Few personages in the early history of rock ‘n’ roll are more deserving of a full-length biographical treatment than Sam Phillips. As the founder of the legendary Memphis Recording Service and Sun Records label, Phillips discovered and/or recorded a jaw-dropping array of talent that included B. B. King, Johnny Cash, Howlin’ Wolf, Carl Perkins, Ike Turner, Jerry Lee Lewis, Rufus Thomas, Roy Orbison, Charlie Rich, and oh yes, some kid from the Memphis housing projects named Elvis Presley. Phillips managed to wring a distinctive sound from his rudimentary recording equipment and the rockabilly, blues, and country music of the Sun label have proven to be the well-spring of American roots rock.
So it’s somewhat surprising that there has been no Sam Phillips biography. That is until no. Kevin and Tanja Crouch have given us Sun King: The Life and Times of Sam Phillips, The Man Behind Sun Records, a breezily written account of the rise and demise of Phillips and Sun. The Crouches are long-time Nashville denizens with ties to the Roy Orbison estate, which might lead you to believe that they would be in a perfect position to chip away at the mythology that has always obscured Phillips from historical view. Instead, their rendering is drawn from published sources and breaks no new ground.
Sam Phillips was born in 1923 to a share-cropping family in Florence, Alabama. As a youth, he knew poverty and struggle. In that culture of rural despair, the Phillips family lived “cheek-by-jowl” with African American families. They worked the cotton fields together and there Phillips heard the field shouts and the country blues. At home he listened to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio, and on Sundays heard gospel music wafting out of the black church. Music was a salve that soothed feelings of oppression. It also quickly became an obsession.
By the time Phillips moved his family to Memphis in 1945, he was an experienced radio-hand. At WREC he worked as a “spotter”, a sound engineer, and finally an announcer. He did sound effects and worked as the transcription manager. In his work he encountered the new and exciting sounds of contemporary rhythm and blues, blues, and country music. By 1949, he was already thinking of establishing a recording studio with the express purpose, according to Phillips, of recording black musicians. The Memphis Recording Service opened for business on 1 January 1950.
If my biographical sketch seems perfunctory, you really do not get that much more information from Sun King. The Crouches make no effort to provide any context whatsoever, despite the fact that Phillips came of age in an American South that was in full-transition. The Depression was a catalyst for political, economic and social change. The New Deal acted as a solvent on retrograde Southern institutions such as share-cropping. World War II sped up the process of change. By the time the Memphis Recording Service opened in 1950, the Sun Belt was on the rise.
A truly New South was being born and Memphis was at the crossroads of that change. The Mississippi Delta was to the west, the Tennessee hill country to the east and Memphis was a rising urban center that maintained close ties to the rural hinterlands. As such, it was a cultural melting pot as the stable of Sun Records talent aptly demonstrates. There is no discussion of any of this in the text.
Since Phillips found his way into the music business by way of radio, the authors might have assessed the impact of that medium on Southern culture, especially on the eve of a full-blown Civil Rights Movement. Radio transcended and transgressed Jim Crow’s increasingly porous boundaries. What was Phillips’ role in that process? It’s clear that race plays a significant role in the Crouches assessment of Phillips but it’s never made clear why.
He loved black music and he wanted to bring it to a wider audience. However, his belief that only raw or “primitive” sounding recordings had aesthetic—or market—value was problematic. It certainly caused tensions between Phillips and the black musicians he championed as Rufus Thomas’s frustrations with Phillips attested. Kevin and Tanja Crouch expend little effort to explain or analyze Phillips’ motivations.
In reality, Sun King breaks no new ground. There is no original research here. Except for published interviews, which are largely used uncritically, the only sources cited are secondary works, a handful of which are used repeatedly.
Fans of early rock ‘n’ roll would be better served seeking out Colin Escott and Martin Hawkins’ Good Rockin’ Tonight: Sun Records and the Birth of Rock ‘N’ Roll, Peter Guralnick’s Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley, or John Floyd’s Sun Records: An Oral History, a very useful text that is inexplicably missing from the Crouches bibliography. Sam Phillips was a salesman and in his later years the product he was selling was himself and his role in the birth of rock ‘n’ roll. It has always been difficult to know where the reality ends and the myth-making begins.
Unfortunately, by simply compiling what others have already written and parroting without question Phillips’ own version of this tale, Kevin and Tanja Crouch miss a critical opportunity to contribute to our knowledge of this important moment in American cultural history. Sam Phillips’ life and contributions are subjects worthy of a definitive biography. Unfortunately. that book remains to be written.