One night in 1939, 16-year-old Sam Phillips jumped into a ‘big old Dodge’ with his older brother and a few friends a little after midnight and set out to drive from Florence, Alabama to Dallas, Texas to hear a celebrated First Baptist pastor deliver a sermon. At four or five a.m. the boys arrived in Memphis, where they found themselves in a black part of town called Beale Street. It was ‘pouring down rain’, Phillips remembered,
but I’m telling you, Broadway never looked that busy. It was like a beehive, a microcosm of humanity – you had a lot of sober people there, you had a lot of people having a good time. You had old black men from the Delta and young cats dressed fit to kill. But the most impressive thing to me about Beale Street was that nobody got in anybody’s way – because every damn one of them wanted to be right there.
That short ride along Beale Street turned out to be the most important experience of Phillips’s young life. Eleven years later he opened the Memphis Recording Service in a small space at 706 Union Avenue, and two years later set up an independent record company there called Sun Records.
The city of Memphis commands a bluff on the eastern shore of the Mississippi. It’s a blasted, crime-ridden shell of a city nowadays, and Beale Street a tawdry tourist attraction, but when Phillips arrived it was a thriving trade centre for cotton and timber, with a population of around 400,000, some 40 per cent of whom were black. Together with St Louis and New Orleans, it was one of the largest cities on the Mississippi. A lot of music flowed up and down that river, along with the laden barges. Memphis is more or less surrounded by cotton fields and small towns for two hundred miles. Nashville, the other large city in Tennessee, is regarded as a ‘white’ city and has long been thought of as the home of country music, whereas Memphis is identified with the blues and rock ’n’ roll, and from the 1960s, with soul and R&B.
Sam Phillips did not invent rock ’n’ roll, a term coined by the Cleveland DJ Alan Freed in the early 1950s. Black musicians did in the 1940s, as the big black swing bands were dying off and smaller ensembles took over, offering stripped-down, up-tempo music with a repetitive beat, honking saxophones showcasing the vocalists, boogie-woogie and hybridised rhythms coupled with a strong backbeat by drummers who made free use of snares and rim-shots. Jerry Wexler, then of Billboard magazine and later of Atlantic Records, came up with the term ‘rhythm and blues’ in 1948, a vague catch-all for what had until then been called ‘race music’: that is, music for black people. R&B was an electrified urban music that incorporated the flavour of gospel and traditional blues. Jump blues was a subset of R&B, with more jazz in it, and became the prototype for rock ’n’ roll. Jump blues groups of the 1940s such as Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five, Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown and Wynonie Harris performed on what was called the ‘chitlin’ circuit’, clubs and dance halls across the rural South and in the black districts of northern and southern cities. Few whites listened to the music, and it certainly wasn’t played on white radio stations. This was about to change, and no one did more to bring about that change than Phillips and his pal the Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips (no relation) of WHBQ, whose show first aired in October 1949 for 15 minutes a night – between 10.45 and 11 p.m. – before expanding the following spring to two hours a night, five nights a week, with three hours on Saturdays.
The show was called Red Hot and Blue and was broadcast on crude equipment bought from the W.T. Grant five-and-dime store on Main. Out of nowhere, here was a white man playing ‘race music’ in a large, segregated Southern city with ‘an evangelical fervour that saw him shouting and singing along, to the increasing delight’ of an enormous new audience. Among his young white listeners was a 15-year-old Elvis Presley, whose family had moved to Memphis two years earlier from Tupelo, Mississippi.
Ike Turner and his Kings of Rhythm, a five-piece jump combo – tenor and baritone sax plus three-man rhythm section – turned up at the Memphis Recording Service in early March 1951. They didn’t have an easy time getting there. They got stopped by the police for, as they later joked, having ‘too many niggers in the car’. Then they got a flat tyre and dropped their amp while digging around for the spare. In Memphis they drove around looking for something grand, as they imagined a recording studio to be, only to find ‘this sorry-ass storefront that looked more like a barbershop than anything else’.
When they finally set up to record they plugged in the speaker and an appalling, pitiful sound came out of it. ‘This neatly dressed, decisive “little young white guy”’, who was curiously respectful to the young black musicians (Turner was 19), had an idea. Phillips thought he could make the amp sound like another sax; it would sound ‘different’, he said, and he went to the restaurant next door to find some brown paper to wad up inside it. The band had been working on a tune while on the road, ‘Rocket 88’, the name of a new model Oldsmobile. It was a rip-off from Jimmy Liggins’s 1948 hit ‘Cadillac Boogie’, but with different lyrics and an altered beat. Phillips had the band play it over and over. This was his method: sessions could go on long into the night until he found what he was looking for, something out of the ordinary. He liked the way the band sounded, and the rubbing noise of the altered speaker, but he didn’t like Ike’s vocals. He asked whether any of the others could sing. It turned out that Jackie Brenston, the baritone sax player, could. Turner was furious when the record was released with a label reading ‘Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats’. Phillips leased the recording to Chess Records in Chicago and sent copies to, among others, Dewey Phillips, his new best pal, who played it around the clock. It sold half a million copies. ‘Rocket 88’ is regarded by Peter Guralnick, among others, as the first true example of rock ’n’ roll.
‘I always thought he was kind of a nut,’ Jack Clement, who worked for Sun as a producer and engineer, said of Phillips. ‘I always thought he was full of shit. And he was. And still is. But that’s part of it. I’ve come to appreciate him as a genius, actually … He had some kind of thing. It’s hard to define it, but he knew how to get people going. Just the way he reacted to things.’ Phillips had an almost uncanny ability to inspire musicians and find what was individual in their music. Bob Dylan, who listened to Sun radio recordings as a boy in the 1950s, described the music’s quality in Chronicles: ‘I’d always thought that Sun Records and Sam Phillips himself had created the most crucial, uplifting and powerful records ever made. On Sun records the artists were singing for their lives and sounded like they were coming from the most mysterious place on the planet.’
Even if Phillips didn’t have the best recording equipment he had a gift for getting the sound quality he was after: a raw, jangly, over-amped sound with lots of distortion from the guitar. As well as his expert placing of microphones, the trick was to generate lots of volume in a small room, 18 by 33 feet, covered in asbestos tiling. Phillips had the musicians play as loudly as possible. Because of the high compression, ‘the bleed from the guitars, drums, pianos’ sounded like an orchestra. Phillips also pioneered the effect known as the ‘slapback echo’: he had one tape recorder play a fraction of a second later than another, creating a bigger sound.
Two months after the ‘Rocket 88’ recording session Phillips had a breakdown and was given ECT. It was not his first such hospitalisation: he had been given shock treatment seven years before. His doctors weren’t optimistic he would recover but he did, with the help of what they called ‘therapeutic relaxation treatment therapies’, such as ‘bibliotherapy’ and repeating the expression ‘feeling fine’ twenty times a day. He seems to have suffered from anxiety and depression throughout his life and was quite frank about it in public, explaining that mental illness was like any other kind of illness and that those who suffered from it shouldn’t be ostracised. He seems never to have suffered another major episode.
The most fascinating sections of Guralnick’s book are about recording sessions at Sun and Phillips’s brilliance in handling the personalities and the music. Guralnick and Phillips were friends, and Phillips loved to talk and tell stories, which form the basis of the book. His father, a tenant farmer, was, Phillips told Guralnick, ‘the greatest sculptor of the soil I’ve ever seen … The way he was with people, the way he was with animals, the kindness he showed to others, the expectations he had of himself … He knew the soil. He knew mules. I mean he knew mules. My daddy never used a stick or a whip or anything. Mules would work for him – people would work for him – and they would rise and achieve above their normal capacity.’ Despite this, he lost his patch of land during the Depression and the family had to move to town, setting up in a little house behind the local cotton gin in Florence. When Sam was in the sixth grade, his family took in a poor black sharecropper, Silas Payne, who had gone blind as a result of syphilis. ‘The story of Uncle Silas,’ Guralnick writes, ‘is at the epicentre of everything Phillips ever believed both about himself and the “common man”.’ Phillips admired Uncle Silas’s ‘qualities of imagination, creativity, and invincible determination that he had first noted in the black fieldworkers on his father’s farm … the kind of emotional freedom, the unqualified generosity and kindness’.
Phillips seems never to have responded to the provocative remarks aimed at him for working with so many black musicians. He was aware of the racial situation, not just in Memphis but in the South generally. He grew up in Alabama, after all. Other white record producers were already working with black musicians: the Bihari brothers in LA and the Chess brothers in Chicago, for instance, both of whom leased tapes of Phillips’s recording and released them on their own labels. Then there were ethnomusicologists like Alan Lomax, who was recording rural Southern blues artists more than a decade before Sun Records. ‘WE RECORD ANYTHING – ANYWHERE – ANYTIME’ was Phillips’s slogan when he opened the Memphis Recording Studio. ‘I didn’t open the studio to record funerals and weddings and school day revues,’ Phillips told Guralnick. ‘I knew what I opened the studio for. I was looking for a higher ground, for what I knew existed in the soul of mankind. And especially at that time: the black man’s spirit and his soul.’
It took a while to persuade black musicians to go to his studio. Among the first, in 1950, was an agreeable 24-year-old called Riley King who worked as a DJ on WDIA, the first radio station in America to cater specifically to a black audience. B.B. (‘Blues Boy’) King, as he would come to be known, also played music with his own small combo on the show and ‘in every little cotton-patch joint and roadhouse operation within a hundred-mile radius of Memphis’. The Bihari brothers had brought him to the studio. He was a shy, slender young man, with a slight stammer. He wasn’t much of a musician and played in the style of T-Bone Walker, which didn’t excite Phillips, but he had a distinctive voice with a lot of church in it. Strangely, King couldn’t sing and play guitar at the same time. It took most of a year but Phillips finally got King to drop his natural reticence and unleash the blues artist whose sound is now familiar as any in American music. In ‘She’s Dynamite’, as Guralnick notes in the liner notes of the fabulous two-CD compilation of Sun recordings released in conjunction with the biography, King delivers a ‘performance that might have been cited as the first rock ’n’ roll record if “Rocket 88” (on which it was clearly based) did not already exist’.
A year or so later, Chester Arthur Burnett, known as Howlin’ Wolf, turned up at the studio. Burnett, originally from Tupelo, like Elvis, performed on an early Saturday morning radio show in West Memphis that advertised farm implements and dry goods. An announcer at the station tipped Phillips off.
He would set in the middle of the studio and he would stretch those long legs and his feet out in front of him – his feet had to be a number sixteen shoe. And when he opened his mouth to sing, this guy hypnotised himself along with you. To see him on a session – it was just the greatest show – the fervour in that man’s face, his eyes rolling up into his head, sweat popping out all over, setting up on the front of his chair and locked into telling you individually about his trials and tribulations. He’s the only artist I ever recorded that I wish I could have had a camera on.
It was his voice that grabbed Phillips, a big, gruff voice with ‘overwhelming thrust, subtlety and power’, unlike anything he’d ever heard before, and he’d heard plenty, ‘a voice that mixed the roughest elements of Delta blues … with its most graceful modulations, cutting through the studio atmosphere with a sandpaper rasp, and almost overwhelming ferocity, but retaining at the same time a curious lyricism.’ ‘He sang with his damn soul,’ Phillips would later say.
Like Phillips, Burnett suffered from mental illness. ‘A mental defective’ was the initial diagnosis from an army psychiatrist when Burnett had a nervous breakdown in 1943. Several weeks later he was described as having ‘nervous spells … during which he becomes extremely tense, cries freely & shows a tendency to destroy furniture’. This would have been worrying, given Burnett’s size. At the time of their first studio encounters Phillips had no knowledge of the singer’s past. Howlin’ Wolf would be grabbed by the Chess label in Chicago, but the sides he recorded for Sun, with the remarkable Willie Johnson on guitar, working his ‘deftly distorted single-string runs’ while Wolf’s harmonica ‘filled the air with a broad pneumatic vibrato’, are among his best, among anyone’s best. These sessions were perhaps the high point of the extraordinary seven-year run that came to a climax in 1957 with Jerry Lee Lewis’s ‘Great Balls of Fire’ and ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’.
‘If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars,’ Phillips said in the early 1950s. That white man walked into his studio in June 1953, ostensibly to record two songs for his mother but almost certainly with the hope of impressing Phillips and being taken up by Sun. Phillips wasn’t impressed, but something in the keening, nasal quality of Elvis Presley’s voice led him to take down the boy’s number.
Elvis was 19 at the time, making his living as a truck driver, hanging around Beale Street, listening to Dewey Phillips’s show. He was ‘a good-looking boy with acne on his neck, long sideburns, and long greasy hair combed in a ducktail that he had to keep patting down’. He struck Phillips as modest, determined and ‘one of the most introverted people who had ever come into the studio’. He was reminded of black blues musicians: ‘His insecurity was so markedly like that of a black person.’
There were several disappointing sessions with Presley until in July 1954, after hours of desultory takes with Scotty Moore and Bill Black playing guitar and bass behind him, Presley and the others had a go at Arthur Crudup’s 1946 blues number ‘That’s All Right’. Phillips screamed from the sound room: ‘Wait a second what’s that?’ The record, which featured a lot of Phillips’s slapback echo, was released as a single with a bluegrass staple, ‘Blue Moon of Kentucky’, on the flipside. Most DJs were dead-set against playing it. The white stations found it too black, the black stations too country. Elvis had mixed the two. It’s now called rockabilly. But Dewey Phillips had no hesitation, playing it until the grooves were nearly worn out. Presley played live towards the end of that month, with Moore and Black behind him, at Overton Park Shell in Memphis, backing Slim Whitman. When Presley started singing he began shaking his legs, both to keep up with the rhythm and out of nervousness, and the young women in the audience completely lost their minds. You know the rest.
Phillips sold Presley’s Sun contract to RCA Victor in November 1955 for $40,000, an astronomical sum at the time. From that point on Sun shifted direction towards white rockabilly, that same year signing Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash, both of whom became hugely successful and drifted away a couple of years later to Columbia Records. Jerry Lee Lewis came aboard in 1956 and stayed with Sun until 1963. Roy Orbison didn’t enjoy as much success at Sun as the others, but later found his way to Nashville, where he became a star with his ballads, which Phillips didn’t encourage. Some of Sun’s black performers weren’t impressed by Phillips’s change of tack. ‘When Elvis came, Sam discarded all the black artists that were there including me,’ Rufus Thomas said. ‘I don’t know what he thought. Evidently he felt that – and this is me in my head, trying to think for him – that maybe blacks and whites couldn’t do it together. Maybe he thought that way, and if he did, he found out that was incorrect. Not right. A bunch of hogwash.’ Thomas had a tremendous career at Stax Records, as did his daughter Carla.
Phillips’s career and Guralnick’s book flag in the 1960s as Phillips spent less and less time in the studio. At some point, he started drinking, initially to ward off his bouts of nerves, later more seriously. Though Guralnick is protective of him, Phillips’s friends and associates are less careful, describing him as a bombastic, self-congratulatory boor and ‘full of shit’ when he’d ‘had a few’, which was often. The book is long, and the last third of it, like Phillips’s life, is much less interesting than the rest. Phillips enjoyed himself in later life, driving around Memphis in a big convertible, sporting Jesus hair and a big beard, and playing the iconoclast in public, not least in an appearance on the David Letterman Show in 1986, where he seemed to be not only dead drunk but crazy. You can find it on YouTube. He died in 2003, at the age of eighty.
Phillips was ridiculed throughout his life for selling Elvis Presley’s contract to RCA for $40,000, given what Presley’s value would become. Phillips paid off his debts with the money and invested a large part of the rest in a small hotel chain set up a couple of years earlier by his friend Kemmons Wilson. It was called Holiday Inn Courts.