Most people recognize the name Sam Phillips as the moniker of the man who discovered Elvis Presley. And if they have seen the recent musical Million Dollar Quartet, they also know Phillips first recorded other legends such as Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins at Phillips’s Sun Records studio in Memphis, Tennessee. However impressive these feats may be in the annals of rock and roll, Phillips did even more than that. For just over a decade, from 1950-1961, he captured some of the greatest American music ever created and brought it to the public.
Phillips didn’t discriminate between what one today would call rock, country, blues, rockabilly, and gospel. He just taped what he found special and worked with various artists to get the sound on disc. As Bob Dylan once wrote, “Sam Phillips himself created the most crucial, uplifting and powerful records ever made.” Dylan means more than just the wonderful stuff of Presley and company. Phillips made what was arguably the first rock and roll record, Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats’ “Rocket 88” back in 1951. It sold over 100,000 copies (on the Chess label) during its first year of release.
And there’s the weepy Sleepy John Este, the roaring Howlin’ Wolf, the impassioned Roy Orbison, the velvet-voiced Junior Parker, the silver-tongued Charlie Rich, the bluesy B.B. King, and more obscure but no less talented folk such as the rhythmic Roscoe Gordon, the wild man Warren Smith, the sweet harmonies of the Prisonaires, among many others. What they all have in common is “perfect imperfection,” according to rock historian Peter Guralnick.
Guralnick may be best-known for his two-volume, 1,300 page biography of Elvis Presley, Last Train to Memphis (1994) followed by Careless Love (1999). He’s know turned his attention to Phillips. His latest book, the more than 760 page, 2.3 pound Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock 'n' Roll was just released in November, and Guralnick has also co-curated a new exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, “Flying Saucers Rock & Roll: The Cosmic Genius of Sam Phillips".
Even better for those of us unable to handle a 700-plus page tome or get to Music City anytime soon, Guralnick has put together a two CD/ three LP set of some of Phillips best and strangest material. Guralnick makes it clear in the liner notes that the anthology Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock 'n' Roll is not a greatest hits collection. Nor is it organized chronologically or thematically. They are Guralnick’s “idiosyncratic favorites” and follow in no particular order. The effect resembles that of Phillips himself who would go after what pleased and fascinated him more than chasing hits.
The collection includes some of the more famous tunes, like Presley’s “Mystery Train”, Cash’s “Big River", Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes", and Lewis’ “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On” as well as the more unknown tunes by famous artists such as Presley’s “Tryin’ to Get to You", Perkins’s “Turn Around”, and Lewis’s “End of the Road". In addition, Guralnick also includes many brilliant lesser knowns such as James Cotton’s blistering “Cotton Crop Blues”, the jazz based rockabilly of Sonny Burgess’s “Red Headed Woman”, and Rufus Thomas’s antic “Tiger Man". In addition, Guralnick selects some of the novelty records such as Billy Riley’s “Flying Saucers Rock and Roll” and Doctor Ross’s “The Boogie Disease".
Guralnick also includes brief notes on each of the selections in his 45 page accompanying booklet. He notes that Phillips “saw Charlie Rich alone as existing on the same emotional profundity as Howlin’ Wolf,” “Jerry Lee Lewis may have been the most talented of the bunch,” and that “’Blue Suede Shoes’ sounded to Phillips like the Hallelujah Chorus in a black church.” The liner notes are more fun than informative even as they contain kernels of wisdom.
Because Guralnick is not out to make a particular point, besides the fact that Phillips was a great record producer with an ear for talent, the anthology never gets dull or didactic. He does sneak in one song that doesn’t fit the time period covered. Apparently, Phillip’s kids were in the studio back in 1979 producing a gravelly-voiced artist named John Prine. Phillips was drawn to Prine’s talent, and took a shot at producing several cuts that showed up on Prine’s Pink Cadillac album. One of the songs became Phillips’ theme as he grew older, and according to Guralnick, Phillips would sing the chorus “on the most unlikely of occasions.” The tune, “How Lucky Can One Man Get", features bright harmonica playing and bouncing percussion in contrast with Prine’s simply-stated vocals. He sounds fortunate indeed. No wonder Phillips took this as his own refrain, and the rest of us should thank our providential starts that it was Phillips who discovered so many important and talented musicians and recorded their talents for the rest of us.