No single person “invented” rock & roll. But it’s hard to imagine how it could’ve happened without Sun Records visionary Sam Phillips. Peter Guralnick’s rigorously researched Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll tells the story of a Southern white businessman who enabled the careers of epochal artists, black and white — including Elvis Presley, B.B. King, Johnny Cash, Howlin’ Wolf, Ike Turner, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins.
This definitive work maintains the high standard of Guralnick’s other books, among them the groundbreaking 1979 country, rock and blues study Lost Highway; his 1986 Sweet Soul Music; and the doorstop double-volume Elvis bio, Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love. With Presley’s story at its core, Sam Phillips is in some ways the latter’s third volume. What makes it more illuminating, and arguably truer, is seeing Elvis in the broader context of Phillips’ career. Before founding Sun Records, Phillips produced “Rocket 88” — what many consider the first rock & roll record — with young guitarist Ike Turner and his Kings of Rhythm band, who Phillips connected with through a tip from Riley (soon-to-be–B.B.) King, another Phillips discovery. Both acts slipped through Phillips’ fingers, as did Howlin’ Wolf, who Phillips considered “the greatest talent, the most profound artist” he ever met, Presley included. Guralnick chronicles the rise of “race music” stations in the Deep South, a world in which Phillips was also deeply involved. In many ways, his entire career was a mission to transcend and transform his nation’s heritage of bigotry.
Guralnick interviewed Phillips many times over decades, and even when the book’s music-business particulars drag, Phillips’ street-corner preacher’s voice and big-screen persona shine through — whether he’s describing a growth on Elvis’ genitals (“Being an old country boy … I knew it was a damn carbuncle”) or swinging what Guralnick calls his “Ciceronian syntax” at a 1999 music-biz convention: “All the ambassadors in the world, all the damn wars that have been fought have in no way come within [one] thousandth of the potential of the understanding that the human race can get from music.” Like his subject, Guralnick sometimes overuses superlative pronouncements — just witness the book’s title — where the strength of his research and storytelling might suffice. But his enthusiasm is forgivable. Phillips was a man who saw rock & roll as nothing less than an American religion. As Guralnick’s lifelong devotion has shown, he’s a true believer. You may come away born again too.