The Sun King
Excellent New Bio Gives a Legend His Due
By Don Stradley
About the subject of his splendid new book, Peter Guralnick writes, “Nobody ever took more pleasure in his own story than Sam Phillips. It was, in his telling, a poetic as much as realistic vision, a mythic journey combining narrative action, revolutionary rhetoric, Delphic pronouncements, and the satisfaction, like that of any Old Testament god, of being able to look back on the result and pronounce it ‘good’.” That’s a mighty big clutch of words, but the book is loaded with grand declarations. The book’s title alone couldn’t be killed with a harpoon. Check it out: SAM PHILLIPS, The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll: How One Man Discovered Howlin’ Wolf, Ike Turner, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley, and How His Tiny Label, Sun Records of Memphis, Revolutionized the World!
Well, he caused a pretty strong ripple, anyway. Phillips’ desire was to record musicians who might otherwise never get near a studio, to provide an outlet for the black bluesmen and the white hillbilly cats to unleash the sound that rattled around in their souls, until he finally cracked the code with Presley, who didn’t sound exactly right until he started screwing around in the studio with a country-blues number called ‘That’s All Right’, and then Phillips suddenly had a weapon for the charge into a musical upheaval: a charismatic white boy who could deliver the black sound to a white, music buying audience. Phillips would later compare Presley to Jesus in his ability “to communicate and touch…” For years after Presley’s death, Phillips insisted that he could have saved the poor lad. The producer and singer had certainly been friendly back in the 1950s, even after Presley bolted Sun for RCA, Phillips grabbing a cool $35,000 for the Presley contract, money needed to get himself and his little studio out of debt, and the stories of Presley dropping by Phillips' home at midnight just to play pool or hang out are priceless, but by the 1970s there wasn’t much Phillips could’ve done for pill-popping Presley. By then, the King was gone, man, gone. Still, saving Jesus would’ve been a big feather in Phillips’ cap.
Of which there were many. Most music producers would’ve built a career out of discovering Carl Perkins, but ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ was just one colorful item on Phillips’ ledger. “Nothing passed my ears,” Phillips said. Undeniably, there was an eight or 10 year period where Phillips seemed unbeatable at finding and recording star-blazing talent. His indestructible run was surprising, considering the hardships of his early life. Nearly dying at birth, there followed a frail childhood, and then a young adulthood filled with nervous disorders and breakdowns, resulting in extensive shock therapy treatments. Whole Lotta Shakin’, indeed. It was cruelly ironic that Phillips was later saddled with being the man who not only found Presley, but lost him to Col. Tom Parker, the Southern blowhard who didn’t recognize Presley as an artist, but simply displayed him like a hunk of meat. Phillips would get his accolades only when music historians and archivists began to appreciate his part in the shaping of rock ‘n’ roll. In his later years, sporting a wild beard and a manic look in his eye, Phillips became the godfather of rock, a nutty one who couldn’t stop talking, as if he and only he could tell you exactly what went on in that tiny studio, the place dubbed affectionately as a “chicken coop surrounded by Cadillacs.”
Guralnick writes a beautiful story, largely because he gives the side characters in Phillips’ life plenty of coverage. There’s Elvis, the moody country boy who never quite understood what he had or what he should do with it. There’s Jerry Lee Lewis, who had the “self-belief of a speeded up cartoon character,” and may have been Phillips’ favorite. There’s Charlie Rich, who would’ve been happy playing jazz standards in a pub, and Perkins, who should’ve been a bigger star, and Roy Orbison, trying to figure out where he fit in, and Howlin’ Wolf, who struck Phillips as one of the few true geniuses to stroll through Sun, and Billy Lee Riley, who sang ‘Flying Saucer Rock ‘n’ Roll’ and ‘Red Hot’ and should’ve been as huge as Bill Haley, but there was only room for so many stars at the table. And there was Phillips’ all-female radio station, WHER, the “miniature pink and purple fantasy.” And there were the various farmers and hicks, coming out of the fields, all seeking their shot in the wake of Presley’s crazy success, all wanting to see the man named Phillips who had helped make it all happen, hoping to impress him with their yodels and strangely perfected animal sounds. Phillips, if he had time, listened to every one of those “desperate-looking hillbillies,” giving them each a moment to unleash what was in them, knowing that somewhere in the cacophony of railroad songs, religious hymns, and goat noises lurked the sound of America.