Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll

Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ’n’ Roll
By Peter Guralnick
[Little, Brown and Company]

I have excellent news for the world: Peter Guralnick, the Ken Burns of rock biographers, has returned with yet another fundamental piece of the proto-rock ’n’ roll puzzle. Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ’n’ Roll is an exhaustively researched book that combines firsthand knowledge, deft writing, empathy and passion for its subject matter to deliver an engrossing, entertaining and educational read.

As I have opined before, the average Stomp and Stammer reader is likely somewhere in the devastating, debilitating era of early-to-mid-middle age. This is to say that most of us were probably born from the 1960s (present and accounted for) to the 1980s. So we’re all grown-assed adults and we’re not pretty. We may have been hip at some point – but, baby, those days are gone. Nevertheless, much of what happened in The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll went down before most of our parents had even hit puberty. In other words, Guralnick’s new book may as well be ancient history.

Sure, the pivotal period recounted in this book was the early days of the fabled Sun Records and Sun Studio, the label/studio that spearheaded rock ’n’ roll’s ascension from the musical backrooms and backwaters to the forefront of popular culture. And that’s what makes The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll (and all of the Guralnick oeuvre, for that matter) so crucial. It’s about a time when rock ’n’ roll wasn’t part of the cultural lexicon – let alone a lynchpin of America’s cultural legacy. And the author does more than chronicle what happened back in the proverbial day, he breathes life into it. Oh yeah, there’s a lot of great anecdotes about the movers and shake-rattle-and-rollers of the day. And they were a wild bunch indeed.

So, what is the X factor that impels The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll‘s smashing success? Of course, it’s Guralnick himself, whose love for the music is matched only by his ample talent. Guralnick didn’t just research Sam Phillips, he actually knew the man for around 25 years. This firsthand knowledge enabled Guralnick to portray Phillips as the complex and sometimes confounding personality that he actually was. So the reader gets a multidimensional portrait of Phillips that is cinematic in scope, not just a dusty, grainy black and white photo of a dead guy who did something culturally important way back when.

Whether Phillips was an enabler or exploiter of the primordial rock ’n’ roll that was coming into being in Memphis, Tennessee in the mid-1950s is a moot point. And while Guralnick was obviously smitten with Phillips and honored by his friendship, he doesn’t fall into the easy rut of canonizing the dead.

Famously, Phillips brought together Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and a host of other performers and writers at Sun Studio to “invent” rock ’n’ roll. The author points out several times over that Phillips’ main talent may have been having the ability to be in the right places at the right times, to introduce the right people to the right people, and to facilitate the creative environments that allowed creativity to come into being. Phillips was both a benefactor and a Svengali, a curator and a leech. This dichotomy is what made Phillips so important. Having the gumption to find talent and the ambition/drive to monetize it merged art and commerce to revolutionize popular music, reap the big bucks, create a new galaxy of (rock) stars, blur high and low culture distinctions and change fucking everything.

Guralnick writes: It might have seemed sometimes to an outsider as if the musicians were just fumbling around, and [Phillips] the producer (a term that did not even exist then, and that Sam to some extent would always disdain: I think he might have preferred to be called practicing psychologist) was just letting things go to rack and ruin. But he wasn’t. He was simply trying to pare things down to their most expressive essence… …Sam was driven by a creative vision that left him with no alternative but to persist in his determination to give voice to those who had no voice.

OK, don’t misread the above passage as hyperbole and/or rose-colored revisionist history. Phillips was never afraid to make a quick buck or three by sonically empowering the subaltern. And throughout the book, Guralnick willingly draws attention to Phillips’ flaws, failings and (sometimes) shameless hackery. Of course, if Phillips hadn’t have known how to sell rock ’n’ roll to the masses, it wouldn’t have been wildly popular. And if rock ’n’ roll hadn’t have become wildly popular, well, you get my drift.

The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll belongs comfortably on the bookshelf of any rock gourmand, comfortably nestled between Guralnick’s Sam Cooke bio and the two volumes on Elvis. The book is about much more than Sam Phillips and Sun Records. It’s about more than rock ’n’ roll, even. Basically, it’s the story of what is perhaps the most important juncture in 20th century American pop culture, told in an enthusiastic and engaging way by one of the most capable biographers of our time.