The story of the birth of rock & roll gets a sexy, turbo-charged retelling in the eight-part series, Sun Records, which premieres Thursday night on CMT, after the latest episode of the musical drama,
Beyond the larger-than-life personalities to whom he gave a musical home, Phillips was a true visionary whose ear was attuned to blues, gospel and country music, and as such allowed him to meld those seemingly disparate sounds into what we now know as rock & roll. Hailed for his mind-expanding brand of musical genius, as an architect of the sound that blurred color lines in the pre-Civil Rights South, Phillips’ critics looked askance at rock & roll as Presleymania gripped a nation of hormonal teenagers and gave rise to this new, untested art form.
Phillips, who died in 2003 at the age of 80, is portrayed in the CMT series by Chad Michael Murray. The 35-year-old is best known for his roles in TV’s long-running One Tree Hill and Gilmore Girls, and big-screen appearances in A Cinderella Story and the critically acclaimed drama, Fruitvale Station. In our exclusive interview with the
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How aware were you of Sam Phillips and his importance to rock & roll before this role came along?
I’m ashamed to say the man behind the curtain had stayed behind the curtain for me. I didn’t know that the man who brought Elvis and Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins to the world, that there was one man pulling the strings. That’s why I was so fascinated with him. The biggest question was: How do you make a show with Sam being the central character when he’s surrounded by such giant personas? Everyone knows those guys. Roy Orbison, B.B. King, Chuck Berry, they know those guys. But how do you bring Sam to the forefront? When you study how completely and utterly and incredibly insane he was and how passionate and driven and in front of everybody he was, I just fell in love with this guy’s insanity. That’s what we really attacked and we focused on the journey and the truth. Even though he may not always make the right decision, he’s always going to keep you guessing. He was no saint, that’s for sure.
What kind of research did you do for the role?
I sat down and I saw what a character Sam was. He was just insane in the most beautiful way. I have so much respect for him. How does one man literally change the world by finding the sound, creating the sound of rock & roll that shaped our history, shaped us as a culture, as all art does? He’s the one guy that started this whole thing but he kind of hides in the background behind legendary figures: Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, everybody that he either recorded or discovered himself. In 48 hours I think I spent about 20 hours doing complete research on who Sam was. I could not stop reading about him, I could not stop watching. There had to be things in his life that sparked that drive and that passion for the music, and to always find the truth. That’s what made him so special. That’s why he didn’t see color; he was always ahead of the times.
What was it that you think made him so passionate about civil rights for African-Americans at a time and place where such a stance would have been so controversial?
He kind of grew up in a time where he heard them singing in the fields and I think he heard the truth and beauty in their words. He could hear their pain and their sorrow and their happiness. I really do believe that he had friendships and relationships and never saw color. He also opened up the first women’s radio station [WHER, staffed predominately by women, opened in 1955]. This show could not be coming out at a better time. We were filming the end of season one when there were protests going on [in the wake of the killing of black men by police officers last summer]. We were filming right down by the M Bridge and the New Black Panther party came down. They had to close the bridge down for several hours. The discrimination and racism was so thick you could cut it with a knife. It was so sad, you just wanted to reach out and hug somebody just so they didn’t feel oppressed or held down. I think a lot of his passion and his drive came from never wanting to be poor like his father. He wasn’t going to accept it, he didn’t want to be that.
Having started in this business at a young age, what has it been like to work with the younger actors who are playing these now-legendary musicians?
There’s a symbolic relationship with what a lot of this cast is going through and what Sun Records went through. Sam was kind of the older brother and that’s kind of been my role to a T with these young men. Drake Milligan is a 17-year-old kid coming to the show playing a 17-year-old [Elvis Presley]. This is his first gig so there’s this symbolic relationship of watching him grow as an artist and as an actor, just as Sam did with Elvis as a musician and an artist. Sam was friends with Elvis way on through the years, far after Sun. He was the man who talked Elvis into letting his mom go after she passed.
Did you have that kind of mentoring when you were starting out?
I really didn’t. I wish there were people when I was young that I had a respect for and looked up to that I could have been guided by. I didn’t have that and I really do wish I did because I think I would’ve learned a lot more. But when I turned around 25, I kind of woke up and said, “This is not the life I want anymore. I want to change things up.” So I did a lot of “self work,” is what I call it. By the time I was 28 I started to surround myself with a completely different group of people, mostly older people in their 50s 60s and 70s that I really looked up to and have a ton of respect for. Once I surround myself with a group of creative, artistic people I genuinely started to adapt. Now here I am 35, just a completely different human being than I was before. Now I’m a father, a husband and loving life to its fullest every day. I see these young guys and I see where the traps are and I just try to do my best to lead by example. When I was young I was working with people my own age, so it was kind of a lot of goofing around. As much fun as it was, I really like the blue-collar attitude. I’m from
The music is such a vital part of the show, and you have BR549 co-founder Chuck Mead involved as music director. What’s that process like?
Everything we’re doing is live… it’s not being done to tracks. Every single time you’re watching live performances. Chuck Mead, God bless him, he’s an incredible sound supervisor. He comes in and, I’ll give you football terms, we’re audible-ing on the day. He’s coaching everybody and we’re changing the dialogue, the screen movement. Between him and Roland [Joffé, the director], we’re changing everything to make it really flow and to be symbolic to the scene so that when the characters are going through A, B or C, the music really hits that note. The music is a metaphor for the characters’ journey.
Sam Phillips had such a distinctive voice. How much time did you spend working on that and how did you eventually find it?
He had a boom to his voice; he had a very specific tone in his voice that I felt was so vital. It was a debated topic. But the people that I work with are fantastic and I love working with them because you have the freedom. Even at the end, I remember somebody coming up and saying, “Man, I didn’t know. When I heard you come on the set the first time I thought, ‘God, I hope he knows what he’s doing.'” [Laughs] I might fall flat on my face but I’m going to make a very distinct choice and do it with everything in my soul. I’m going to love it and appreciate it and respect it.
Have you always been able to imitate voices like that?
I spent a lot of time in my life doing that. I hate the word mimic because that’s not what this was, but I’m a pretty good mimic. When I’m around someone for about five minutes I can usually mimic their voice. Mimic is only a surface level performance and we had to get down to the nitty-gritty. So, it was literally a month before shooting where I said [to my wife], “Sarah, look, for the next month this is who I am and this is what I’m going to be doing.” She was unbelievable. She allowed me on a 24/7 basis to be Sam and to live in his shoes, listening to his tapes to make sure that I was in his energy zone, making sure that I could feel his presence at all times when we were there on the set. Once we got into Sun, it was there. I can’t imagine doing it any other way. I did work with Larry Moss who is an unbelievable coach and we never got off of the voice. Even when we were just talking, I just stayed in Sam’s world to make sure that it was second nature. And as the season progresses and Sam develops, you’re going to notice more and more the bravado, the jive comes out a little bit. I also have to give credit to Jerry Phillips. I got to hear him speak and he sounds a lot like his father. So I tried it out on him and he loved it. A lot of the people that knew Sam were there and said, “That’s it.”
The series is currently only scheduled for eight episodes. Do you think there might be more to come?
Personally I’m not done with Sam. I have so much more I want to investigate. You could take the story all the way up to the Sixties when the Beatles arrive. There was that great battle between Elvis and the Beatles. I think there’s a quote by Elvis that that’s when the world went to hell or something, when the Beatles arrived. I’ve enjoyed it and I love going to work. And getting to step in Sam’s shoes, I feel like there are still a lot of stories left to be told.
Sun Records premieres Thursday, February 23rd at 10 p.m. ET on CMT.