The Curmudgeon: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘N’ Roll

Music Features

We don’t go to music museums to see the same video clips and audio samples that we can find on the internet. We go to bask in the presence of talismanic artifacts. We hope that a particular object intimately associated with a great moment in music will still have enough mojo that some of it might rub off. We don’t want reproductions of the moment—we already have plenty of those. We want a physical object from that time and place that can now share a time and place with us.

Seldom have I felt the power of such a talisman as strongly as when I encountered Elvis Presley’s acetate of “My Happiness” at Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame in October. This was the first record that Presley ever made, a present for his mother that he paid four dollars to make. The newly minted high school graduate had been visiting the Memphis Recording Service out on Union Avenue in Memphis and finally mustered up the courage to see what he sounded like on a record.

The studio receptionist, Marion Keisker, remembered his wounded way with a ballad and kept pestering her boss, Sam Phillips, to bring him back in. He did, and that led to a series of landmark singles on Phillips’ Sun Records: “That’s All Right,” “Mystery Train” and “Baby, Let’s Play House,” discs that changed not only American music but America itself.

But it all began with “My Happiness,” and for decades that recording existed only on one 10-inch, black disc, the one in front of me in the Country Music Hall of Fame. Long forgotten in the closet of a Presley friend Ed Leek, it was bought at a January auction for $300,000 by Jack White and lent to the Hall of Fame for the exhibit: “Flyin’ Saucers Rock & Roll: The Cosmic Genius of Sam Phillips.” The mojo was still there.

Peter Guralnick, the exhibit’s guest curator, has just published Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ’n’ Roll, a 765-page biography of Phillips as a kind of sequel to his definitive, two-volume biography, Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley and Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley. Guralnick has also compiled and annotated a terrific two-CD, 55-track box set of Phillips productions, also called Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ’n’ Roll. Guralnick also co-wrote the lavishly illustrated catalogue for the Hall of Fame exhibit.

This perfect storm of documentation around Phillips and the recordings he made with Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Charlie Rich, Howlin’ Wolf, Ike Turner and B.B. King reminds us that music history is not just the tale of singers and instrumentalists. It’s also the story of the non-musicians who made such an impact that the narrative would have been different without them. Few have made a bigger impact than Phillips.

Guralnick’s claim that Phillips “invented rock ‘n’ roll” is a bold one, but one that the biographer makes persuasive over the first half of his huge book. It wasn’t just that Phillips was fanatical about sound as an engineer, while always searching for the spontaneity of “perfect imperfection” as a producer. It was more that he had a vision of what poor young kids of the South—black as well as white—could express if they were only given the right situation for doing so. Often Phillips had a far clearer grasp of those possibilities than the artists themselves.

It was Phillips, for example, who coaxed, pushed and waited patiently for Presley to make the leap from the tentative balladeer on “My Happiness” to the confident shouter of “It’s All Right.” The book retells the familiar story of Phillips spending hours with Presley, bassist Bill Black and guitarist Scotty Moore, trying song after song to get at the sound Phillips was convinced Presley had locked up inside him. And once he found the key in an off-the-cuff, off-the-mic version of Big Arthur Crudup’s “It’s Alright, Mama,” Phillips recognized the opening at once and absolutely refused to let the door swing shut again.

It neither began nor ended with Presley. Phillips got his start recording African-American artists such as Wolf, Turner and King. “Rocket 88,” written by Turner, produced by Phillips and credited to Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats, is frequently and plausibly cited as the first rock ‘n’ roll record. Wolf’s “Moanin’ at Midnight” is just as often cited as one of the greatest electric blues performances ever captured. In both cases, it was Phillips’ decision to push a dirty, distorted, seemingly mistaken guitar track to the foreground that made the records sound like nothing that had come before.

And after Phillips sold Presley’s contract to RCA at the end of 1955, he made such monumental records as Cash’s “I Walk the Line,” Lewis’s “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On,” Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes” and Rich’s “Who Will the Next Fool Be.” These milestones are all discussed in the book, included on the two-CD package and reflected in the Hall of Fame exhibit.

By 1962, however, it was all over. After an extraordinary run of 11 years, Phillips retired from record production for all intents and purposes. Jerry Wexler, the Atlantic Records producer—another non-musician who made a major mark on American music—said, “It’s like, how do you follow this? What else can you do? In a decade, he produced a millennium’s worth of music.”

Still, after 1961, Phillips had another 42 years to live—and Guralnick another 208 pages to write. This tale of an early burst of incendiary brilliance followed by decades of twilight echoes the narrative arc of Guralnick’s earlier subject, Presley. Phillips never had a comeback as triumphant as Presley’s 1968 TV show but neither did he hit a bottom as deep as the Clambake movie or Presley’s final days as the pill-addicted, lonely ghost of Graceland.

Phillips kept doing interesting things—opening a Nashville studio where Billy Sherrill got his start, starting America’s first all-female radio station and coming out of retirement to help his sons produce John Prine’s 1979 album, Pink Cadillac—but none of it would hold our interest if not for that millennium in a decade.

Talismans from that decade are on display at the Country Music Hall of Fame: test pressings for Prine’s album and Little Junior Parker’s original version of “Mystery Train”; 1950s stage outfits from Presley, Cash and Lewis; Howlin’ Wolf’s Thin-Twin Kay guitar; handwritten lyrics by Cash and Perkins; and Phillips’ snakeskin boots and his signed contracts with Turner and Presley. And, of course, the custom-pressed disc of “My Happiness.”

Guralnick is another non-musician who has had a measurable impact on American music. His biographies of Presley and Sam Cooke as well as his revelatory group portrait of Memphis R&B in Sweet Soul Music altered the music community’s understanding of its own history—and in some cases that new perception led to reincarnated roots music that might not have existed otherwise.

Sam Phillips is Guralnick’s most personal book, for after hours and hours of conversation (and collaboration on a TV documentary) he knew this subject more intimately than any of the others. The author injects himself into the book more than ever before—not only because he’s part of the story in the later years but also because Phillips’ credo of breaking down of class and race barriers through the “extreme individualism” is so essential to Guralnick’s life work—and his conception of American music. You can hear Phillips’ evangelical fervor resonating in Guralnick’s prose much as you could once hear it reverberating in Presley’s vocals.

“Flyin’ Saucers Rock & Roll: The Cosmic Genius of Sam Phillips” continues at the Country Music Hall of Fame through June 12, 2016.

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