performs in front of a full house during the Wango Tango concert at the StubHub Center on May 9, 2105, in Carson.(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
Nick Jonas performs during the Wango Tango concert at the StubHub Center on May 9, 2105 in Carson.(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
James Hatfield fronts Metallica at the Rock in Rio Festival in Las Vegas on May 9.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Chester Bennington and Linkin Park play the Rock in Rio fest in Las Vegas on May 9.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Tim McIlrath, lead singer for the Chicago-based, melodic hardcore band Rise Against, wades into the crowd at Rock in Rio on May 9.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Gwen Stefani fronts No Doubt at Rock in Rio in Las Vegas on May 8.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Ariana Grande performs at the Forum in Inglewood, April 8, 2015.(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
Rivers Cuomo of Weezer performs with his band at Burgerama on March 28. Weezer was one of the headliners for the two-day festival at Santa Ana’s Observatory.(Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times)
Lead singer Zac Carper of FIDLAR performs with his band at Burgerama, the two-day Santa Ana festival thrown by OC DIY impresarios Burger Records.(Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times)
Experimental artist Lustmord makes his Los Angeles debut on March 21 at the Masonic Lodge at Hollywood Forever.(Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times)
R&B singer Chris Brown performs at the Forum in Inglewood. The March 8 show was a stop on his tour with Trey Songz and Tyga.(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
Kendrick Lamar performs at the Air + Style concert and snowboarding event at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena on Feb. 21.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
“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 rather than scholarly detachment while discussing his subject.
Phillips had the uncanny ability to hone in on an artist’s strengths even when the artist himself or herself didn’t.
Working with Perkins on a new song called “Blue Suede Shoes,” Phillips had to instill in Perkins the value of what Phillips often called “perfect imperfection” after Perkins sang the words “Go, cat, go” instead of the line he had written and intended to sing.
“I said, ‘Mr. Phillips, that’s wrong,’ Perkins told Guralnick. “That’s supposed to be ‘Go, man, go.’ We got to do it again.’ He said ‘No, that’s right — let’s leave it like that.’ I said, ‘Besides that, Mr. Phillips, I made a bad mistake on my guitar.’ He said , ‘Yeah, but you covered it up real quick.’ ”
Phillips then played the recording back to Perkins. “’You see,’ he said, ‘that one’s got the excitement.’” Guralnick then notes that “While they did do a third take at Carl’s insistence, there was never any question as to which was going to be released.”
Guarlnick said his intent — “I don’t claim success; I just claim the aspiration” — in the Phillips book, as with his Presley and Cooke biographies, 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.”
The set also includes tracks from Howlin’ Wolf — there’s a sense he was the artist who impressed Phillips more than any other artist he worked with — various other Rock and Roll Hall of Fame members who got their start at Phillips’ door as well as Rufus Thomas, Sonny Burgess, Little Junior’s Blue Flames, the Prisonaires, Harmonica Frank, Sleepy John Estes, Joe Hill Louis and Charlie Feathers and numerous others.
In addition to his biographies, Guralnick has written lauded explorations of R&B and soul music (“Sweet Soul Music”), roots and country (“Lost Highway”), blues and rock (“Feel Like Going Home”), when he hasn’t been wrapped up 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,” he 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 I never got to see him produce a [recording] session, I did see him produce a session.”
From the Emmys to the Oscars.
Get our revamped Envelope newsletter, sent twice a week, for exclusive awards season coverage, behind-the-scenes insights and columnist Glenn Whipp’s commentary.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.