Charles Hughes is the director of the Memphis Center at Rhodes College and author of “Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South.”
Throughout his life, Sam Phillips, who founded Sun Records and launched the careers of artists such as Johnny Cash, Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley, claimed that the music recorded in his small Memphis studio was more than just a crucial addition to the world’s soundtrack. He believed that those records helped the United States become a freer and more equal place. Aiming to show how the music of black and white Southerners could bring down racial and social boundaries, Phillips oversaw a series of recordings that made Sun Records a central player in the rock-and-roll revolution of the 1950s.
In the lovingly crafted “Sam Phillips,” Peter Guralnick offers an exhaustive look at this pivotal and complex figure. With crisp prose and meticulous detail, Guralnick gives Phillips the same epic treatment he previously employed in acclaimed biographies of Sam Cooke and Presley. One key difference here, which he readily admits, is that Guralnick became close friends with Phillips, and his interviews with the producer, his family and associates serve as the main source for this well-researched volume. Guralnick’s admiration and affection for Phillips are evident on every page, and while he sometimes veers into hagiography, he delivers an engrossing and multifaceted view of Phillips’s eventful life.
Born in Alabama, Phillips worked in radio before opening his own recording studio in 1950. He brought with him a specific approach and mission. “As Sam saw it,” Guralnick writes, “what he was doing was to help open doors through which black artists and white artists alike — poor people deprived of education and opportunity but possessed of innate wisdom, talent, and imagination — might someday pass.” Phillips hoped that Sun’s recordings “would help knock down the wall between black and white musicians and markets” and contribute to the fall of racial segregation.
Much of Guralnick’s best material is focused on Phillips’s belief that the music made at Sun was a mechanism of democracy. The author frames his extended and compelling discussions of Sun sessions, from the gospel-R&B of the Prisonaires to the pop-jazz of Charlie Rich, around Phillips’s pursuit of artistic authenticity and creative freedom. But the focus extends outside the studio as well. Guralnick beautifully explores how Phillips’s working-class background shaped his youth and explained his business and personal choices in later decades. And he offers a poignant view of how Phillips, an avowed liberal who championed the New Deal and supported the early civil rights movement, was met with local and national resistance as he collaborated with black artists and made records that challenged what historian Karl Hagstrom Miller calls “the musical color line.” Through stories both well-known and obscure, Guralnick situates Phillips within a broader set of cultural and social upheavals.
Guralnick is so invested in presenting Phillips as a figure of racial change that he occasionally overstates his case. He exoticizes Phillips’s relationship with African Americans, especially his childhood inspiration Silas Payne and early client Howlin’ Wolf, and gives Phillips too much credit for developing supposedly untrained black artists. He overestimates the degree to which Phillips was a pioneer in recording black artists and pursuing musical crossover, both of which were occurring earlier and elsewhere. Most significant, perhaps, he is too quick to dismiss the criticisms of numerous black musicians at Sun who accused Phillips of abandoning black artists in the wake of Presley’s success. Guralnick skillfully engages with racial ambivalence throughout the book, but he is too focused on Phillips’s image of himself as a racially progressive hero to fully explore its implications.
He does better with Phillips’s complicated personal and professional relationships with women. On the one hand, Guralnick examines WHER — the nation’s first all-female radio station, launched by Phillips to expand opportunities for women in radio — and details Phillips’s close collaborations with his talented assistant Marion Keisker at both the station and Sun Records. But, as Guralnick also tells us, Phillips romantically pursued (and even sexually harassed) some of his female employees, exploiting Keisker in a manner that she later compared to slavery. Phillips also programmed WHER with a rigid version of “femininely expressed” radio — easy-listening music, an emphasis on “glamour” and “sexiness” — that Guralnick notes had “nothing to do with the music he was recording” and reflected narrow (or even sexist) gender conventions. While Guralnick too often forgives or rationalizes these flaws, his willingness to expose them is admirable, given his close relationship to his subject.
Guralnick has accomplished an astonishing feat. While other books can (and should) be written about Phillips and his impact, it is difficult to imagine a more complete or poetic account of his life than this remarkable volume. Readers who want more of an overview will be served better by shorter or broader works. (One of these, John Floyd’s superb “Sun Records: An Oral History,” has just been re-released.) But those who want to lose themselves in the tangled pathways that brought Phillips to the trembling center of American culture will be brilliantly served by “The Man Who Invented Rock ’n’ Roll.”
“I didn’t set out to revolutionize the world,” Phillips once told Guralnick in a moment of humility, but in this book his old friend convincingly argues that Phillips did just that.
By Peter Guralnick
Little, Brown. 763 pp. $32