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JACK WEATHERLY — The man who created a new music

JACK WEATHERLY

It’s time to clear up some misconceptions about a man who continues to change the world as it had been known.

No, this is not about Donald Trump.

We are talking about another world-shaker.

Sam Phillips.

Or as acclaimed biographer Peter Guralnick calls him in the subtitle of his book: “The Man Who Invented Rock ’n’ Roll.”

Read this 660-page book, now in paperback, and you must assent to this claim, or pack your lunch and try to disprove it. Make that a big ole sack lunch.

Guralnick establishes once and for all times, the truth behind the tales of Sun Records in Memphis.

He is best known for his definitive two-volume biography of Elvis Presley and other books on rock, soul and the blues.

In writing about Phillips’ monumental achievement, Guralnick does away with some myths about the man, who by any measure has to be called a genius.

One, that he was on a quest to find a white man who sang black. That was a criticism that stung Phillips till his dying day, July 30, 2003, at age 80.

Consider the fact that Phillips recorded what is widely considered the first rock ‘n’ roll record, “Rocket 88,” in 1951 with Ike Turner on keyboards and Jackie Brenston, who wrote the song, lead vocalist. Both black guys.

Consider the fact that he discovered Howlin’ Wolf, born Chester Arthur Burnett, and was transfixed by his voice. Eventually, Chess Records of Chicago stole the Wolf, and Brenston and Turner went their own way before the visionary Phillips got the hang of a treacherous business.

It all goes back to Phillips’ early life in Florence, Alabama. A blind black man, Uncle Silas, with a penchant for keeping abreast of the news of the world, thanks to radio newscasts, lived with the Phillips family, which scratched out a hardscrabble life.

Yes, there was a time when “the media,” which have become a profanity for some, were widely appreciated as bringing light to the world. (Not that they don’t now, dear hearts.)

There was a time when there were two good newspapers in my hometown of Memphis – the morning Commercial Appeal and the afternoon Press-Scimitar – both owned by Scripps-Howard, whose logo was a lighthouse and motto “Give Light and the People Will Find Their Own Way.”

The Press-Scimitar went away because of television and the CA has fallen victim to the corporate greed and indifference of Gannett ownership.

Guralnick draws from both papers in a way that shows his regard for their brand of journalism in the formative years of Sun.

Who hasn’t heard the story of the discovery of Elvis, the blue-collar kid who first came to Phillips’ Memphis Recording Service to make a recording for his mama?

But Elvis would return. Phillips put him together with a guitarist and bass player. They labored fruitlessly for several sessions. Then, as Scotty Moore, the guitarist, put it, Elvis started “acting a fool” in the studio and riffing on “That’s All Right, Mama,” a blues tune.

The other two followed suit.

Sam ran out of the control booth and said: what was that? The answer was: we don’t know. And he said, well, do it again.

This was the sound that Sam had been seeking for years.

Give Elvis credit.

It didn’t take anytime till he got the hang of this new way of singing, calling on the influences that had shaped his musical world.

“It was how he mixed the sound, and exuberance, of spiritual music with blues and country in a way that no one else had before,” Guralnick writes.

Phillips was no Svengali, though he did have wild, intense eyes when he was creating. His genius was working with the singers to get them to believe in themselves, to find their true voices.

Phillips had been looking for a way to give the common man an outlet for the music of his culture.

First, and foremost, it was the music of black Americans.

Then the 19-year-old with the sideburns walked in and brought with him the influences of Beale Street culture – the blues and the glad rags that he bought at Lansky Brothers at 126 Beale. (I bought a pair of bell-bottoms – the tightest pants I ever wore – from Bernard Lansky, the man who outfitted Elvis, to celebrate my return in 1969 to my hometown after a couple of “self-discovery” years on my own in California. Eventually, I would rediscover Memphis, and its unique culture.

Guralnick captures many other epochal moments, such as when Sam was shaping “Mystery Train” (co-written by Phillips and Sun artist Little Junior Parker) with Elvis at the mic in the tiny studio.

Decades later, Phillips recounts that event. He asks Guralnick if he can name a better song. Guralnick runs the question through his encyclopedic mind and says no.

“Peter, you should’ve just been there,” Phillips said.

Thanks to the writer, we are there for that, and so much more.

Always the creative genius with an uncanny ear, Phillips was hard up for cash to keep his Sun Studio afloat, as were so many small, independent recording studios. Phillips was pushing the limits of recording by buying expensive equipment and finding a way to use it in a unique way, including his famous “slapback” echo technique.

Enter Colonel Tom Parker, who would become the middleman in the sale of Elvis’ contract to Capitol Records for $40,000.

That pittance for a man who 40 years after his death is still selling records?

But it was a tidy sum for recording contracts in those days, Guralnick notes.

It allowed Phillips to keep his business going and growing.

What followed for Elvis were the creative wilderness years when he made one “musical movie” after another for a decade. The argument has long been made that Parker was indeed a Svengali who shaped the pliable Presley’s career.

Carl “Blue Suede Shoes” Perkins, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, then, briefly, Roy Orbison were drawn to Sun.

Phillips was not naturally a businessman. He was laser-focused on the artists and tasks at hand, unable to individually manage every member of his stable at the same time.

Eventually, Perkins, Phillips’ first million-dollar baby, and Cash would bolt from the 706 Union Avenue corral.

Jerry Lee came to town from Ferriday, Louisiana – a full-grown artist.

More so than any of the others.

Sam was obsessed with this latest find, who was on the brink of worldwide stardom.

While Jerry Lee was on a tour of Britain, he told a reporter that the 13-year-old girl traveling with him was his wife. And his cousin.

Overnight, literally, everything stopped. Unmarketable was a store house full of Jerry Lee Lewis records that had been feverishly packed for shipping, bearing the orange label and rooster declaring the dawn of a new day.

Times were different, eh. Great balls o’ fire, it was the era of suggestion only, even if highly so.

But times also pass. And after creating a new genre, Sam moved into the next phase, as elder statesman, gathering accolades and awards.

He grew a beard and let his hair go long, befitting the ‘60s. He looked more like legendary DJ Wolfman Jack than the dapper record producer.

His pontifications were well received by many.

Still, deep inside he was insecure, like those country boys he had made stars. That’s because he was one of them.

» Contact Mississippi Business Journal staff writer Jack Weatherly at jack.weatherly@msbusiness.com or (601) 364-1016. 

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