A 19-year-old Elvis Presley walked into a Memphis studio in 1954, “a good-looking boy with acne on his neck, long sideburns, and long, greasy hair combed in a ducktail that he had to keep patting down.”
He was there to see Sam Phillips, who ran the Memphis Recording Service before it was rechristened Sun Studio. Their initial sessions didn’t go well, but Presley struck Phillips as “one of the most introverted people who had ever come into the studio, but for that reason one of the bravest, too.”
Once Presley found his sound, by sheer accident when he began goofing around with a version of a blues number called “That’s All Right,” it all fell into place. And thus began one of the most seismic pairings in all of rock ’n’ roll, a partnership that revolutionized the world.
That’s one of numerous remarkable anecdotes relayed in Peter Guralnick’s exhaustive new biography of Phillips, the record impresario whose legacy looms large but has never before been explored in such rich detail. “Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ’n’ Roll” is a long overdue appraisal of his achievements, but well worth the wait.
Guralnick, the celebrated music journalist and historian who was born in Boston and now splits his time between Nashville and his home state, has a reputation for doing nothing half-heartedly. He is panoramic in his approach, and his biographies of Presley (“Last Train to Memphis” and “Careless Love”) and Sam Cooke (“Dream Boogie”) remain the definitive portraits of those artists.
But his character study of Phillips presented a new challenge. Unlike with his previous subjects, Guralnick knew Phillips for nearly 25 years and conducted thoughtful, probing interviews with him. It was a blessing that also brought a heightened responsibility to get the story right.
“This is a book written out of admiration and love,” Guralnick outlines in his preface.
While no hagiography, the project was clearly a labor of love. A lot of it. The book was born out of an astonishing amount of research and interviews; at more than 750 pages, it’s hard to fathom what was left out. Guralnick paces the story slow and steady, breaking down key moments in a methodical but conversational flow. There’s a lot to unpack, from Phillips’s childhood on a farm just outside Florence, Ala., raised in a hard-working family that prized fairness and respect for others, to his twilight years revered as an enigmatic icon.
Along the way Guralnick touches on Phillips’s struggles with mental illness, his astute business savvy, his complicated relationships with friends and family, and the incredible drive and charisma that propelled his genius even if some believed, at heart, he was deeply lonely.
Liberally layered with his own words, Phillips’s stories and philosophies light up these pages as if you were speaking directly to the man, who died in 2003 at age 80.
“I’m not trying to be ugly or discourteous,” he once told the Guralnick. “[But] I’m weird. To you I look pretty normal, [but] you don’t know.”
Chapter nine chronicles the start of the author’s time with Phillips, whom he met through his relationship with Phillips’s son Knox. I won’t spoil it, but Guralnick’s account of their initial meeting in 1979, back when Phillips was reticent to do interviews, is a fascinating tribute to what it’s like to finally meet your idols.
In Guralnick’s mind, Phillips was on par with Walt Whitman, William Faulkner, and Mark Twain — American artists who captured the essence of others and amplified their voices. He frames Phillips’s relevance far beyond the context of music history, making a strong case that he wasn’t merely a producer and studio owner. “A practicing psychologist” is how Guralnick imagines Phillips would have preferred to be called.
Indeed, he was a visionary who recognized the innate talent and magnetism of emerging talents, regardless of their skin color and social status. If anything, Phillips was hell-bent on wiping out racial barriers to give black artists a sonic canvas to tell their stories — a particularly trailblazing goal given that Phillips’s formative years were spent in the Jim Crow South.
“I knew what I opened the studio for,” Phillips says. “I was looking for a higher ground, for what I knew existed in the soul of mankind. And especially at that time the black man’s spirit and his [soul].”
From an early age, Phillips was transfixed by human nature, specifically the power of the common man to accomplish extraordinary things and tell universal truths. And he found them in spades in blues artists such as Howlin’ Wolf, Ike Turner, and B.B. King, not to mention the staggering roster of rock ’n’ roll’s founding fathers who recorded for his Sun Records: Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Charlie Rich, Roy Orbison, and so on.
Phillips was no savior, though, and Guralnick is unflinching in his accounts of his less savory qualities, too, without ever casting a judgmental eye. Phillips loved women and a good drink, to the point that both appetites revealed destructive tendencies. For much of his later life, Phillips carried on with Becky, his wife since the early 1940s, and another constant companion named Sally Wilbourn, amid an untold number of affairs. (Phillips never got divorced, and even on his deathbed, both Becky and Sally tended to him.)
By the book’s end, the weight of Guralnick’s mission comes into full view. Phillips had advised him early on, “It ain’t for you to put me in a good light. Just put me in the focus that I’m supposed to be in.” And that’s exactly what Guralnick has done. His subject would no doubt be proud that he got it right.
By Peter Guralnick
Little Brown, 763 pp., illustrated, $32
James Reed can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeJamesReed. Peter Guralnick will discuss the book at MIT’s Stata Center on Dec. 3. Reservations, through www.pen-ne.org, are advised.)