The Man Who Made Rock 'n' Roll
by Sarfraz Manzoor (Associated Newspapers Ltd., 12 July 2000)
The list of people who should be grateful to Sam Phillips starts with Elvis Presley and extends to anyone who has picked up a guitar or turned on the radio in the past four decades. It includes blues singers Howlin' Wolf and BB King through to Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis. It was Phillips who first saw the latent genius in all those artists and who first recorded their music. In doing so, Sam Phillips helped create the foundations of popular music; without him it might not have happened; at least it would have happened very differently.
It's a long way from Memphis to a dank afternoon in a private club off Baker Street. Sam Phillips is pouring himself a black coffee. He's 77 but looks trim and hirsute enough to pass for 20 years younger; although he confesses that his hearing has been letting him down recently: "I have trouble making out consonants."
He has devoted his life to rock 'n' roll but has the appearance and oratory of a jazz preacher: he's wearing white snakeskin shoes with matching belt and the gold chain round his neck was a present from Elvis. His extraordinary life is told in a new documentary film tonight at the National Film Theatre.
Phillips was born in Alabama in 1923, the youngest of eight children raised on a farm on the Tennessee River. As a boy he wanted to be a lawyer after seeing how vultures of the profession exploited families affected by the Depression. "My mother was so happy when I told her I wanted to go into law, it would have made her so proud." Instead, he opened a recording studio. "It was called the Memphis Recording Service and our motto was 'We Record Anything, Anywhere, Anytime'."
Phillips grew up with gospel and blues and he wanted his studio to be a home to black artists who were not welcome elsewhere. This being a time of lynching and burning crosses, Phillips was marked as something of a dangerous revolutionary. "This was 1950. We had segregation, the Klan was in town. I remember having to visit all my neighbors to warn them that a black man might park his car outside their home."
But Phillips had a missionary zeal. "Nothing breaks down borders like music can," he declares, sounding like an old-time preacher.
Howlin' Wolf, Ike Turner and BB King were among the young artists who walked through the doors of 706 Union to record singles for Phillips' Sun record label. But Phillips had bigger dreams. "I knew that the only way I was going to reach a wider audience was to find a white man who could play black music."
Elvis Presley walked into the Memphis Recording Service during the summer of 1953 to record a ballad for his mother. It was, recalls Phillips, a pretty limp effort. A year later Phillips was working with a guitarist called Scotty Moore and they needed a singer and Phillips' assistant suggested they call the young man with the strange name.
The first recording session took place on 5 July 1954. In a break between recording country ballads Elvis picked up his guitar and started messing around with an old blues number, That's All Right, Mama. Following Presley's cue, Moore joined in. "I said to them, 'What are you doing?' and they said, 'We don't know' and so I said, 'Well, back it up, try to find a place to start and do it again'." In that moment rock 'n' roll was born.
After five landmark singles Elvis, now managed by Colonel Tom Parker, left Sun Records. But Phillips remained in touch with him throughout his life. "I was 10 years older than Elvis so when we first met he was 19 and I was 29, which seemed ancient to him. But as he grew older I became something like an older brother to him."
Elvis's stardom blazed a trail for a succession of singers who came to Phillips to be discovered. Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis all recorded their first singles for Sun Records. But, like Elvis, they left Sun in favour of bigger record companies. Phillips continued recording country and hillbilly artists but, by the Sixties, the world lost interest in Memphis and began tuning into the music coming from Detroit, San Francisco and Liverpool.
Somehow Phillips suddenly seemed more like an anachronism than a prophet. Sensing this, he sold Sun Records in 1969. Nowadays, Sun Studios is a museum where tourists playing Elvis walk off the street and record themselves. Of the artists he championed, those who are not dead have become mostly parodies of themselves, churning out their hits to ageing audiences. But when music was new, dangerous and revelatory, Phillips was right in the middle of it all.
I have a final question: could there have been an Elvis Presley without a Sam Phillips? "I honestly don't think there could have been," he says. "Elvis could simply not have walked into any other studio in Memphis and recorded a track. No one else was trying to do what I was."
He may have disappointed his mother, but there are plenty who are glad that Sam Phillips never became a lawyer.
(Thanks to Elvis World Japan for spotting it)