The highlights of Sam Phillips’ life are well known to most anyone who ever owned a turntable.
Phillips discovered Elvis and Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis, among other music legends. And as the subtitle of Peter Guralnick’s excellent biography blares: He is without question the man who invented rock ’n’ roll.
What shines through this sympathetic but warts-and-all bio is that for Phillips it wasn’t about the money or even just about the music. It was about music’s ability to bridge the considerable racial divide that existed at the time.
Inspired by the gospel music he heard outside the Armstead Methodist church in his native Alabama, as well as by the songs of John Lee Hooker and Lightnin’ Hopkins, Phillips concluded, “I knew the physical separation of the races, but I knew the integration of their souls.”
Phillips worked in radio as a disc jockey and engineer before opening the Memphis Recording Service, whose motto was “We Record Anything — Anywhere — Anytime.” It survived early on by recording weddings and funerals, but soon became a haven for black artists who had nowhere else to turn.
Some names are likely to be familiar only to the most stalwart fans of R&B and the blues: Joe Hill Louis, for example, or Jackie Brenston, whose “Rocket 88” (written by Ike Turner) Guralnick considers the first true rock song.
But others, such as Howlin’ Wolf (who Phillips feels is his greatest discovery), B.B. King (then Bee Bee) and Ike Turner, launched successful crossover careers.
Phillips’ magnetic personality is a deep part of the book. Even artists who left — Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Cash and, of course, Elvis — respected his contributions to their career and to music in general. It’s why Elvis — by then under contract to RCA — dropped by the studio to say hello on a December day when Carl Perkins was recording with a then still relatively unknown Lewis. Phillips rushed to call Cash, who came down to the studio to join what famously became known as the Million Dollar Quartet.
Phillips’ allure extended to his private life. His wife knew about his several long-term affairs and even befriended one of his mistresses. That mistress drove him to assignations with others. By contrast, it would seem, creating musical legends must have been much simpler.
Longtime music writer Guralnick writes long. He also likes jarring colloquialisms, suddenly addressing readers directly and using curse words.
The author knew Phillips and worked with and interviewed him in the past. That firsthand knowledge results in a biography that — while occasionally exhausting in length — is almost always compelling and even revelatory to those who thought they knew it all.
Curt Schleier a book critic in New Jersey.