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'Sam Phillips' chronicles the life of the man who incubated rock 'n roll

Phillips dreamed of capturing 'the excitement from the music in the cotton fields.'

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    Sam Phillips:
    The Man Who Invented Rock ‘N’ Roll
    By Peter Guralnick
    Little, Brown and Company
    784 pp.
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Perfect imperfection – there’s a slippery goal. You can’t will it; it happens, simon-pure.

That was the gospel of Sam Phillips, the man whose Sun Records was instrumental in the birth of rock and roll. If the telephone rang in the middle of recording Jimmy DeBerry – while he was bringing “a completely different feel” to one of his stop-time blues numbers – well...“You think I was going to throw that cut away for one of them good ones that didn’t have a telephone ringing in the middle of it?” asked Phillips, incredulous. Not with that happy chance, on a track that was gloriously different. But equally important for Phillips, “that’s what was happening, that was real. People want the real thing. There’s too much powder and rouge around.”

Serendipity is in the readiness, abetted by a vision quest. Despite the subtitle of Peter Guralnick’s thoroughgoing and thoroughly satisfying Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘N’ Roll Phillips neither invented, nor even discovered rock and roll. He shone a great light upon rock and roll, incubated it.

“Rock and roll was no accident. Absolutely not an accident at all,” said Phillips.

He opened his studio in Memphis in 1950: open as begin, open as metaphor. “I knew the physical separation of the races – but I knew the integration of their souls.” His studio was open to “Negro artists in the South who wanted to make a record,” but with no place to go. In the Memphis Recording Service, as the studio was first called, Phillips wanted “to open up an area of freedom within the artist himself” – black, white, man, woman – “to recognize that individual’s unique quality and then find a key to unlock it .... to help him express what he believed his message to be.” Michelangelo all over again, seeing the subject in a block of marble. He also wanted to capture “some of the excitement he took from the music he had heard in the cotton fields.” (Phillips was not blowing smoke; he worked all his life, including on the family farm in Alabama). Slice his music project as you choose, it comes up revolutionary.

Guralnick first met Sam Phillips in 1979, but he would go on to other path-breaking works on Elvis and Sam Cooke before tackling this monumental, authorized  biography of Phillips. The amount of material Guralnick collected for this book –  the untold hours of taping conversations with Phillips, the interviews with associates, friends, artists – must have been a beast to have organized. “I torture my mind trying to interpret Sam’s Ciceronian syntax or, in many instances, guess at the periodic conclusion at which he never quite arrived.”

Guralnick has injected enough helium and momentum into the material to get it airborne and moving stately forward. Guralnick obviously (mostly) admired Phillips, but the biography has the ring of truth. Phillips wanted honesty. “I don’t want any accolades. I just want the truth. And, God believe me, Peter ... if you [bleep] it up, then you’re a [bleep] crook as far as I’m concerned, and I’ll tell you to your teeth.”

Phillips died in 2003. Good thing for Guralnick, as there are plenty of accolades here. It is tempting to call "Sam Phillips" majestic – wide as the sky and deep as the bottom of the ocean – but that awfully formal, not rolling. It can be said that the book is as good as "Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke," and that is very good.

It was all about the sound of the music, “the purity of emotional communication.” Memphis: “I mean, going out and hearing a black man pick a guitar and pat his foot and put a wood box under his foot to pat as he sings,” said Phillips. “These were elements that I knew were not going away.” Phillips had something he had to do, and Guralnick keeps it from sounding as if he were one brave and lone crusader. Other unsung producers were doing this work, much like Phillips: “I’ve just got to open me a little recording studio, where I can at least experiment with [some of] this overlooked humanity.” Phillips would become a grade-A pain in the butt in his studio; not scientifically, he worked by feel, shaping the room and the placement of microphones until he was satisfied with the “liveness.”

And the parade of musicians he would help find the key to unlock their brilliance is absurd: B. B. King, Junior Parker, Howlin’ Wolf, Ike Turner, Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats. Then, to make good his quip, “If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars!” (and in case you misconstrue that quip as racist, then you are misconstruing): Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Charlie Rich, Roy Orbison, and, for better and for much worse, Jerry Lee Lewis. With each of these artists Phillips found that unintentional moment of the real and lit a fire under it, or – in the case of Lewis – he simply helped him to self-combust.

Guralnick serves forth anecdote after anecdote. Those blue suede shoes? They belonged to Carl Perkins. Carl’s had glitter, too. The anecdotes turn this history/biography into a memorable, rambling story, and one not so distant. Many readers will be able to remember times and places where this music changed their lives.

Drink got the better of Phillips, as did his wandering eye. He outdid himself with a whacko, dazed-and-confused performance on the David Letterman Show (unsurprisingly, wasn’t invited back). There was Lewis’s 13-year-old, cousin-turned-wife, which brought everyone’s house down. Phillips had breakdowns, electroshock, and a style shift to late-Liberace outerwear. Phillips never made it all the way to bloat and sloth, but he did take his whacko performance on Letterman on the road. He made it the coda of his life. 

One revelation deserves to be shared by all. It is Elvis’s first live performance, at the Overton Park Shell in Memphis. Elvis is one nervous cat. He takes the stage. “His knees were knocking so loud you could almost hear them.... His legs began to quiver. ‘I was scared stiff,’ Elvis explained, but ‘with those old loose britches that we wore,’ said band mate Scotty Moore, ‘it made it look like all hell was going on under there.’” And so another legend, with my apologies, crumbles.

[Editor's note: The original story incorrectly stated when Sam Phillips died]

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