Sam Phillips — The Man Who Invented Rock 'n' Roll
Peter Guralnick Little, Brown and Company, 784 pages, $32
Anybody who knows cultural history as well as Peter Guralnick — whose body of work includes a definitive two-volume biography of Elvis Presley — can think of many 1950s entrepreneurs who helped enable the widespread musical explosion of rock 'n' roll. Yet Guralnick singles out Sam Phillips in his book that, like the man, is an endlessly fascinating piece of work. Phillips was a huckster, trickster, dreamer and architect compressed in one roiling, flamboyant package.
For most, Phillips' story begins and ends with the moment he discovered the callow young Presley, who, as legend has it, wandered into the Memphis recording studio owned and operated by Phillips in 1954 and, within months, cut several records on the studio's Sun label. Growing up poor and white in Depression-era Alabama, Phillips loved music — whether country, gospel or blues — and believed what these songs had in common was far more significant than their differences. He promoted and recorded black blues artists such as B.B. King, Little Milton, Howlin' Wolf and Ike Turner.
The Sun artists who followed Presley in the label's 1950s heyday — notably Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and Charlie Rich — all made their own distinctive contributions to this legacy. You may not always like or understand Sam Phillips, but by the time you put down the book, you somehow wish you'd gotten to know him.