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Sam Philips

June 12, 2000 | People
There were several activities regarding Sam Philips this week related to the new documentary about his work. On this page we collected an impression of the special Memphis pre-premiere (from The Commercial Appeal) and an interview with the man himself (from The Memphis Flyer). The last one is a rather big one so we split that up over two pages.
Orpheum premieres A&E 'Biography'
Orpheum premieres A&E 'Biography'
By Bill Ellis / The Commercial Appeal
Weeks before the rest of the country gets to cheer from their living rooms, Memphis did its own cheering of a new A&E "Biography" segment on Sun Records owner/producer Sam Phillips. The two-hour television documentary, called Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock 'n' Roll, was premiered in a special screening Thursday at the Orpheum (the show airs on A&E June 18 at 7 p.m.).

About 1,100 people turned out to watch the film and praise Phillips, whose famed Sun studio and label made lasting music by seminal blues, country and rock musicians from Howlin' Wolf, Rufus Thomas and B. B. King to Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley, the person considered to be Phillips's most important find.

"It's good that the film couldn't fit into the A&E one-hour slot," said writer Robert Gordon at the show's pre-party.

"They fit scientists and historians and doctors into one hour but Sam's achievement is so great, they needed two hours to fill it up."

Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau president Kevin Kane said, "As a father of rock and roll, Sam Phillips epitomizes what the spirit of this city is all about." He helped present Phillips with a Spirit of Memphis award from the city and county. Kane said he was convinced that the documentary - scripted by Presley biographer Peter Guralnick and narrated by filmmaker/actor Billy Bob Thornton - will ultimately lead to a major motion picture about Phillips.

During the film, the audience reacted to its own city's history with enthusiastic applause for the many musical figures that were cast bigger than life on the Orpheum screen. The film's content illuminated why they, and Phillips, were bigger than life in the music books as well.

A post-screening Sun revue peeled back the years for performer and fan alike. Jim Dickinson did his Sun side, Cadillac Man by the Jesters and Rock 'n' Roll Ruby by Warren Smith before being joined by Billy Lee Riley, who gave a medley of his Sun classics Flying Saucers Rock 'n' Roll and Red Hot. Ike Turner performed his landmark Rocket 88, often cited as the first rock and roll song. The stage then went to Jerry Lee Lewis who whipped through his slice of rock infamy, Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On. The concert ended with Johnny Bragg, who sang an a cappella version of the Sun song he cut with Prisonaires, Just Walkin' in the Rain.

Backstage, singer Reba Russell summed up the night: "Sam has been an important part of everybody's life who is a musician in Tennessee. I don't think there would be all this hoopla about Memphis music if it wasn't for Sam."

Source: Go Memphis

"We flat-ass changed the world." part I
By Jackson Baker / The Memphis Flyer

Sam Phillips, the Godfather of popular music, gets his due in a new A&E biography.

Some think the New Era began with Sam Phillips and that all musical -- nay, all cultural -- events before him should be dated Before Sam, in his honor.

Others might think that's just B.S., but they would seem to be far outnumbered, at least among the cognoscenti of rock-and-roll history. He is the "Godfather," critic Dave Marsh once said, speaking for the consensus. If "everything began with Elvis," as John Lennon once pronounced, then it has to be remembered that Elvis began with Sam.
And Jerry Lee. And Carl. And B.B. And Howlin' Wolf. And Johnny Cash. And myriad others. And the idiom, attitude, and maybe even the philosophy of rock-and-roll, which in turn defined the modern sensibility that still holds as the world heads into its next turning of the gyre. Not only did Sam Phillips -- once of Florence, Alabama, now of Memphis, Tennessee -- premeditate making great changes in the 20th century, "Sam Phillips is that change," according to his former secretary and longtime companion Sally Willburn.

Phillips is 77 now, a leonine, red-bearded presence still youthful-looking enough to suggest he must have made a pact with the devil back there somewhere in his struggling years. Or maybe his arrangement is on the other end of things theologically: There is a famous conversation, made in 1957 in his Sun Records studio and preserved on a bootleg tape, in which he is counseling a reluctant (and religiously fearful) Jerry Lee Lewis to put aside his misgivings and do "Great Balls of Fire," which turned out to be one of the Killer's great songs.

In the very act of embracing the secular and the profane and the ordinary, you can reach people, the way Jesus Christ himself reached people, the already legendary producer is telling his Louisiana-bred charge, raised on gospel like Lewis' first cousin, a preacher-to-be named Jimmy Swaggart. "You've got to be so good, Mr. Phillips!" the younger man protests, but in the end he does the song. And does it good. Maybe it was best said by one of Phillips' closest friends and greatest admirers, Bob Dylan (who has off and on discussed doing some recording with Sam and almost missed a recent Memphis gig when he insisted on spending several hours with Phillips at the producer's East Memphis residence). "You've got to serve somebody/It may be the Devil and it may be the Lord ": And it might even be both at once, especially if, like Sam Phillips, you are widely believed to be the genius who fathered the gritty, tell-it-like-it-is art of rock-and-roll.

There used to be a gag category on The $64,000 Question, that 1950s TV predecessor to today's Who Wants To Be a Millionaire. "Men Named Sam" it was called, and, of course, it was ignored by contestants in favor of "History," "Baseball," "Art," and all those other dead-serious categories. Today, such a category would be no joke, even if only one man named Sam has achieved the kind of renown that would fully justify it.

This month sees the latest official recognition of Phillips' importance (he has been named to the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame and cited by the Smithsonian, among other honors) when, from 7 to 9 p.m. on Sunday evening, June 18th, the A&E Cable Network airs a special two-hour Biography segment entitled Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock 'n' Roll. Before then, the program -- written by celebrated music historian Peter Guralnick, narrated by actor Billy Bob Thornton, and directed by Morgan Neville -- will have been vetted by a Memphis audience at its official premiere at The Orpheum on Thursday night of this week. (At press time, tickets were still available for the showing, whose attendees are likely to include a musical Who's Who of sorts.)

The venue of the premiere is appropriate, for, as Sam's son Knox Phillips tirelessly points out, Sam Phillips has much in common with his adopted city of Memphis. For one thing, the senior Phillips eschews frills and likes to come right to the point.

Of the A&E biography, he allowed in an interview last week as how it "depicts in a really down-to-earth way a poor man's faith and philosophy right or wrong, sweet or sour. I just didn't want any lies. On my part or anybody else's part. On the whole I expected to get kicked in the seat a little more than I was."

The one time Sam gets something resembling a kick in the Biography documentary comes when Rufus Thomas, who gave Sam's Sun Records label its first major hit in the early '50s with a rhythm-and-blues song called "Bearcat," is shown complaining about the fact that, after Phillips unveiled Elvis Presley to the world in 1954, he seemed to concentrate on developing white musical acts and, as Thomas saw it, neglected his onetime stable