When one of the best music writers around publishes a book on one of the most important producers/talent-scouts/music explorers ever, the result should be nothing but brilliant. And it actually is. Peter Guralnick must not be introduced, he wrote many excellent books on American music and its respective history, rooted and connected to the American people.
Sam Phillips, on the other hand may need an introduction, for the music he began to make famous and the talents he recorded are not in the music charts today. His exploits in the music business and his personal life are what Guralnick writes about in great detail.
When Samuel Cornelius Phillips (5. Jan. 1923 – 30. July, 2003) started out with his Memphis Recording service, he already had a lot of experience as a radio man, knew a lot about life in poverty and was familiar with the blues, country music, folk music and the hymns of the Baptist church. These ingredients were to become rock and roll in his tiny studio on Union Avenue.
Many books and countless articles have been written about his influence, his skills in picking the right singers and matching them with the right rhythm groups and his marketing skills when it came to radio promotion and the endless tours of his artists. But Guralnick here tells much more about the man, his family, health problems and many personal failures that also had an effect on his famous label SUN records. Phillips never gave up his dream, namely conserving the unique sounds and voices of his time, when hardly any white label and recording entrepreneur taped African American blues musicians. The reader learns about every bit of information there is to tell about Phillips’ adolescence, personal development, his influence on musicians, musical trends, popular culture fads, and everything else that enabled him to start one of the biggest musical revolutions of the last 100 years.
In a monumental effort, Guralnick could draw from many private interviews, conversations and memories, since he knew Phillips quite well and had the chance to ask many personal questions (and get very personal and loud answers). So maybe the sheer number of anecdotes, personal comments from the Phillips family and artists that recorded there are the reason why this book on Sam Phillips is the best account of the man, the label, the times when all of this happened and the revolution in sound and style that was set loose initially by a one-man label.
The data in the book still beats any other writing on Phillips and SUN Records. The chapter on Howlin’ Wolf is worth getting the book alone. And the many details about the arrivals of Elvis, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis are priceless, too. Guralnick keeps enlarging on the development of SUN and the many other ideas that Phillips went for, like WHER, his involvement with the Holiday Inn chain and finally the sale of SUN, and Phillips’ numerous comments on recording sessions still decades later. His death in 2003 ended a very important chapter in the history of popular music.
Review by Dr. A. Ebert © 2016
Peter Guralnick. Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll. Little, Brown and Company, 2015, 784 p.