By Bob Mehr
November 5, 2015
As a writer, historian and biographer, Peter Guralnick always has one goal. "My ambition is to tell a story as much as possible from the inside out," he says. "I don't want to write something from afar, I don't want to write an evaluation. I want to write something that tells the stories from the perspective of the subject and from a personal perspective."
With his latest book, Guralnick, 71, has penned his most intimate and inside work yet. His long-anticipated biography, "Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock 'n' Roll — How One Man Discovered Howlin' Wolf, Ike Turner, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis Presley, and How His Tiny Label, Sun Records of Memphis, Revolutionized the World!," will be published Tuesday by Little, Brown & Co. Guralnick will mark the release with an appearance Wednesday evening at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, where he'll be interviewed by fellow author Robert Gordon.
Guralnick's book on Phillips — with whom he was close for nearly 25 years — is more intensely personal than his previous epic biographies on Elvis Presley or Sam Cooke. "Having a front-row seat with Sam for those years gave me an entrée that was different from anything I had before," he says. "Here, I had direct access and that altered the manner of writing and it altered my participation in the process. It gave me a different kind of opportunity — to deepen the portrait of Sam. And in a sense it's almost a double perspective at times."
The larger-than-life Phillips, who passed away in 2003, remained a vibrant presence in Guralnick's mind as he wrote. "I could imagine where Sam would take issue with things I was writing, but I didn't want that to intimidate me from saying them," says Guralnick, with a laugh. "I enjoyed having this running dialogue with him, even after he was gone."
The seeds for the project were planted during Guralnick's first interview with Phillips in 1979. "Sam was the most charismatic person I ever met. That first meeting was absolutely inspiring, it was galvanizing. From that moment … I wanted to do a book on Sam Phillips. Over the years, that wish, that desire, remained fixed in my mind," says Guralnick.
"In many ways, that first meeting was a very brief interview by Sam's standards — it was only two-and-a-half hours," says Guralnick. "But what he said was an important summary of so many elements of his life and his teachings. I didn't realize to what extent he saw himself as a teacher. He took that role very seriously. I was drawn to him as a preacher — he looked like a preacher, he looked like an Old Testament prophet. "
Over the course of 700-plus pages, Guralnick documents Phillips as both a musical visionary and a champion of a kind of humanist democracy — someone who sought to document the expressions of the poor and disenfranchised, those consigned to the narrow margins of society.
Guralnick explores Phillips' role in helping midwife rock 'n' roll, and by extension much of 20th century culture. He would discover, record and encourage Presley, Cash, Lewis, Turner, the Wolf, Carl Perkins, Charlie Rich and so many others during the embryonic stages of their careers. "Don't forget: He never really worked with anyone who had recorded before," says Guralnick. "His belief in himself in the studio was founded on his ability to nurture talent. It was about bringing out something in the artist which the artist might not have realized was in him. Whether you're talking about Harmonica Frank or Johnny Cash or B.B. King, he was trying to bring out their uniqueness."
Phillips saw his efforts as part of a higher mission than simply cutting records. "One of his stated aims was to give voice to the voiceless. Had he not had that little storefront studio at 706 Union open almost 24 hours a day … who knows if any or all of those artists would have had the same opportunities. But, because of Sam, they did. He expressed over and over again this unshakable conviction in the dream of an egalitarian society."
In trying to understand Phillips' work, legacy and philosophies, Guralnick doesn't shy away from the more difficult aspects of his life. He delves into his drinking and depression, the mental health issues and the electroshock treatments he received as young man. He explores his many close and sometimes complicated relationships with his wife Becky, longtime companion Sally Wilbourn and Sun receptionist Marion Keisker, as well as with his children and heirs, Knox and Jerry Phillips.
By doing so, Guralnick creates a complex, compelling and unflinching portrait, which is, he says, what Phillips would've wanted. "Sam always said 'Tell the goddamn truth!'" says Guralnick. "Now, the truth is not a single thing. The truth of one moment is not the truth of the next. And one person's truth can differ from another. But I think everybody, from Sam on down to his family and friends, told the truth as they saw it."
While Guralnick offers a fuller understanding of Phillips' glory days at Sun in the 1950s, the book also examines the last half of his life, during which he was effectively retired from the music business.
By the early '60s, even as he was building new studios in Memphis and Nashville, Phillips' passion for making records had begun to wane. "You've got to look at a decade of not just achievement, but the sheer volume of work that Sam did between 1950 and 1960," says Guralnick. "How long can you keep going at that rate? That had to figure in. When (Atlantic Records') Jerry Wexler said that in a single decade Sam had created a millennium's worth of music … well, maybe that's bit of a show quote, but it's also true."
Phillips' decision to effectively leave the record business was a concession to the changing nature of the industry, which was increasingly becoming dominated by large corporations in the '60s. "I don't think he ever feared failure or shrank from a challenge, but he could no longer see the future. And he was right," says Guralnick. "By the end of the decade, by 1970, all the independents had been sold."
Ultimately, it was a return to his first love, radio, in his native Alabama that finally reignited Phillips' passion. Guralnick succeeds in giving readers a proper understanding of the last couple decades of Phillips' life. He finds the real man behind the fiery eyes, booming voice and outsized personality that would turn up at awards ceremonies, talk shows or rock and roll retrospectives. "I mean, Sam was always forceful," he says, "but I wanted to capture the quiet thoughtfulness of Sam that I saw over the years, lurking behind that public persona."
After nearly a decade of labor on the Phillips bio, Guralnick has also curated an accompanying two-CD "soundtrack" to the book (released by Yep Roc), as well as a Phillips exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame. He says there's only one other element to add to the story. "Well, Sam always believed his life would make a great movie," says Guralnick. "And I'll agree with him on that."
For his part, Guralnick says he plans on taking a break from biography to return to fiction — he's written 10 novels and two short story collections and hopes to finish a third — though he allows there might still be one or two musical stories he'd like to tell.
"I never set out to be a professional biographer," he says. "I saw this book, all the biographies, as a chance to tell stories of these great figures operating on a vast plane. That's what's enthralled me about writing them. These are worlds populated with so many great characters and above all else, fascinating individuals. I guess, like Sam, I prize the individual, too."
Book Review: 'Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock 'n Roll' -