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.