People who saw the recent, highly entertaining Repertory Theatre production of The Million Dollar Quartet may have been surprised to note that the main character of the piece was not Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, or even Elvis. It was Sam Phillips, the legendary founder of Sun Records of Memphis. He narrated the play, and took it from scene to scene while the story, such as it was, played out.
This got me to thinking that I was long past due in learning more about the man whom all of these stars credited, at least to some degree, with discovering them and setting them on the path to stardom, and who always referred to him reverentially as ‘Mr. Phillips,’ never ‘Sam.’
The book I found was Peter Guralnick’s 2015 work, Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock n Roll. Guralnick is a long-time music journalist and writer for The New York Times, Rolling Stone, and other major publications. He has also published an impressive shelf full of books on American blues music, early rock and roll, and more.
At well over 600 pages, his Sam Phillips is likely to be the definitive biography of the man. It would be hard to imagine more thorough coverage of a life. And in some ways that is too bad, since the book is deeply flawed.
For the first 400 pages or more, the story flows through Phillips’ triumphs and failures in the music business, as he finds his way towards the sound, the essence of the music he hopes to record and publish. Working in the early days almost exclusively with black artists, he discovers Howlin Wolf, Junior Walker, and other blues greats. He also records the seminal rock and roll anthem Rocket 88, by Ike Turner’s band, though in one of the great stories of the cavalier attitude of early music publishers, the song gets credited to Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats.
Everything changed when a young factory worker named Elvis Presley came into the studio one afternoon asking to record a song. Within a year Phillips had abandoned most of his black artists to record white artists who ‘sounded black,’ the shift in emphasis that truly signals the beginning of what we know as rock n roll.
All great history. But at a certain point, the story of Sam Phillips becomes less interesting. He spent the last decades of his life jumping from one investment, one project, one pipe dream to another. He had affairs. He fought with his sons, who both became involved in the Memphis music industry. But for the most part he collected accolades and attended awards shows.
Peter Guralnick has written a two-volume biography of Elvis, a history of American blues, a biography of Sam Cooke. He has known people like Sam Phillips and his whole family for a long, long time. And so in working to make the last half of his life more interesting, he serves up one long chapter after another about his interviews with them. How he met them, what it was like interviewing them, what his impressions were. From a writerly perspective, this may all hold some interest, but for readers looking for more rock and roll history, the last 100 to 150 pages of the book are, frankly, a slog.
Still, if you want to know all there is to know about Sam Phillips, how he came to found Sun Records, and how he came to ‘invent’ rock and roll, the first 400 pages are as good a story as you’re likely to find.