A chronicler of American popular culture who is well-known for his books on Elvis Presley, Sam Cooke, R&B and the blues, biographer Peter Guralnick says it was “thrilling” to write his latest book, “Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll.”
It offers a thorough and entertaining look at the man who revolutionized popular music by introducing the sound and feel of black music to America’s mainstream audience.
Phillips, who in 1951 recorded Jackie Brenston’s “Rocket 88” — widely considered to be the first rock ‘n’ roll record — later launched the career of a 19-year-old Presley. He also guided the burgeoning careers of Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash, among others, who recorded for his Memphis, Tennessee, Sun Records.
From the moment Guralnick first met Phillips in 1979 (“It was a driving force in my creative and imaginative life”), he knew he wanted to write something long-form about the producer and his musical genius. For both the book and a documentary film, he spent hundreds of hours with his subject, then took “eight or nine years” to write his book.
It didn’t always go well.
“As he said to me on more than one occasion, ‘You know, Knox (his son) loved you from the first. But I didn’t.’ And it was true. It took him a long time. Eventually he came to see this as his opportunity to tell his story.”
In this exclusive LifeZette interview, Guralnick, who is on a national book tour through mid-January, shared thoughts about Phillips and what reviewers are calling “a monumental biography.”
LifeZette: Sam Phillips was very verbose and oratorical, almost like an old-time preacher. He went off on a lot of tangents in an interview. How did you control that?
Peter Guralnick: I couldn’t control it. (Laughs) I could ask a question about Johnny Cash, and he would tell me about his sixth-grade teacher, and how he was an unruly child, and she spanked him on the hand because he had a little bit of the devil in him. That was the last time he was spanked, but it turned him around. (Laughs)
It was much more important that you got the feel of what he was talking about. But he was quite responsive to questions, and he had virtually a photographic memory. If all you wanted to pursue was whether it was a Wednesday or a Thursday, that didn’t interest him at all. He said, “Anybody can keep a calendar.”
LZ: When he opened the Memphis Recording Service, was it a Southern sound he hoped to capture, or was it mainly his dedication to giving blacks and poor whites a place to record?
Guralnick: I think it was giving blacks and then poor whites a voice that they had never previously had. It wasn’t a matter of creating rock and roll or some other genre. It was a matter of nurturing and bringing out of each individual something that clearly resided within but that they might not even know they possessed. And he saw it as his particular genius to be able to sense what that was. Just as much as Walt Whitman, Sam heard America singing. He believed the voice of the common man would triumph in the end.
Guralnick: I would say so. He took terrible commercial risks when he opened the studio. He had to do a lot of soul wrenching, because he was not only supporting his wife and two children, but his widowed mother and his deaf-mute Aunt Emma in Alabama. And he’d had a mental breakdown and gone for eight electroshock treatments.
His doctor told him he would never be able to lead a normal life, and he should cut down on stress. And then, Hoot Wooten, the owner of WREC, the flagship Memphis radio station that was the realization of all of Sam’s dreams, told him he had to make his choice to stay on at the station (as an announcer and engineer), or continue with this ridiculous little studio that he’d started. So he chose the studio, and then he had to make it work. When he sold Elvis’s contract (to RCA), he was on the verge of bankruptcy.
LZ: What else can you tell us about his state of mind?
Guralnick: He suffered from periodic bouts of anxiety or nervous attacks. He first started going out with his wife, Becky, when he was 20, and she was 18, and he would have to stop the car sometimes when they were driving along. He said the thoughts in his head just wouldn’t stop chasing each other. She told me they would pull over to the side of the road, and he would put his head in her lap and they wouldn’t go on until he had composed himself. Later, he read medical journals and went to his doctor, Dr. (Robert) Kraus, around the time Prozac was licensed by the FDA.
He told Dr. Kraus, “I want you to prescribe Prozac for me.” He launched into a half-hour disquisition on how it interacted, and how it worked, and what its advantages were. And Dr. Kraus said, “Sam, I don’t know anything about Prozac. I’m going to have to check it out.” Sam said, “What the hell else do you need to know?” And Dr. Kraus prescribed the Prozac, and Sam took it for the rest of his life. And it did turn out to be effective in the way he hoped it would be.
LZ: What would have happened if Elvis hadn’t ever come to the Memphis Recording Service?
Guralnick: I think Sam would have gone back to his first love of radio, which is what he (eventually) ended up doing anyway. And he would have left behind a legacy that is as extraordinary as any recorded legacy that we have, just of the blues and the hillbilly sides that he recorded. By June of 1954, what he had in terms of recording is almost unmatched: Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King, Joe Hill Lewis, Little Junior Parker, Rufus Thomas, all of that.
LZ: And for Elvis?
Guralnick: If the studio had not existed, or if Elvis had not seen that story about the Prisonaires in the Memphis paper, saying Mr. Phillips was looking for different kind of talent, I don’t think he would have gone undiscovered. But it would have been much more difficult for him, and could very well have taken a different turn. It’s hard for me to imagine Elvis setting out for Nashville to seek his fortune. What is more likely is he would finally have found a place in a gospel quartet, and maybe eventually achieved a leap to pop. There’s no course that you can predict. Sam didn’t create Elvis. Elvis was driven by his own ambitions and aspirations. And he was a conscious, creative artist from the first.
LZ: But Elvis was almost like a human jukebox at first, in that he sang everybody’s songs. He hadn’t really found a style.
Guralnick: Yes, Elvis was so unformed in those early years. Sam’s insistence on finding the feeling that was at the heart of Elvis’s music, and putting Elvis together with two musicians who embodied Sam’s sense of perfect imperfection was huge. (Guitarist) Scotty (Moore) and (bassist) Bill (Black) had so much to bring in terms of Elvis’s confidence. They also had the spirit that they brought to the music, as opposed to just the pure technical aspect.
LZ: Sam worked with an astonishing lineup of artists, and several at the same time. Did some feel slighted?
Guralnick: Roy Orbison felt slighted. Of all the artists Sam worked with, he really had the least appreciation for him, though Roy was the only one whom Sam took in and had living at the house, along with Roy’s girlfriend, Claudette. But Roy was resentful that Sam would not allow him to pursue the artistic avenues that Roy wanted to pursue. And Sam handed Roy and Johnny Cash over to Jack Clement to produce. Then when Jerry Lee Lewis came in, they all felt neglected.
LZ: In the ‘60s, Sam got a little crazy and drank a lot. Why?
Guralnick: I would say he lost his way. By the end of the ‘60s, almost all the independent labels had been sold. He no longer saw a future in the record business, and he had nowhere in particular to go. So he spent the ‘60s kind of adrift. As to his behavior … after the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, he called Castro, telling him not to lose courage and continue on, that he was a great Democrat.
But in the end he came to think he had spoken not to Fidel, but to (his brother) Raul. (Chuckles) Sam stayed busy — he built a beautiful studio in Nashville, and bought into a zinc mine and developed a new method for extracting zinc until the mine went bad. And he remodeled his lake house. But he didn’t find the satisfaction he needed.
LZ: Who is your next biographical subject?
Guralnick: Oh, I don’t think I’ll write any more biographies. I’ve been working on biographies for 27 years, and I never set out to be a professional biographer. Each book has been an incredible experience, but enough is enough. The only thing that would change that is if I got a call from Merle Haggard tomorrow.
Alanna Nash is the author of seven books, including four on Elvis Presley.