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The Man Who Invented Rock ’n’ Roll

Posted on Mar 18, 2016

By Tim Riley

Little, Brown and Company

Editor’s note: This review won first place in the book/cultural critic category at the 2016 National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards, an event sponsored by the Los Angeles Press Club.

To see long excerpts from “Sam Phillips” at Google Books, click here.

“Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ’n’ Roll”
A book by Peter Guralnick

Collectors prize one obscure Sun recording at least as much as they cherish first editions of early Elvis Presley sides, or the trembling promise of the young Charlie Rich. The crucial moment comes after the second chorus in a 1953 number called “Time Has Made a Change,” the B-side to “Take a Little Chance” by Memphis musician Jim DeBerry. You can still hear it in its YouTube incarnation. It happens just as a wayward piano solo enters at around 1:35: A telephone goes off in the next room. Sun Records founder Sam Phillips felt strongly about leaving that mistake in — far from distracting the listener, he felt it made the listeners feel part of a common, everyday experience, a “perfect imperfection.” And it tied his whole musical aesthetic up in a symbol that echoes down through history.

“I love perfect imperfection, I really do,” Phillips tells biographer Peter Guralnick, “and that’s not just some cute saying, that’s a fact. Perfect? That’s the devil. Who in this world would want to be perfect? They should strike the damn thing out of the language of the human race. …”

Like his masterful biographies of Elvis Presley and Sam Cooke, Guralnick’s “Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ’n’ Roll” traces a charismatic figure through a cockeyed career. A critical argument has already broken out over that word “Invented” in the book’s subtitle. Most ascribe the distinction of “inventing” the genre to one of two performers and their specific songs: Ike Turner’s “Rocket 88” (from 1951), or Elvis Presley with “That’s All Right” (from 1954).

Phillips produced both of these recordings in all senses of that term; neither could have occurred without him. But to give him credit for “inventing” the new style above and beyond these performers rankles many. How could a “mere” producer “invent” a musical style? To be fair, Guralnick, like most authors, probably yielded to publisher Little, Brown’s marketing department’s inclination to incite such discussions, which help propel a backstage figure like Phillips into light normally reserved for onstage stars.

One of Phillips’ oldest industry friends, Billboard editor Paul Ackerman, put it best from his hospital bed: “Don’t ever let the world forget, Sam Phillips was the one who discovered rock ’n’ roll.”

Just think “discover” instead of “invent:” Semantics aside, this is the man who created the conditions in which rock ’n’ roll occurred, though he never wrote material or played on any records. And while his creative presence steers much of the early music’s great abandon and risk, Phillips’ role as “inventor” lay mostly in rolling tape at unlikely moments, and encouraging the least obvious musical elements from characters as varied as Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis.

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Phillips himself, while proud as any Jerry Lee Lewis track, emerges throughout Guralnick’s narrative as the type who never would have wanted such an argument about the distinction between invention and discovery to erupt about his role. He knew his place in history, and he knew how much luck and fate counted. As the youngest of seven, Phillips grew up as a farmer’s son in and around Florence, Alabama. He came of age during the Great Depression, and idolized the sideways genius of his half-blind, deaf and mute Aunt Emma, “the smartest woman in our whole family.” An influential Jimmie Rodgers song, “Waiting for a Train,” a deceptively simple blues, coaxed him out into the world toward that big city in the distance, Memphis, Tennessee.

Like a lot of engineers, Phillips started out in radio, and romanced that medium throughout his life. A jumpy type with too much energy for the day’s mere 24 hours, his early trials included two electroshock treatments for anxiety that seemingly helped him gain his footing as a young man. At a radio station, one Becky Burns latched onto him before she graduated high school and never let go, in spite of many serious girlfriends who literally crowded her out along the way. Sam and Becky married in 1943.

Guralnick emphasizes two important sub-themes throughout Sam’s life: first, the women who helped shape his vision, from his family and lovers to the all-female cast of WHER, the Memphis station he launched in 1956. Marion Keisker, his only Sun employee in the early days, helped him match the young Elvis Presley to an early song, and though their memories clash over how this happened, they both played important roles. Another woman, Alta Hayes of Dallas, reassured Sam he had a hit with Presley’s “That’s All Right” when plenty of radio people held their noses.

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