Sun Records founder Sam Phillips relished imperfections.
A phone going off in the middle of a recording session? No matter; that’s a take. Carl Perkins telling Phillips that he missed some notes? Too bad: It had the best feel. A damaged speaker cone making the guitar sound distorted? Exactly the sound he’s looking for.
As long as the feel was right, Phillips wanted it: “perfect imperfection,” he called it.
“In many ways, (to Phillips,) a flawless record was a record without soul,” said Peter Guralnick, author of the new Phillips biography, “Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll.”
His instincts served him well. That last example, for instance, became the hit “Rocket 88,” often touted as the first rock ‘n’ roll record.
And that was, literally, just the beginning. As demonstrated in Guralnick’s biography, Phillips’ discoveries reshaped the boundaries of popular music: Perkins, Johnny Cash, Howlin’ Wolf, Jerry Lee Lewis, Charlie Rich and the king of them all, Elvis Presley.
In establishing Sun Records and the Memphis Recording Service (“We record anything — anywhere — anytime,” noted the sign), Phillips gave musical opportunities to African-Americans who had generally been ignored by mainstream recording companies, as well as rural whites whose raw sound wasn’t accepted by the big labels.
“He believed in the democratic dream. That was his deepest-rooted belief,” said Guralnick, author of highly regarded Elvis Presley and Sam Cooke biographies.
Phillips’ roster shows just how innovative, wide-ranging and sympathetic he was:
Chester Arthur Burnett, better known as Howlin’ Wolf, was already in his early 40s when Phillips first heard him. Phillips was smitten immediately.
“THIS IS WHAT I’M LOOKING FOR,” he said, capital letters and all, according to Guralnick’s biography.
With Phillips, Wolf recorded songs that became blues standards, including “How Many More Years” and “Moanin’ at Midnight,” which were released on Chicago’s Chess Records. Before long, Wolf himself decamped for Chicago, where — thanks to songs such as “Killing Floor” and “Smokestack Lightning” — he became a cornerstone of Chicago blues along with Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon.
“Wolf was the living embodiment of everything (Phillips) ever thought to achieve in music,” Guralnick said. “Wolf represented a raw power and a deep-seated soulfulness and communication of emotion that, from Sam’s point of view, could never be surpassed.”
Jerry Lee Lewis
Jerry Lee Lewis, the wild-child pianist from Ferriday, Louisiana, could be a handful, but Phillips pushed him to create some monumental performances, including “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and “Great Balls of Fire.”
Phillips was also loyal, standing behind Lewis when the musician’s career suddenly ran off the rails. Lewis sparked a media frenzy in 1958 when he revealed to the English press that he’d just married his 13-year-old cousin, Myra.
“He had told Jerry Lee not to take Myra to England,” Guralnick said. “But Jerry Lee is a person not prone to taking advice.”
Nevertheless, Phillips backed Lewis, writing an apologetic letter in his name, making a comedy record to poke fun at the scandal (it tanked) and bucking up the pianist when he got down.
Phillips believed that “Jerry Lee Lewis was the most purely talented” musician he had, says Guralnick.
By now, the legend of Elvis Presley has overtaken the man. But what sometimes gets lost is the patience Phillips had with the singer who would become “the King.”
“It all had to do with feel, and he had the patience to wait for it, to happen. That’s what happened with Elvis’ first session,” Guralnick said.
Presley had been singing for hours before he stumbled on “That’s All Right,” quickly joined by guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black.
“When Elvis started playing ‘That’s All Right,’ all of a sudden (Phillips) recognized what he was looking for without having any idea what it is or how it would manifest itself,” Guralnick said. The song became Presley’s first hit.
Phillips also sold Presley’s contract to RCA — for a then-sensational $35,000 — not because he had lost faith in the singer but because he was going broke in the pay-now, collect-later music industry. And he sent a note of encouragement to RCA’s Steve Sholes when Elvis’ early studio sessions for the label fell flat.
“I told him, ‘Just keep it as simple as possible,’ ” he told Guralnick.
That kind of energy was typical of Phillips, who would have been an unusual figure at any time, though particularly in 1950s Memphis.
In the Jim Crow South, he refused to discriminate. He was an upstanding businessman in a business where chicanery could be second nature. He established an all-female radio station, WHER, and though the idea was a gimmick, Phillips gave his employees opportunities others wouldn’t have tried.
He was not a perfect man, of course. He openly womanized. He struggled with mental illness, undergoing electroshock therapy twice before he was 30. And though he remained successful with record labels (including one for Holiday Inn) and radio stations, he never had the same focus he did in the early days.
Still, his legacy has long been assured. Even if Phillips didn’t “invent” the rough-hewn offspring of country, blues and R&B, he certainly made the most of it.
“People have embraced the music for 65 years, and they’ve embraced the people who made the music. But they don’t necessarily know where the music came from, or that it came from this little storefront studio, or that it was energized by this driving vision by a man who was original in his own way as any of the American folk heroes,” Guralnick said. “Sam Phillips’ vision was no less than any of highly original artists.”