Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll

by Peter Guralnick

(Little, Brown and Company, $32, 784 pages)

Who is this author?

An authority on American music, especially rock and roll and its many offshoots, Peter Guralnick has written extensively, including the prize-winning Elvis Presley two-part biography Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love; an acclaimed trilogy on American roots music, Sweet Soul Music; Lost Highway and Feel Like Going Home; the biographical Searching for Robert Johnson; the novel Nighthawk Blues; and Dream Boogie, a biography of Sam Cooke. He splits his time between Nashville and Massachusetts.

What is this book about?

Based on what Guralnick saw and learned during his 25-year close friendship with Sam Phillips, he gives readers a full warts-and-wonders look at the man whose insights and intuitions about black and Southern white musicians was crucial to the development of rock and roll. It’s said that behind every successful man is a good woman: in the case of such stars as Elvis Presley, Sam Cooke, Howlin’ Wolf, Ike Turner, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash it was a man with a big vision and a small company, Sun Records, who gave them the push into the spotlight. Phillips was a revolutionary in the music world and his championing of both black and white talent was a huge step forward both for music and race relations. While Phillips was no angel —  emotional problems, marital discord and infidelities, financial troubles, drinking and bragging were all part of his life — he nevertheless was a giant who, pardon the pun, was instrumental in giving America the rambunctious wonderfulness of rock and roll.

Why you’ll like it:

Guralnick writes with authority and a deep knowledge of his subject acquired during his long career as a historian of American music. Phillips is such a rich subject that his life  easily fills nearly 800 pages. No matter how much you know or recall about the history of rock and roll, this book will take you deeper, higher and farther.

What others are saying:                       

Publishers Weekly’s starred review says: “Acclaimed music historian Guralnick has written landmark accounts of Elvis (Last Train to Memphis), Sam Cooke (Dream Boogie), and the history of American roots music (Lost Highway), and he now turns his considerable skills to the life of Sun Records producer Sam Phillips in this delightful and comprehensive volume. While he builds the story on the skeleton of the facts of Phillips’s life—his birth outside of Florence, Ala.; his production of the jam session with Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, and Elvis Presley, later released as the Million Dollar Quartet tapes; and his tireless work ethic—Guralnick portrays a man deeply passionate about giving black musicians opportunities to share their music and voices in a South that seldom allowed them to do so. Drawing on extensive interviews from his 25-year friendship with Phillips, as well as on interviews with many of the musicians Phillips produced (Howlin’ Wolf and Ike Turner among others), Guralnick energetically tells the must-read tale of a Southern boy intent on enacting his vision of freedom and justice through music. Phillips’s message from the start was “the inherent nobility not so much of man as of freedom, and the implied responsibility… for each of us to be as different as our individuated natures allowed us to be”; as Guralnick points out, Phillips succeeded in giving each of his musicians the freedom to express themselves fully on records that changed the musical landscape forever.”

Says Library Journal: “Guralnick follows his biography of soul-gospel legend Sam Cooke (Sweet Soul Music) with an equally exhaustive portrait of Sam Phillips (1923–2003), the so-called “Father of Rock and Roll,” who, as owner of Memphis-based Sun Records and Sun Studio, helped launch the careers of Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Howlin’ Wolf, and Johnny Cash. The author emphasizes Phillips’s contributions to rock and roll’s 1950s emergence in the racially charged South and his personal and professional relationships with not only the many famous singers and musicians who benefited commercially and artistically from his vision, encouragement, and technical skills but also the obscure rockabilly, blues, country, and pop artists who were given an opportunity to express themselves on vinyl. Drawing primarily from new interviews with Sun musicians, family members, and even a few former girlfriends, Guralnick presents a well-told, well-rounded biography of an innovative and influential pop culture pioneer with an unorthodox and oftentimes rocky personal life.”

A starred Kirkus Review says: ‘A monumental biography of the larger-than-life loner who fought for the acceptance of black music and discovered an extraordinary group of poor, country-boy singers whose records would transform American popular culture. Celebrated music historian Guralnick . . . recounts the life of Sam Phillips (1923-2003), an Alabama farmer’s son who founded Sun Records in Memphis, where, during the 1950s, he first recorded the music of Ike Turner, B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Charlie Rich, and others. In earlier books. . . the author has written about such artists and the rise of rock ‘n’ roll, “this revolutionary new music that combined raw gutbucket feel with an almost apostolic sense of exuberance and joy.” Now he turns to “unreconstructed individuali[st]” Phillips, who opened the door to untutored talents, recognizing their originality and mentoring them with “patience and belief.” A sickly child who became enamored of African-American music while picking cotton alongside black laborers, Phillips was bright, observant, and much influenced by a blind black sharecropper who lived with his family. He started out as a radio DJ and engineer and realized when he recorded Ike Turner’s hit “Rocket 88″ (1951) at Sun that black music had potentially universal appeal. His discoveries—related here with contagious excitement—were not happenstance but rather the result of his dedication to finding the “pure essence” of performances. Guralnick met the charismatic Phillips in 1979 and became a close friend, and he makes no secret of his affection and admiration. However, he also covers his subject’s problems and foibles: his early mental breakdowns, his troubled marriage and affairs, his financial difficulties, his later drinking, and his penchant for bragging about his (rightful) place in music history. A wonderful story that brings us deep into that moment when America made race music its own and gave rise to the rock sound now heard around the world.”

“Just as the two magisterial volumes of Guralnick’s Presley bio paint a much more nuanced picture of Presley, The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll captures the complexity of the colorful Phillips….The author loves his subject and loves writing about him…. A book that can stand with his best, and that is [both] entertaining and lively….For that rock-and-roll fans should be eternally grateful,” says the Philadelphia Inquirer.

When is it available?

The Downtown Hartford Public Library has it now. Rock on.

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