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Sun Records founder Sam Phillips gets his due with new(ish) biography

Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll by Peter Guralnick

When this incredible biography of the founder of Sun Records and the man who gave the world Elvis Presley, Howlin’ Wolf, Junior Parker, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and many more was released last fall, its author, Peter Guralnick, said it was his best book.

I am not so sure about that – not because Sam is not a fantastic book, because it surely is – but because Guralnick’s legacy as a chronicler of blues and R&B has been so strong, for so long. Over the course of several decades and some of the most important books ever about American popular music – Searching for Robert Johnson, Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke and his two-volume bio of Elvis Presley among them – Guralnick has established himself as a peerless chronicler of not only great music, but of its place in, and influence on, American society in a way that no other author, living or dead, has managed to do – or even, really, come close. His mixture of in-depth reporting, personal observation and assured, direct fat-free writing has made him, frankly, untouchable in his field.

As a result, Sam feels, at least to this longtime fan, both a peak, as he claims, and a continuation, and a brilliant one. It is, like all of the above titles and several more, essential for anyone who wants to understand American roots music in its time, and in its continued influence on all that came before it. In chronicling Phillips’ odd, hedonistic, and very passionate life, Guralnick both shows us how the music he wrought at Sun was a grand co-mingling of several strands of American music – gospel, blues, hillbilly and pop – and how he was, without question, both the right man for the times, and an iconoclast who seized a singular moment in American popular culture, saw its possibilities, and ran with it – and often simply ran over whatever obstacles stood in his way.

Sam Phillips was different – always. An uncharitable observer would say he was, well, a weirdo: already making a good living in Memphis radio, he decided that he would devote every waking hour he was not on the job to providing a place where the oddballs and the misfits of the Memphis area could record – pretty much because nobody else was recording them. Passion was the key – if they were passionate and strange and unique, if they were poor and black or poor and white, and they being ignored – and many were all three – they had a place to come and, for next to nothing, get their music recorded. Phillips was not looking for stuff that was going to be popular – and, indeed, many Sun releases sold next to nothing. No, he wanted stuff that he – and most of the world – had not heard before. He was a misfit leading misfits – both black and white – and that was something that nobody else, really, had ever done in American popular music.

Guralnick’s Phillips is a driven man – one with big appetites, big dreams, big goals. This made him able to continue, year after year, while Sun found its sea legs and he waded into the muck and mire of the Deep South record business. But it also meant that he was, well, kind of a jerk: his endless affairs are chronicled here, and at one point after Sun exploded and he had made a considerable amount of money (he was a millionaire by the early 1960s, at a time when that really meant something) he was keeping company with not one but two women, while still being married to his wife. Such was his ability to charm that they apparently all knew of each other, and all at least tolerated the situation.

Sam Phillips did what Sam Phillips wanted to do when Sam Phillips wanted to do it, and damn the consequences and anyone who didn’t like it. The book, then, is one part history lesson and one part almost a shaggy dog story – if Phillips did not exist, he could have been a character in a novel, so outsize was his personality, so boundless was his work ethic, so deep was his passion for what he was doing, and so astounding was his willingness to fly in the face of propriety and good manners. He was, in the end, a dreamer – a guy that heard true greatness where nobody else did, and who was willing to risk everything to give what he heard to the world, even as others in those wild ‘50s were trying to steal his artists.

And if he hadn’t been all that, if he hadn’t been such a self-contained, ornery cuss, the world would never had gotten Howlin’ Wolf and Junior Parker and Elvis and Jerry Lee and Charlie Rich – and we would be all the poorer for it. In Guralnick’s hands, this improbable story is rendered whole – from his fine reporting to his singular memories of the man that he encountered years after Sun’s heyday, a man who was still doing as he damned well pleased when he damned well pleased, and did pretty much until right before he died.

Love the music, read the book – you won’t find a more satisfying true tale of a true Southern original anywhere.