Arts and Culture

Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock and Roll

Cultural historian Peter Guralnick’s latest music biography, Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock and Roll (How One Man Discovered Howlin’ Wolf, Ike Turner, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley and How His Tiny Label, Sun Records of Memphis, Revolutionized the World!) has a cumbersome and author-admitted hyperbolic title, but it tells a riveting story. Phillips is remembered today as the man who launched the legendary Sun Records and careers of the aforementioned artists and many others not named in the title. But Guralnick has gone beyond simply recounting names and hits to tell the life story of the musical icon.

Born in Florence, Alabama, Phillips saw firsthand the racial injustices of the Depression-era South. The black kids he played with and worked with in the fields were not afforded the same opportunities he and his white friends and family were. Yet from a very young age, Phillips recognized the power, the true majesty of the songs his community mates sang in the fields and in their churches.

Guralnick tells the full story of Phillips’ childhood, including his numerous health problems, dedication to his deaf and mute aunt, and early jobs including working at a funeral home, blessed with the gift of convincing grieving family members to trust him with the care of their recently deceased loved ones.

But it is when Phillips moved to his adopted hometown of Memphis that the story picks up steam for those craving details on the formative years of rock and roll and rhythm and blues. As a young man he began a career in radio and married his sweetheart Becky, also an up-and-comer in the radio business. Guralnick shares stories of Phillips’ struggles financially and with mental health before he decided to take a risk and open the famed Memphis Recording Service.

In the musical mecca of Memphis, he continued to hear music that moved him. Blues artists including B.B. King and Howlin’ Wolf—the musician Phillips always claimed moved him more than any other—were among the first to record in the new studio. When Elvis Presley first showed up at Sun in 1954 to make a record, Phillips knew he had something special on his hands.

Guralnick points out how Phillips was originally dedicated to recording black musicians and had some fleeting success with Ike Turner and Jackie Brenston’s Delta Cats. But when one “hillbilly” after another showed up at Sun, he had many more hits and experienced much more financial success. That didn’t sit well with everyone, as Guralnick illustrates, including the artists and people who criticized him for having the gall to associate with black musicians.

The book’s most moving chapters are those that tell the stories of Sun’s heyday. Phillips saw the writing on the wall and realized the days for independent labels were numbered and sold the label as a young man. But Guralnick tells Phillips’ story to the end, including his years continuing to launch and expand radio stations and involvement in later years in telling his own story, through documentaries and plans for an autobiography that never materialized. Guralnick states in the intro that he was friends with Phillips for 25 years. The book’s few weak points include somewhat clunky transitions from first to third person narration when Guralnick decides to share his own perspective. And later chapters about his friendship and dealings with Phillips sap some momentum from the narrative.  But to his credit, the author doesn’t let his friendship turn the work into a hagiography, and includes Phillips’ faults, infidelities, and rocky personal and business relationship with his older brother Jud.

Overall, Guralnick has masterfully captured and documented the life of a true American legend, a man whose passion for music and love of life has touched the lives of people the world over.

Cover courtesy Little, Brown and Co.

Song Premiere: Jacob Metcalf — "One Three Nine"

Jacob Metcalf

Utne Reader is proud to premiere the song "One Three Nine" by North Texas-based folk artist Jacob Metcalf, from his debut album Fjord.

Venturing out from the confines of his two longtime bands, Fox and the Bird and Dallas Family Band, Jacob Metcalf offers a collection of ornate, cinematic folk songs on his debut full-length solo album, Fjord. Fans of The Low Anthem, Andrew Bird, and Sufjan Stevens should find a lot to like in Metcalf’s reflective and textured songs.

Metcalf sums up his take on the song “One Three Nine”: “[It’s] my account of an isolated night and day in a foreign airport. It plays out kind of like a sitcom. There's a scene of slapstick at the top, centered around my western fascination with the east, but the personal comedy subtly shifts focus onto a broader tragedy that hints at our fundamental inability to connect with each other. The song ends with a crash after a jaded and self-protective refrain, ‘Sometimes we hit; sometimes we miss; it's all the same.’" Fjord will be out via self-release on limited vinyl and digital formats January 2016.

For more new music that piques our interest, visit the Utne Reader Music Sampler.

Video Premiere: Banda de Los Muertos – “El Paso”

Banda de Los Muertos

Utne Reader is proud to premiere the music video for “El Paso” from Brooklyn-based Mexican brass band Banda de Los Muertos.

Banda de Los Muertos began when Brooklyn residents Oscar Noriega and Jacob Garchik became fascinated by the intricate arrangements of brass band music from the Mexican state of Sinaloa. Noticing that there wasn’t a traditional Banda in Brooklyn, the two men enlisted their musician friends from the jazz world to help fill that void.

Their eponymous debut album, released last month via Barbès Records, is a tribute to the early years of the genre but also reinterprets that tradition. The songs on the album look back to some Mexican standards – such as Jose Alfredo Jimenez’ “Tu Recuerdo y Yo” or “Tragos Amargos,” made popular by Norteño star Ramon Ayala – as well as Banda classics such as “El Toro Viejo” or “El Sinaloense.”

“El Paso,” the song for which the new video below was made, is a cover of the Marty Robbins classic.

Every month, Utne Reader presents free, downloadable music gleaned from current and upcoming releases on independent music labels. Check out this month's Music Sampler.

Song Premiere: Brian Carpenter and The Confessions - "The Far End of the World"

Photo by Heather Byington

Utne Reader is proud to premiere the song "The Far End of the World" by Brian Carpenter and The Confessions from their new album, out October 2.

Singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Brian Carpenter has collaborated with many well-known musicians and bands over the years, operating on the avant-garde fringe of jazz and Americana. His debut album with The Confessions is a further exploration into the darker side of Americana that would be a fitting soundtrack to an episode of True Detective or a David Lynch film. True to Carpenter's avant-garde nature, the album frames sung lyrics and beautiful melodies with layered ambiance that makes for an unpredictable, but fascinating listen.

Of the title track "The Far End of the World," Carpenter offers this explanation:

"I was coming out of a rough period of separation and DJing radio shows on Friday evenings at WZBC Boston College. I've found DJing at night on the radio to be a very lonely endeavor. You're the lighthouse keeper except you're not saving lives. You're the only one there and you’re broadcasting out, but is anybody listening? I'm usually playing songs that have some meaning to me or what I'm going through. But there is no good feedback to tell you if anyone is on the other end except for that rare phone call from the insane person. So I guess that’s where all the radio language comes from, i.e. 'If you’re still out there, I’ll play it for you.' It’s all part of that feeling of separation."

Here's the premiere of "The Far End of the World," from the album The Far End of the World, out October 2 on Accurate Records:


Song Premiere: Ironing Board Sam - "Honey Baby"

Utne Reader is proud to premiere the song "Honey Baby" by blues legend Ironing Board Sam, from his new album Super Spirit.

A consumate showman, blues legend Ironing Board Sam has been entertaining audiences for decades with his mad scientist approach to playing the blues. From musical stunts like his underwater performance at the 1979 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival to the custom made keyboard attached to an ironing board that gave him his name, Sam's music is a treat for the eyes as much as it is for the ears.

His latest album features a collection of songs by other artists for Sam to stamp his indelible mark on, and comes on the heels of a pair of well-received performances at the Newport Folk Festival and New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Here's the premiere of one of those songs, "Honey Baby," from Super Spirit, out October 2 on Big Legal Mess Records:

For more new music that piques our interest, visit the Utne Reader Music Sampler.

Video Premiere: Daby Touré - "Oma"

Utne Reader is proud to premiere the video for the song "Oma" by international singer-songwriter Daby Touré, which is from his latest album Amonafi.

Singer-songwriter Daby Toure was born in Mauritania and raised in Senegal, but he’s also spent more than half of his life in Paris. It’s this experience of living in two very different cultures that has shaped Touré’s unique approach to life and to making music.

A true melting pot of influences, Touré stays true to his West African roots without becoming pegged as a “traditional” West African musician. Additionally, he’s incorporated a vast array of pop influences into his music ranging from Stevie Wonder to The Police. The end result is a unique international blend that blurs cultural boundaries. His latest album, Amonafi, is another step toward making music that’s accessible to a global audience—not just those in Africa or Europe. “Of course I carry Africa inside me; I sing in languages of West Africa: Fulani, Soninki, Wolof,” says Touré. “But with this new album, I approach what I like most: soul, pop— music we can sing beyond borders.”

One such example of Touré’s desire to bridge gaps is the song “Oma,” from the new album. As he explains what the song is about, “One day as I was walking down the street, I passed a woman and her children. She was alone, sitting on the ground, and asking for charity and nobody seemed to care. This woman spoke to me that day. She inspired this song. “Oma” is this mother’s cry."

Here’s the video premiere of “Oma” from Amonafi, out September 18 on Cumbancha.


Song Premiere: Kevin Gordon - "Letter to Shreveport"


Utne Reader is proud to premiere "Letter to Shreveport" by bluesman singer-songwriter Kevin Gordon from his new album Long Gone Time.

Armed with a head full of poems and a 1956 Gibson ES-125, singer-songwriter Kevin Gordon has a reputation for writing deeply lyrical and swampy blues music that has earned him a loyal following. Deeply respected by his fellow musicians, his songs have been covered by Keith Richards, Levon Helm, and many others.

His latest album, Long Gone Time, is half-electric / half-acoustic and features more of the story-like songwriting Gordon has built his career on. Without further ado, here is the premiere of "Letter to Shreveport" from the new album, which is out on September 4.

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