Sam Phillips: The Soul Of Man Never Dies

“If I could find a White man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.”

There’s no disputing Sam Phillips said these words before he discovered Elvis Presley and, by fulfilling his wish, he invented rock & roll, as the title of Peter Guralnick’s new biography of the man so pithily puts it. This quotation is instrumental in the mythology of rock & roll, often spun as if Phillips had nothing on his mind but cash. In Guralnick’s telling, Phillips says these words frequently to Marion Keisker — his secretary, aide and part-time lover — the two of them cracking up at their utterance because it was so clear to them both that Sam Phillips ran his Memphis Recording Studio not for money but for a mission.

Guralnick, who never disguises how he loved Sam Phillips long before he became his friend or biographer, takes it as his mission to shake off the cobwebs of conventional wisdom and restore Sam to his proper place — not merely as the man who birthed rock & roll but saw music as a vehicle for social change, an opportunity to break down the borders between the races so men could be treated with dignity, no matter how poor they may be. In this context, what Phillips achieved at his Memphis Recording Studio — soon, renamed Sun Studios, with a label of the same name arriving not long afterward — isn’t merely the start of a pop culture revolution: it was kindling in the fire of social change in the 20th Century.

Phillips eventually would come to embrace this reading of his life and perhaps he always saw himself as divinely selected for this purpose, or perhaps it’s the story that he invented years later, once he realized the magnitude of his achievement. Guralnick gives equal space to both possibilities, structuring his biography so the first two thirds is straight reporting and the last third is devoted toward maintenance of the myth of what Sam achieved during the decade of 1951 to 1961. The author enters the story in that final third, acknowledging his love of his subject, but taking pains to stress his determination print “the goddamm truth,” as Phillips so wished. Guralnick remains a forgiving biographer, accepting without reservations some of the broad strokes of Sam’s legend but he’ll cop to Phillips’ tendencies toward grandiosity, his neediness — he never divorced his wife Becky but spent most of his years his secretary Sally, both women not only tolerating the other but also other women — and his acknowledged bouts with mental illness, so overwhelming he twice admitted himself for electroshock therapy.

Eventually, some doctor somewhere suggested that teetotaler Sam should take a drink to calm his nerves and he wound up not so much battling the bottle but occasionally succumbing to it, going on prolonged binges where he’d either battle with his brother Jud or shut himself off from the world. Much of the public likes to believe his 1986 appearance on David Letterman — conducted not long after Phillips was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame — captured him at a drunken stupor but everybody Guralnick interviewed swears Sam was stone-cold sober: instead, he rebelled at the idea that he had to follow the expectations of Letterman, who — as Phillips was told in the pre-interview — loathed surprises.

Sam lived for surprises. He idealized perfect imperfection because that is where the soul of man could be heard. It’s possible he first fell in love with this idea when he was a child in Florence, Alabama, learning to love blues and African Americans through Uncle Silas, the Black man who was more of a father figure than his actual father. Phillips felt the pull toward Memphis and Beale Street, a place nearly as seductive as radio, which was his first and lasting love, providing revenue when the record business fell apart. Sam never wanted to be in the record business anyway. What he wanted to do was to record — no, to preserve the voices and the stories he heard, the sounds so integral to the heart of American experience. When he set up Memphis Recording Studio, he wanted to record anybody who came through the door, a goal that meant he had to earn his keep by recording special events — funerals, speeches, testimony, anything somebody wanted documented. From those occasions, he’d be able to finance the recordings that meant something: bluesmen playing something that reflected their experience. Not the uptown rhythms of T-Bone Walker but rather the earthy, primal boogie of John Lee Hooker, whose “Boogie Children” proved there was a market for the down-home sound.

Phillips wasn’t the only White man drawn to the Black sound. The Bihari Brothers and the Chess Brothers knew there was a market for this music and they’d turn to Phillips to record artists such as BB King, or perhaps to license the recordings Sam made with Howlin’ Wolf, a Mississippi Delta artist he discovered on the radio and pushed, pulled, and prodded until he found that sound — the howl that begins “Moanin’ At Moonlight.” Sam would always maintain that the Wolf was his greatest discovery, an artist who could entertain any audience but was pure; “this is where the soul of man never dies,” said Phillips with a grandiosity that nevertheless was accurate.

Sam lost the Wolf. He couldn’t keep him, not without a record label, and he couldn’t keep Ike Turner whose band came into Memphis Recording Studios to record “Rocket 88,” broke their amplifier along the way and Phillips decided the mangled, distorted sound sounded better — sounded different — than anything else he’d heard. “Rocket 88” was so fresh, so unusual, it’s credibly called the first rock & roll record and there’s no doubt that Phillips used the same exploratory tactic when he did discover the first rock & roller, Elvis Presley. Accounts vary about who heard him first, Sam or Marion — the back section of The Man Who Invented Rock & Roll devotes pages to this — but there’s no doubt that when a dull ballad session with Elvis took a left turn toward “That’s Alright Mama,” a song where Elvis, Scotty and Bill were just “goofing around,” Sam recognized that there was something there, something different and he ran with it, recording that lark then pressing it, turning a joke into rebellion.

Neither Phillips nor Presley could’ve known what “That’s Alright Mama” would lead to but Sam’s genius was not recognizing the potential of a performance but what it meant. Where other producers were focused on nothing more than a tight, sellable performance, he pushed artists until they discovered their core — something the musician didn’t realize was there but Sam intuited it existed, so he kept prodding and pushing, letting even marginal artists deviate from their plan so they could discover the flaw that was uniquely theirs. Elvis wanted to be a ballad singer. Carl Perkins wanted to be Hank Williams. Johnny Cash was embarrassed by Luther Perkins’ single-string boogie woogie. Phillips pushed them away from their preconceptions of their own music and helped them discover their own idiosyncratic voice, something that garnered great rewards, artistically and commercially, but at some price.

Part of the problem was that Phillips never saw the record business as a business. He cherished that moment of creation, the instant when the accepted merged with the new, and while he knew that was sellable, he didn’t know how to sell it. Howlin’ Wolf jumped to Chess because Sam didn’t have his own record label but Phillips’ method also defied commercial concessions. Nobody else would bother to spend the hours in the studio to get find that elusive, undefinable magic: listen to “Moanin’ at Midnight,” a performance Phillips labored over, and “Howlin’ at Moonlight,” which the Bhari Brothers knocked off, thinking there was no difference between the two. What Phillips sought can not be easily quantified or explained but could be felt, and he thought every person could achieve this, if only for a moment. It’s not coincidence that his breakthrough was the Prisonaires, an outfit of convicts who drew upon gospel to discover their own transcendance with “Just Walkin’ In The Rain.”

The Prisonaires didn’t transcend their situation: they elevated it. Phillips treated them with dignity. While the story of a group of prisoners singing sweetly surely provided a hook, there was no condescension here: even a criminal had soul. This was Sam’s mission and the stories surrounding “Just Walkin’ In The Rain” made note that Phillips was recording anybody who came through his door, publicity that hooked Presley and all the rockers that followed, pushing Sam away from the blues that had been his speciality to the poor country folk who also had been disenfranchised. Because Elvis turned into a sensation, Phillips dodged the financial issues that had been dogging him and he got a second chance at Sun, assisted by Carl Perkins, who for a while seemed like he could’ve rivaled Presley in popularity, but got sidetracked by a car wreck and the Killer himself, Jerry Lee Lewis.

If Elvis embodied Sam’s aesthetic — the idea that any musician had their own distinctive core, one that only needed to be unearthed — Jerry Lee was the apotheosis, an artist who arrived at Sun fully formed. All Sam needed to do was hit record and he did. He never tired of hearing Jerry Lee Lewis turning songs inside out, he never tired of baiting the Killer toward higher heights, he never could resist the Killer’s charisma, so he kept recording and recording, neglecting all Perkins and Johnny Cash — artists that were actually selling — and also newer artist. It’s hard to blame Sam. Listening to Jerry Lee’s Sun recordings — which are now collected in a brand new Bear Family box, one that’s 10 disc longer than their previous Classic set, and no less compelling — it’s hard not to get sucked into the Killer’s vortex. Guralnick compares these tapes to Alan Lomax, which is within the ballpark: Jerry Lee just plays every song he knows, every song given to him, and it’s astonishing how he turns them into his own thing, songs that belong to him, no matter how old or new they are.

It’s wondrous stuff, but Perkins, Cash, Orbison, Warren Smith and Billy Lee Riley were all doing wondrous stuff too, they just needed to be shaped by Sam. Perkins and Cash got this opportunity and once it left, they did too, finding better money — and in Johnny’s case, artistic freedom — at Columbia Records. Sam didn’t react well to their departure — he insisted on cutting dozens of masters by Cash, releasing them through the ‘60s — but he’d come to understand it, even though his heart left the record business at that moment. He found one other monumental talent in Charlie Rich, a musician as versatile as Jerry Lee without any of the ego, but he spent no time developing the pianist, apart from a couple of sessions.

The defection of Perkins and particularly Cash hurt Phillips so much that he treated Sun with indifference for years, letting it be a playground for his sons Knox and Jerry until he sold it to the huckster Shelby Singleton. He never gave up on radio, where he was equally groundbreaking, opening an all-female station called WHER in Memphis at the height of his clout in the ’50s: he’d flirt with the staff but he was dedicated to keep all the on-air and behind-the-scenes staff as female, as radical a move in the ’50s as his determination to give Black musicians and poor White musicians a voice.

After that, he petered out. He kept his radio stations, he was convinced to produce a John Prine album in 1979, and after a period of indifference, he realized history would be told without him so he worked at preserving the legend of himself and Sun Records, Guralnick’s book is ultimately his crowning achievement in that regard: he’s convinced a friend and disciple to tell his story as he sees it. There are nasty moments, to be sure, but the nobility shines throughout The Man Who Invented Rock & Roll, and the way Guralnick tells it, it’s not an accident: Sam always saw the best part of man. The book accentuates how Phillips essentially shut down in his last four decades, never attempting to get close to the flame that burned him so in the ’50s, but it’s hard to blame him. What he achieved in that decade isn’t simply monumental, it’s mythic. He found the soul, spirit and sensibility of America — not the easily packaged, Norman Rockwell paintings of conformity, but the wild, unruly heart that unites us, and he broke down all the barriers of class, race and sex during those ten brilliant years. It’s enough to get him on Mount Rushmore because what is the United States if it isn’t a home for wooly, disreputable rogues?