Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock and Roll

COVER Guralnick_SAMPHILLIPSI’m a fan of Peter Guralnick’s work – especially his two-volume Elvis Presley biography and his wonderful Sam Cooke biography. So I picked up his latest, about the extraordinary rock-and-roll pioneer, Sam Phillips, who started Sun Records in Memphis, discovered Presley, Howlin’ Wolf, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and others, and is widely credited with making the first rock-and-roll record, “Rocket 88.” It’s an extraordinary book, in part because Phillips was an extraordinary, complicated, difficult, lovable and fascinating man. But just as much because the changeover in American popular music from the golden age “songbook” of Porter, Gershwin, Berlin and Rodgers to the rock era of Presley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard and the Everly Brothers is an endlessly fascinating American tale that can be told from many points of view.

Guralnick has a passionate love for the blues, for country music and for classic rock. He writes about it all with great fervor and perception. Phillips is practically a maniac on the subject, and therefore he’s worth writing about. And the changing world seems to be rotating around his head as he develops his artists and his record company, remaining stubbornly independent, staying in Memphis and never selling to the big guns like RCA and Columbia. Guralnick is bold to insert himself into the book, as his own relationship with Phillips develops. It’s a risky strategy for a biographer, but it makes great sense in this case, and explains why the book itself is written the way it is – as a kind of overflowing, sometimes exasperated, sometimes bewildered love letter to a man who really did change our world by making records that gave voice to a voiceless and unheard segment of American society that – against all odds – insisted on making its own art in its own way.

Jack Viertel

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.