Peter Guralnick on His New Book, Sam Phillips and the Birth of Rock'n'Roll
Published Nov 17, 2015In his compelling, exhaustively researched new book about the extraordinary life of Sam Phillips — the man who started Sun Records and the Memphis Recording Service, which birthed rock'n'roll by launching the careers of Ike Turner, B.B. King, Howlin' Wolf, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis, among others — esteemed music writer Peter Guralnick portrays a legend who became a close friend.
Over the past 40 years, Guralnick has written definitive books about American music, including a trilogy delving into the respective cultural histories of country (Lost Highway), blues (Feel Like Going Home) and soul (Sweet Soul Music), as well as a biography of Sam Cooke called Dream Boogie, and Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love, his monumental twin biographies about the rise and unmaking of Elvis Presley.
In a sense, all of this work can't help but inform many aspects of his latest epic, Sam Phillips – The Man Who Invented Rock'n'Roll, as Phillips, a bold, righteous visionary who believed that people have the power, was at the centre of a cultural revolution, highlighting underrepresented artists and music that really did change the world.
It was Guralnick's interest in Presley that first brought him into the Phillips' family orbit and deeply impacted his worldview. "That's what I found so inspiring about him when I first met him in 1979," Guralnick tells Exclaim! "We all construct pictures of people or things that we haven't seen and that's the basis of imaginative literature or art. Like, writing about Elvis — we didn't have to meet, but in writing about Elvis, I found an Elvis that I'd previously written about from the outside.
"What I wanted to write about in the biographies about Elvis, Sam Cooke and Sam Phillips was a story from the inside out to the extent that I could, and that means throwing away preconceptions and the mystification of things.
"Meeting Sam Phillips was so extraordinary and inspiring because what he was talking about were essentially the things I've always cared the most about," Guralnick adds, recalling a legend who became his friend for almost 25 years. "He may talk about individualism 'in the extreme,' as he might say it. I might not say it quite that way, but the kind of writing and music I admire and the life I've sought out represented an individuated life. It was seeking out voices and prizing their individuality."
As recalled in the opening of Guralnick's book, the late Phillips once told the writer, "Man, I don't give a damn if you say one good thing about me. It's an important era — you got so much more responsibility to that than you got to any one person, including my ass."
It's a typically humble deflection from a man who, in the 1950s, made a bold effort to break down racial barriers by offering poor, black and white musicians access to his Memphis Recording Service studio with its trademark sound and his Sun Records imprint, so that their character and spirit had a chance to reach a wide audience.
A radio announcer, engineer, and not-always-savvy businessman with a nose for talent and belief in "perfect imperfection" on records, Phillips built it all. Guralnick's pulsing prose sheds light on the tireless work of a man whose unflappable sense of purpose convinced green artists to get to their inner, idiosyncratic cores and, above all, be original. As such, Phillips was a charismatic, headstrong rebel and an inventor with uncommon swagger who championed independence at any cost.
"I always come back to this but, at the conclusion of our first, brief interview, what he talked about was 'For God's sake, we don't need another trend,'" Guralnick recalls. "He was talking about the R-E-A-L and saying that if we abandon our individuality and give in to this creeping conformity — whether it's political, social or artistic — and lose sight of the things that matter the most to us and subscribe to some common bond, we're going to lose our freedom. We're going to wake up in jail and not even know it.
"I think that's a message that reverberates, just as strongly, if not more strongly, today. That wasn't new to me but it rang in my ears and it gave that idea such weight. He had such a driving sense of mission that was artistic, social, and political, and it's never left me since that first meeting in 1979."
Listen to this interview with Peter Guralnick via the Kreative Kontrol podcast below.