published: 9 /
Sam Phillips, the late owner of Sun Records in Memphis, brought Elvis, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis to fame. Lisa Torem reflects on a new book that explains the back stories behind the man’s ingenuity.
Perhaps because this book was co-written and compiled by legendary music biographer/cultural historian Peter Guralnick and Knox Phillips, esteemed producer, label owner, music engineer and the oldest son of Sun Records label owner and talent scout, Sam Phillips, ‘Flyin’ Saucers Rock & Roll, The Cosmic Genius of Sam Phillips,’ leaves no stone unturned. This enthralling book, which is meticulously researched, shines a brilliant light on the major players that Phillips placed under his capable wings.
Many musos are already familiar with his most famous clients: Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins, etc., but the authors also tell the earlier and lesser-known story of the era in which Phillips recorded African-American artists, such as guitarist Willie Johnson, sax player Adolph Duncan and Howlin’ Wolf.
Fortunately for the reader, Guralnick and Phillips judiciously list many of the great hits that came out of this era, and to derive the most pleasure from this experience, I recommend paying attention to those titles and having a listen. They speak well of the label owner’s tremendous range of tastes.
Phillips, a young, ambitious man, earned leadership awards in high school. He began his entertainment career in radio, perhaps best known for his show, ‘Phillips, Country Style'. He worked closely with another media tycoon of the time, Dewey Phillips.
Throughout the book, Phillips comes across as a likable, charitable and optimistic man who possessed a keen eye for scoping out raw talent. What he was looking for was never perfection; instead, a “perfect imperfection.”
Some of his greatest musical discoveries happened by accident; young Elvis Presley came to Sun with a handful of vocal numbers that didn’t quite make the cut. It was only after Phillips heard the band jamming on an old blues song that he understood the commercial value of the man’s natural talents.
“I was looking for higher ground, for what I knew existed in the soul of mankind,” is one Sam Phillips quote which seems to imbue his world vision. That holistic philosophy may be what prompted him to be such a successful and compassionate entrepreneur; Phillips did not appear to micro-manage his artists, he encouraged freedom of expression and was not afraid to set a trend or come up with a new sound, even if it made waves with a general audience.
He was a shrewd visionary who carefully selected upbeat songs for his demanding audiences, like ‘Rocket 88’, which opened up “wider markets for our local music.” This was his first production hit, in 1951. It featured Ike Turner on piano.
The mostly black and white photos are warm and inviting, often of Phillips as a youngster, with family, in the studio, with his favorite clients or of handsome, vintage equipment. To top it off, there is plenty of alternative visual memorabilia: photos of classic sheet music, cool 45s and concert programmes that serve as an excellent tool for time travel.
This is an honest and refreshing look at one of rock ‘n’ roll’s most talented and important music executives. Readers will be charmed by the casual tone and comfortable lay-out, and how these familiar and not so familiar stories are brought so vividly to life.
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