[Marxism] The Man Who Invented Rock ’n’ Roll

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Nov 6 10:47:40 MST 2015

NY Times, Nov. 6 2015
Review: ‘Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ’n’ Roll,’ by Peter 
by Dwight Garner

Sam Phillips
The Man Who Invented Rock ’n’ Roll
By Peter Guralnick
Illustrated. 763 pages. Little, Brown and Company. $32.

Sam Phillips, the founder of Sun Records in Memphis, is frequently 
remembered for a single sound bite: “If I could find a white man who had 
the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars!” He 
seems cynical at best, racist at worst.

He found his white man, of course. One day a 19-year-old Elvis Presley 
wandered into his tiny studio. The music they recorded in 1954 and 1955 
was a sensation, and it brought other poor, desperate, unknown and wild 
Southern boys into Phillips’s doorway: Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, 
Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison.

The sound these men made in the 1950s, in unfettered songs that Phillips 
(1923-2003) coaxed onto tape, changed the feel of American life. 
Phillips just might be, as one music writer has suggested, America’s 
real Uncle Sam.

In his beautiful and meticulous new biography, “Sam Phillips: The Man 
Who Invented Rock ’n’ Roll,” Peter Guralnick goes out of his way to set 
that “Negro feel” comment into deep context. The essence of that context 
is that Phillips was anything but a cynic or — for his era, at any rate 
— a racist.

Phillips opened the Memphis Recording Service, as it was first called, 
so that black artists would have a place to record. He had loved the 
sound of black gospel music and sharecropper work songs since he was a 
child. Among the first people he ushered into his studio were unknowns 
named Howlin’ Wolf and Ike Turner.

Losing Howlin’ Wolf to Chess Records in Chicago a few years later, 
Phillips would say, was the cruelest blow of his career. He called him 
the only artist who could “entertain anybody from the president of the 
United States to the poorest person, black or white, that I might run 

Phillips was ahead of his time. So-called race records were selling in 
the early 1950s, but not widely. The singles he recorded in Memphis 
weren’t moving. He was in danger of going out of business. When the 
mystery train that was Presley came around the bend, he was not too 
stupid to climb aboard.

It’s worth pausing, for a moment, to consider how lucky it was that 
Presley walked into Phillips’s studio and not someone else’s. Another 
producer (that term had not yet come into use in the record industry) 
might have put him to work singing country-pop ditties with string 
sections. He might have been another Eddy Arnold.

Phillips already had an aesthetic ethos. In some ways, he had prepared 
his whole life for Elvis’s arrival. Part of Phillips’s ethos, Mr. 
Guralnick writes, was his “sense that there were all these people of 
little education and even less social standing, both black and white, 
who had so much to say but were prohibited from saying it.”

Phillips wanted to pull music out of the drawing room. He sought maximum 
spontaneity, minimum polish. “To Sam,” the author writes, “if you 
weren’t doing something different, you simply weren’t doing anything at 

In practice, Mr. Guralnick says, this meant things like the following: 
“If Ike Turner’s guitarist’s amp fell off the car on the way up to 
Memphis to cut ‘Rocket 88,’ well, stuff some paper where the speaker 
cone was ruptured, and then you had an original sound! If a telephone 
went off in the middle of a session, well, you kept that telephone in — 
just make sure it’s the best-sounding damn telephone in the world.”

One more example: When Perkins was recording “Blue Suede Shoes,” he 
accidentally sang “Go, cat, go” instead of “Go, man, go” and begged for 
a do-over. No chance, Phillips said. He understood the difference 
between lightning and lightning bug.

Mr. Guralnick is the perfect man to tell this story. He’s the author of 
a very good two-volume biography of Presley, “Last Train to Memphis” 
(1994) and “Careless Love” (1999). He’s also the author of “Dream 
Boogie” (2005), a biography of Sam Cooke. He’s written several books of 
essays about American vernacular music, my favorite of which is “Feel 
Like Going Home” (1971). Read the chapter on Charlie Rich.

Mr. Guralnick first met Phillips in 1979, and interviewed him 
extensively for this book. Phillips grew up in and around Florence, Ala. 
His father farmed and later was a flagman on the railroad. After 
completing high school, Phillips went to work for a small radio station. 
One of his tasks was setting up the microphones for live big-band 
broadcasts, and he learned the importance of good mike placement. He 
liked a cracking rhythm section.

As a young man, Phillips was gregarious and good-looking but a bit of a 
loner. He didn’t drink. He was fussy about his food, and natty as hell.

Mr. Guralnick lingers over the important Sun recording sessions. 
Phillips persuaded Cash to change his name to Johnny from John, and to 
quicken the tempo on “I Walk the Line.” Sun recordings had a trademark 
echo sound — it came to be known as “slapback” — that was the envy of 
other labels.

Jerry Lee Lewis spins into this biography like a dervish. Perkins and 
Orbison felt that Phillips was too enamored of the Killer, as Lewis came 
to be known, and that he neglected their careers. When Lewis’s ascent 
was knocked off course by the revelation that he had married his 
13-year-old cousin (Lewis was 22), something seemed to change for 
Phillips, too.

His heart slowly went out of recording. Within a few years, he had sold 
Sun Records, though he continued to operate radio stations.

The later parts of Phillips’s life were crazy and weird, in this 
telling. He let his hair and beard grow (both were later dyed) and, 
almost overnight, went from looking like Fred MacMurray to looking like 
Waylon Jennings.

He began to drink, sometimes heavily. He became a bit of a wild man. He 
seems to have jumped naked into a lot of swimming pools, and told a lot 
of people what he really thought. In 1986 he made an infamous, 
apparently drunken appearance on David Letterman’s show.

As a husband, he was not particularly faithful. As a father, he could be 
remote and critical. He preferred the light, in any room, to be on him.

Phillips liked to compare himself to an explorer, not a crusader. About 
his contribution to rock ’n’ roll, he told Mr. Guralnick, in a typically 
offbeat analogy, “You can say he had the light coming on, and it spotted 
the possum. Right there.”

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