Sun Records is the most popular independent label of all time. This despite the fact that it was only a force to be reckoned with for about a decade, until it lost its roster of substantial talents like Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash. Although it primarily came into renown by spreading the prodigious talents of Presley — his first tune for Sun, “That’s All Right Mama,” dropped like a crossover atomic bomb on a teen population ready to explode after nearly a decade of war — Sam Phillip’s legendary breeding ground for roots rock artistry went on to influence generations of budding rock stars, such as Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, as well as the Beatles themselves, who in turn redefined music in its entirety.
The consensus, at least according to various figures in Good Rockin’ Tonight and a horde of music historians, is that it all started in Memphis. Whether or not that legend holds true, one thing is for sure: as engineer Jack Clement says about the fabled Sun studio in particular, Sam Phillip’s label had that “presence factor.” There was something in the Memphis air that facilitated an incredibly high concentration of talent.
To drive that point home, the infamous Ahmet Ertegun, who founded Atlantic Records, calls upon old friends and new allies alike to honor Sun’s influence, with cover versions of the label’s most memorable tracks, such as Presley’s “That’s All Right Mama,” Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Lonely Weekend,” Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line,” Carl Perkins’ “Honey Don’t,” and more. It’s a satisfying (if calculating) maneuver on the part of Ertegun and director Bruce Sinofksy, and produces some refreshing results.
Watching Matchbox Twenty’s Rob Thomas gush earnestly as he meets old-schoolers like Phillips and Lewis might make you forget that — rather than pay homage to guys like Jerry Lee Lewis — — MTV and VH1, with their flavor-of-the-month stars, are helping to erase the very history that Sinofsky’s film is trying to cement. The lesson of Sun’s meteoric rise and fall does not seem to be lost on guys like Thomas, whose pockets are lined with millions from the video networks and major labels. No such luck with Third Eye Blind’s Stephan Jenkins, who spends much of his screen and studio time in sunglasses, offering half-hearted praise of the Sun roster for influencing the guys who influenced him.
Such gaffes make you wonder whether or not Sinofsky was covering his bases by throwing as many big acts he could into the studio (do we really need to hear lightweights like Live mangle Johnny Cash?). But it’s nevertheless a good move on Ertegun’s part. After all, the Real World Generation could give a shit about Sun Records. But both Ertegun and Sinofksy are bailed out by the inclusion of such heavyweights as Paul McCartney and Led Zep’s twin towers, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, who turn in spirited renditions of “That’s All Right Mama” and “My Bucket’s Got a Hole In It,” respectively.
For me, a Zep fan, it was cool just to see Jimmy Page alive, much less playing the guitar again. But the irony of such inclusion — early in their careers, both Zeppelin and the Beatles more or less stole the music of others (read: black artists) and, in the case of Zeppelin, were actually sued for it — is probably lost on the majority of Good Rockin’ Tonight‘s audience.
Still, to Sinofsky’s credit, those uncomfortable subtexts are deeply explored through other figures, such as the eccentric Phillips and Billy Lee Riley, who insists to this day that he would’ve been a huge star if Sun had not abandoned him in favor of Jerry Lee Lewis. That accusation might ring hollow — Riley did not have the talent or commanding charisma that Jerry Lee Lewis wore like a three-piece suit — but it sure is fun to take a break from the mutual admiration society vibe that permeates Good Rockin’ Tonight. These mini-dramas are what make the film worth watching: by the time histories like these are over a half-decade old, most everyone only wants to look back not in anger but in nostalgia, as if everything was wonderful and conflict-free. We know better. No one builds a legend without what war hawks these days like to call “collateral damage.”
And Rufus Thomas, the only African American with a major speaking part in Good Rockin’ Tonight, makes sure to maximize his exposure while on camera to remind us of that very fact: rock and roll’s sun (pardon the pun) did not rise and fall with guys like Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins, he argues, but rather with the foundation laid down by guys like Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and Delta bluesmen long since forgotten. It’s a bracing moment in the film, and not only because he’s the only black guy in a room full of white men exchanging warm fuzzies.
It also points up a significant flaw in Good Rockin’ Tonight. Even though Sam Phillips recorded many black artists, there are hardly any, aside from Thomas, to be found in the film. That’s a shame, because it’s a strain of prejudice that courses through rock ‘n’ roll to this day. Elvis Presley may have been an electric performer, but, like Public Enemy’s Chuck D infamously testified in “Fight the Power,” he “never meant shit” to countless African Americans who suffered anonymity because of the color of their skin.
Which is why, although Billy Lee Riley might may have a point, you might feel like shouting him down when he complains about getting snubbed by Phillips. Or shouting down Phillips, for that matter, when he pats himself on the back for helping “integrate the radio” when the country still didn’t want to integrate elementary schools. This begs the question: if Phillips was ahead of his time when it comes to race, then why isn’t Good Rockin’ Tonight itself integrated?
That answer does not come, but that doesn’t mean it’s hard to figure it out. Sam Phillips’ sermon-like deliveries aside, Sun Records began and more or less ended with Elvis Presley, the ultimate crossover dream. Which is not to say that it didn’t fight the good, independent fight and turn out more hits than Muhammad Ali. It simply means that, almost fifty years later, those who helped lay the groundwork for guys like Elvis remain relatively anonymous.
But don’t let that interfere with your enjoyment of Good Rockin’ Tonight, which is, overall, highly entertaining. Rather, let it be red flag in your cultural memory, a reminder of the duty you might owe those who came before you, no matter your occupation. You gotta break that cycle sometime. Now is as good a time as any.