Sam Phillips, The Man Who Invented Rock ’n’ Roll by Peter Guralnick review

The author cannot hide his hero worship of the flawed Sun Records founder who ‘discovered’ Elvis

Sam Philips: The Man Who Invented Rock 'n' Roll
Author: Peter Guralnick
ISBN-13: 978-0297856535
Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Guideline Price: £30

This gargantuan book, which includes no fewer than 100 pages of notes, is a love letter to Sam Phillips. That is its greatest strength. It also happens to be Peter Guralnick's greatest weakness as the man's biographer. In his author's note Guralnick touches on this subject. Pointing out that the book is different from his two previous biographies, of Elvis Presley and Sam Cooke, he says, "not that there was any less admiration or love in those books, but I knew Sam Phillips, for almost 25 years." Later again, he declares: "Hell, why not just come out and say it, even if it raises all sorts of questions about that mythical quality of 'objectivity' – I loved Sam.' Maybe. But objectivity is not a mythical quality. And too often while reading this biography one is sorely reminded of the adage that love is blind.

Black musicians

But, first, let’s look at the book’s strengths. Okay, its title is a misnomer. Sam Phillips did not invent rock’n’roll. Nor did he, as Guralnick claims, backtracking somewhat on the book’s subtitle, discover the musical genre. But he was one of its founding fathers, began Sun Records and, during the early 1950s in the deeply segregated South, opened its doors to black musicians such as BB King, Howlin’ Wolf and “Sleepy” John Estes. Then Phillips went on to record or discover his mighty fistful: Elvis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison. It was a remarkable achievement by any standard.

And Guralnick, with the irrepressible passion of someone who truly loves the music and with his characteristically forensic attention to detail – although one wishes at times that he had a more judicious editor – tells that story remarkably well. Here he writes about the historic day, March 5th, 1951, when a black group, Kings of Rhythm, led by the 19-year-old Ike Turner, arrived at Sun to record an original number titled Rocket 88, then discovered that during the drive from Clarksdale to Memphis the guitarist's speaker had been damaged.

“Sam recognised right away that the speaker cone was broken. As soon as guitarist Willie Kizart plugged it in, it made a horrible sound, and everybody was crestfallen, wondering how on earth they were going to fix it or get another one at such short notice. But Sam pricked up his ears right away. It would sound like another sax, he told them, it would be different.”


Different it was, indeed. That song has often been cited as the first rock’n’roll record. But after Phillips found in Elvis Presley what he’d long since sought and described as “a white boy who could sing like a negro”, he ceased recording black musicians.

Guralnick pussyfoots around this fact and becomes almost an apologist for Phillips. He writes, “One wonders if in some part of his being he wasn’t more comfortable, more at ease, with these ragamuffin white boys whose experiences so mirror his own.”

The more likely explanation is that as soon as Sam’s mighty fistful of white boys started filling his fist with greenbacks, he abandoned black musicians.

Discovering Elvis

Guralnick also sides with Phillips’s assertion that he and not his assistant, Marion Keisker, “discovered” Elvis. During the final years of her life Keisker insisted that she recorded his first demo at Sun. Maybe this is another case for Waking the Feminists.

But then Guralnick, unlike Greil Marcus, who has also written extensively about Presley, Sam Phillips and Sun Records, is more of a muso and less inclined to discuss, for example, sexual politics or sexual representations in songs.

Nor does he address politics in general, such as Sam Phillips once saying that he saw Presley’s breakthrough success in New York in 1956 as “a belated cannon shot in the American Civil War”.

This is a real shame, particularly given that Phillips, in 1994, reflecting on the book he intended to write, told me during an interview for this newspaper that “the whole phenomenon of Sun Records boils down to a fundamental fact of psychology, sociology, and politics and that is the story I intend to tell”.

Phillips and Guralnick were supposed to work together on that book, but one suspects that it might have been an ideological mismatch – and wishes that Phillips had written his own life story.

Peter Guralnick also comes across at times as doggedly irreligious. That, in the end, may be the greatest failing of this book. Johnny Cash once said that the music that Elvis, he and their like made at Sun was “spiritual and hooked into some higher force or state of consciousness that was there at Sun Records, and in Memphis at the time”.

By paying little more than lip service to the spiritual dimensions of the story, Guralnick misses its essence by a country mile.

Joe Jackson is a writer and broadcaster. His books include Other Voices: A Personal History of Folk Music, written with Nanci Griffith