Wait a second what’s that?

August Kleinzahler

  • Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ’n’ Roll by Peter Guralnick
    Weidenfeld, 784 pp, £16.99, November 2015, ISBN 978 0 297 60949 0

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’.

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