Home' Rhythms Magazine : 2016 May-Jun Contents Rhythms 91
Let’s be clear from the outset: Peter Guralnick is,
hands down, one of the great music writers at work
today. From early classics like Lost Highway (1979),
through to his magisterial biographies of Elvis Presley
and Sam Cooke, Guralnick has mined that particular
strain of music that emanated from the South, and
subsequently pervaded all manner of American
In the figure of Sun Records founder, Sam Phillips, he
has found his perfect subject, an enigmatic and self-
possessed southerner whose career straddles blues,
country, rhythm and blues, rockabilly, gospel, hillbilly and
the birth of rock ‘n’ roll.
Guralnick first met Sam Phillips in 1979, and developed
a friendship with the legendary producer that lasted up
until his death in 2003. This book, then, has been a long
time coming; and it is all the better for it. Spurred on
by Phillips’ words – “It ain’t for you to put me in a good
light. Just put me in the focus I’m supposed to be in” –
Guralnick has expended more than 10 years research and
nearly 800 pages to write this account, in the process
sparing no one, least of all Sam.
Guralnick provides a detailed account of Phillips’ early
years in Florence, Alabama; but the book genuinely hits
its stride with the opening of the Memphis Recording
Service at 706 Union Avenue, Memphis, in 1950. Phillips’
initial aims were modest: to record the music – blues,
gospel, country – he heard as a child, and then to license
these recordings, by Joe Hill Louis, Roscoe Gordon and
others, to various independents, like the Bihari brothers
in California and the Chess brothers in Chicago.
There were early successes: his recording of Ike Turner’s
‘Rocket 88’, argued by many to be the first ever rock ‘n’
roll recording, and his discovery of blues great Howlin’
Wolf. It was Wolf, though, who provided the bitter pill –
the first of many – by signing on with the Chess brothers
and departing Memphis for Chicago. Recording great
music was one thing, but with little to show for it, Phillips
decided to set up his own label, and Sun Records was
born in January 1952.
As Guralnick’s account makes clear, achieving a hit
single in the early ‘50s was something of a crap shoot.
Phillips recorded all sorts of music – from Rufus Thomas
and Little Milton through to novelty records – few of
which charted. Through it all, he was searching for
something different, a certain sound, a feeling rather than
perfection. In the end though, it felt like all he was doing
was running up debt. Until that fateful day in 1954 – a
story that has assumed biblical proportions – when a
young Elvis wandered into the studio to cut a $4 record
for his mother.
In that moment, Sam Phillips’ fortunes turned around
once and for all. Guralnick details Phillips’ relationships
with the recording artists who made Sun Records the
legendary label it is today: Elvis, Carl Perkins, Johnny
Cash, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis first and
Within a few brief years, Elvis was lost to RCA, Cash to
Columbia, and Lewis to scandal; but already the future
myth of Sam Phillips had been forged. Guralnick pays
equal due to Phillips’ private life – his extended family,
unconventional marriage to Becky, and simultaneous life-
long relationship with Sally Wilbourn.
While Guralnick’s book runs slightly out of puff in the
post-Sun Records era, he cleverly reinvigorates things by
inserting himself into the narrative. Phillips’ later years,
in which Guralnick himself played a part, were largely
spent cementing his place in history.
With a renewed interest in the birth of rock ‘n’ roll,
Phillips, who rarely missed an opportunity to ‘set the
record straight’, found himself showered with awards and
accolades. A man of indefatigable energy, Guralnick’s
portrait of his final years and decline is a moving one.
While ‘definitive’ can be an overused term, there can be
no doubt that, with this book, Guralnick has given us the
definitive portrait, ‘written out of admiration and love’, of
Sam Phillips, the man who ‘invented rock ‘n’ roll’.
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