Saturday, January 11, 2020

Sam Phillips - The Man Who Invented Rock'n'Roll - Peter Guralnick

Unusual for many rock'n'roll biographies, Guralnick actually knew Sam Phillips and had many discussions with him before he started this project and began to "formally" interview him - which, apparently, wasn't a "normal" interview process. Phillips was a story teller that could move from tale to tale and time to time, so it seems like it might have been a challenge to put this bio together in a coherent and entertaining manner.

But that he does. Sam grew up in a small town with a loving, supportive family and a love of music, although he never thought that he would be a musician himself. Instead, he got involved in the more technical aspect of it all and, after moving to Memphis - a big city that immediately captivated him when he first visited it - he landed jobs in radio, and worked hard and learned how to record and produce sound, which, naturally, led him to want to start his own recording studio. His plan was to capture the sounds of the music that was largely being ignored - particularly gut-bucket blues - and created the Memphis Recording Services to do this. Of course, he took other jobs in order to pay the rent - recording shows for radio, conventions, etc. as well as - this was particularly creative - funeral services for souvenirs for the loved ones!

One of the first musical adventures of note was when he was asked to record B.B. King - then still a radio DJ who performed locally but was gaining popularity. He worked with BB on a few sides but nothing really clicked with the public - as opposed to his work with Ike Turner's Kings of Rhythm which resulted in the smash hit, "Rocket 88". Unfortunately, this hit did not guarantee more studio work and while he did generate a few more big numbers (Howlin' Wolf recorded his first hits at Sam's studio), there were many ups'n'downs, including an aborted early attempts at Sun Records, managing his artists and even starting a radio station. But, it all came together for Sam when he finally decided to give a greasy-haired kid a try with Scotty Moore and Bill Black backing him and Elvis broke through a hepped-up cover of Arthur Big Boy Crudup's "That's All Right" backed with a similarly upbeat take on "Blue Moon of Kentucky". With similar successes with Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis, Sun Records finally seemed to be getting on solid ground.

Things changed quickly, though, as they do in the rock'n'roll business, but Sam always kept busy with numerous ventures - most pronounced being radio, although he kept his studio even after selling Sun Records - and his life continued to be colorful and creative. A good portion of the book concentrates on Sam's life after Sun Records, which, while colorful - his affairs alone could fill a book, it seems - is not as interesting to a rock'n'roller as his early work. But, it is an epic life lived by a larger-than-life figure and Guralnick does his best to capture Phillips' essence of devil-may-care attitude, passion, excitement and love for music and for his friends and family.

Again, I feel that a large portion of the book detailed less interesting times (comparatively) of Phillips' life, but Guralnick was a part of that life and was involved in many project featuring Sam besides this book, including a documentary and some recording sessions. All in all, a nicely informative book, despite my nit-picking criticisms. Where would we all be without Sam Phillips? Not a place that I would want to be!