In “Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll,” music writer Peter Guralnick tells the astonishing story of the impresario who launched the careers of Howlin’ Wolf, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley. Guralnick appears Nov. 18 at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co.
“Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll”
by Peter Guralnick
Little, Brown, 763 pp., $32
Peter Guralnick’s 1994 biography of Elvis Presley, “The Last Train to Memphis,” set a high standard for rock ’n’ roll histories. It not only was the first definitive book on rock’s most important figure, it proved that music biographies could be written with the kind of authority previously found in literary or political histories.
Guralnick followed up that book with a second volume on Presley, and then tackled the life of Sam Cooke. But in many ways Guralnick’s latest, “Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll,” is the true follow-up to “Last Train.”
Working on that first Elvis book, Guralnick befriended Phillips, who was the genius behind Sun Records and the head of a legendary Memphis-based studio. Phillips recorded and discovered Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, Howlin’ Wolf and countless others.
The author of “Sam Phillips” will appear at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 18, at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co. Free (206-624-6600; elliottbaybook.com).
No single other figure in music has had such a wide influence, but Phillips was also an unlikely character to essentially invent a genre. He was a bit of a square, and only took his first drink after his doctor suggested it would mellow him. Underneath that straight-laced exterior, though, Phillips was a visionary.
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“You don’t have to be an outcast to be a rebel,” he said.
Sun started in 1950 with Phillips’ “Memphis Recording Service,” located at 706 Union Street. The studio recorded many early seminal blues sides, but also what most scholars agree is the first rock ’n’ roll record, “Rocket 88,” cut by young Ike Turner and his band.
AUTHOR INTERVIEW: Sam Phillips’ vision: music’s power to shatter racial barriers
In 1952, Phillips upped the stakes by creating the label. “We’re going to put nothing but the best race and spiritual artists obtainable on our label,” Phillips wrote around that time. And then one day in 1953, a truck driver named Elvis stopped in to record a side of vinyl for his mother.
Guralnick specializes in illuminating such turns of history. Unlike his previous biographies, though, Guralnick inserts himself as a first-person commentator here often, in part because he knew Phillips closely. It mostly works, since any reader willing to tackle a 752-page bio is likely by nature to accept the author’s authority (Guralnick has also released a companion box set of music to the book).
Guralnick is particularly sharp when illuminating how Phillips worked with blues artists when it didn’t earn him wealth. His work with Howlin’ Wolf in particular is noteworthy.
One song, Guralnick writes, “was the very embodiment of all the loneliness and … ferocity implicit in Wolf’s music.” This is powerful writing that makes the music come alive on the page.
The musical span of this book, like Sun’s deep catalog, stretches from country to rockabilly, but it nonetheless is difficult to escape Elvis’ shadow. Phillips sells Presley’s contract for $35,000 — one of the poorest decisions in music history — thinking the genre has crested. The decision was shortsighted, but human, and proves, as Guralnick writes, “stories can be both heroic and tragic at the same time.”
That aside, Phillips, who died at 80 in 2003, was certainly aware of his own legend, but also to a degree mystified by it. He told Guralnick he and Presley never once discussed how revolutionary their work was while creating it. “Intuitively [Elvis] felt it,” Phillips said.
Working “without a map or a compass,” Guralnick writes, “with nothing more than their own belief in the innate spiritually of the music” these two unlikely characters changed the world. This biography opens up that world, and beautifully and definitively explains what the two men never could.