APRIL, 2020

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A monthly guide to early rock, blues, country, folk, and traditional jazz in the Seattle area and beyond.
Editor and Publisher: Doug Bright
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By Doug Bright

"I didn't set out to revolutionize the world," Sam Phillips once told biographer Peter Guralnick. Nevertheless, that's just what he did as owner and operator of the Sun record label that launched Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, and Jerry Lee Lewis. Guralnick, whose books have told the stories of Presley and Sam Cooke, entitles his latest one Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock 'n' Roll.
Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock 'n' Roll

In his introduction, Guralnick declares, "I suppose I should confess at the start what I am sure will become immediately apparent to the reader: this is a book written out of admiration and love. ... I knew Sam Phillips, I knew him for almost twenty-five years, I was with him through good times and bad."

Nevertheless, it's that depth of love for his craft as well as his subject that compels Guralnick to tell Phillips' story with ruthless objectivity. "Don't let history down," Phillips admonished him. "It ain't for you to put me in a good light. Just put me in the focus that I'm supposed to be in. Man, I don't give a damn if you say one good thing about me. Your job is to put it all in focus and ferret out the bullshit. There's been enough of that."

To invent is, by definition, to bring something into being that didn't previously exist, but as Guralnick points out, Sam Phillips' part in the creation of rock 'n' roll was more that of discoverer than intentional architect. From the moment he opened his studio in January 1950, his aim was to identify the defining essence of every artist he recorded and "find the key to unlock it." It had its roots in a keen power of observation that characterized him from his earliest childhood in rural Alabama. "Nothing passed my ears," he told his biographer. "A mockingbird or a whipporwill--out in the country on a calm afternoon. The silence of the cottonfields, that beautiful, rhythmic silence. ... That was just unbelievable music: to hear that bird maybe three hundred yards away, the wind not even blowing in your direction, or no wind at all. But it carried, it got to my ears. ... I mean, I heard everything. It wasn't any time before I began to observe people by sound--I certainly didn't know what to do with everything I heard, but I knew I had something that could be an asset if I could just figure out what to do with it."

One of the first and most significant things the young Sam Phillips heard was his mother playing old folk songs on guitar for recreation. "The guitar took on all the properties of the human voice," Guralnick writes, "but she didn't sing, it was almost as if she were quilting the music together."

Born January 5th, 1923, Samuel Cornelius Phillips spent his first ten years of life on a farm about ten miles from Florence, Alabama, learning his guiding values from hard-working parents. "He and his family worked the fields with mules, along with dozens of others, black and white sharecroppers, poor people," Guralnick summarizes. "His daddy was kind to everyone, was a fair man, he treated them all the same. ... His mama was kind to everyone, believed wholeheartedly in all her children."

A defining moment in Phillips' life occurred in 1939 when, at age sixteen, he traveled to Dallas with his older brother J.W. and three other young men to hear one of the most famous preachers of the time, Dr. George W. Truett. To get there, they passed through Memphis, Tennessee, and the city's musical mecca, Beale Street, made an indelible impression. "Well, I'd heard about Beale Street all my life, pictured it in my mine what it was," Phillips recalls in Guralnick's book.
Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock 'n' Roll
"I could not wait! We arrived at four or five o'clock in the morning in pouring-down rain, but I'm telling you, Broadway never looked that busy. It was like a beehive, a microcosm of humanity."

What struck Phillips above all was that among all these people--black and white, young and old, drunk and sober, "nobody got in anybody else's way----because every damn one of them wanted to be right there."

After arriving in Dallas and hearing Dr. Truett's dynamic sermon, the Phillips brothers got to meet him and were impressed by his warmth and sincerity. He specifically encouraged J.W. to pursue the calling he felt for the ministry at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, but even at the age of sixteen, Sam Phillips knew that his life's path led in another direction, even if he wasn't yet sure what it was. "For Sam," Guralnick summarizes, "the unquestionable highlight of the trip, its one true source of enchantment and allure, was Beale Street, with all of its irreducible radiance, its irresistibly beckoning glow."

Spurred on by the impoverished circumstance of his family, Phillips was a hard-working, frugal, and ambitious youth, working six days a week at a local grocery store or drugstore in the town of Florence and, for a while, operating a summertime drink stand in front of the family residence. Regarding the way he approached money, his nephew observed, "Uncle J.W was the type, if he made a dollar, he'd spend two. If Uncle Sam made one, he'd save two. That was the difference in them!"

Phillips had taken up drums in the sixth grade, and during his ninth-grade year, he showed his capacity for leadership by successfully mounting a one-kid campaign to a reluctant administrator to outfit his school marching band with uniforms and even a sousaphone, which he himself undertook to learn. His diligence was rewarded at the end of the year when the faculty presented him with a popular inspirational book written by Ralston Purina company founder William Danforth. Entitled I DARE You,
I Dare You!
it was a youth-oriented manual on self-development and positive thinking in the style of Dale Carnegie's classic HOW TO WIN FRIENDS AND INFLUENCE PEOPLE.
How to Win Friends & Influence People
"I dare you, young man," Danforth wrote, "you who have come from a home of poverty--I dare you to have the qualities of a Lincoln." Sam Phillips, for his part, was absolutely willing to take that dare.

In the summer of 1941, at the end of his sophomore year, the 17-year-old Phillips recruited the most musically dedicated of his fellow students to form a dance band. After only a couple of performances, Phillips and his fifteen-member crew were asked by the commander of the local American Legion Post to play its awards ceremony at the Teachers College's outdoor amphitheater. Reflecting the courage that defined his philosophy of life, he told his players, "If you're going to hit a wrong note, hit it like you mean it."

When they arrived, Phillips was shocked to learn that the show was to be broadcast live on WMSD, a station based across the Tennessee River in the town of Sheffield, Alabama, and when he was asked by station manager Jimmy Connolly to announce his combo's repertoire, he bravely agreed. At the end of the show, Connolly was so impressed with the sincerity of the young bandleader's on-air personality that he offered him an afternoon spot five days a week on "Hymn Time", which featured records by the era's great Southern gospel quartets. Given Phillips' love of the music, it was a good fit.

By the middle of his junior year, the powerful oratory of defense attorneys he had observed as a spectator at criminal court had inspired him to pursue a law career, but with the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the death of his father, and his brother J.W.'s decision to join the Marines, he was now the only source of support for the entire family, and his dream of law school had to be put aside. Fortunately, he became a full-time employee at WMSD when he took on the daily "SSL Hilbilly Jamboree" show, and in true Sam Phillips fashion, he threw his heart and soul into it. "Man, I made those records come alive," he remembers, "And when I got through doing that show, the cards and letters they would send in--then I knew I was on my way, I knew I wouldn't be in the courtroom, but I could be talking to my courtroom out there. And getting people to forget maybe about some of the things that were difficult for them for a while."

With the intent of becoming an even greater value to the station, the ambitious young disc jockey enrolled in an Alabama Polytechnic Institute extension course offered at Florence State, and by May 1942 he had his license as a Class C engineer. By the end of the year he had secured a position at WMSL in Decatur and was soon promoted to production manager.

Nevertheless, the most momentous event of that life-changing year of 1942 took place in September when he met 17-year-old Becky Burns, who was already a skilled announcer at WMSD. "He had just come in out of the rain the day we first met," she recalled to Peter Guralnick. "His hair was windblown and full of raindrops. He wore sandals and a smile unlike any I had ever seen before. He walked into the small radio station studio where I worked, sat down on the piano bench, and began to talk to me. ... I told my family that night I had met the man I wanted to marry." A year and three months later, on December 13th, 1943, she did exactly that.

To save money, they moved in with an older woman and her daughter in Decatur. "They traded out a lot of their meals," Guralnick elaborates. "Becky wrote the copy for the two-spot-a-day ads for the G&W Cafe, and in return they got "regular cafe meals"--and before long they were practically running the station by themselves."

In June 1945, after gaining valuable experience through Jimmy Connolly at the CBS network's powerful Nashville affiliate, WLAC, 22-year-old Sam Phillips got the chance to live and work in the city of his dreams when a position opened up at CBS's Memphis affiliate, WREC. From the basement control room of the city's Peabody Hotel, where the station was housed, he started out doing essentially the same announcing and engineering chores that had characterized his work in Alabama and Nashville, including a country-music show called "Songs of The West". In addition, Phillips was given a challenging job that was perfectly suited to his inclinations and his skill set.

At 10 o'clock six nights a week, the young audio engineer would be on hand to set up the mikes for a network feed from the hotel roof, where the top white swing bands of the day played live. Once the microphones were properly positioned, Phillips would descend to the basement with copies of sheet music for each band so he could mix appropriately when a trumpeter, saxophonist, or pianist was due to take a solo. "I wanted to make sure I got all the overtones and that nothing was wasted," he elaborated to Guralnick. "I think it was one of the most enjoyable things that I ever did in my life. There I was, this little upstart, I had no earthly idea that I would ever even see a big band--and there I am, putting the biggest bands on every night."

Sam Phillips' elusive career vision began to take shape in the summer of 1949 when Memphis's 250-watt WDIA became the first station in America to target an African-American audience. "My conviction was that the world was missing out on not having heard what I had heard as a child," he explained to his biographer. "Memphis was the inducement--I mean, going out and hearing a black man pick a guitar and pat his foot and put a wood box under his foot to pat while he sings. These were elements that I knew were not going away. Then I said, "I've just got to open me a little recording studio, where I can at least experiment. I don't have any money, but I know I can build it with my own hands." Had I not tried, I would have been the biggest damn coward that God ever put on this earth."

----------------------------------------------------------------------(This article will be continued in the next issue of Heritage Music Review.)