"We Flat-Ass Changed the World"
By Jackson Baker
JUNE 19, 2000: 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 of black artists (who would include, besides Thomas himself, the likes of B.B. King, Howlin' Wolf, Ike Turner, and Little Milton).
"I don't even think that the walls were black. He just discarded all of us," Thomas says.
"Discard" is probably the wrong word. Phillips had already seen many of those artists slip through his net because other "indie" labels enticed them away (as the Chess brothers in Chicago had done with the blues giant Howlin' Wolf, for example). Sun was, in fact, formed as a way of holding on to his homegrown talent. It became an imperative, after Elvis broke in 1954, for Phillips to continue to mine the vein he had opened up in the national consciousness. That meant "rockabilly" --which was one of the first terms the world gave this amalgam of the music of poor blacks and poor whites.
Even so, Phillips is a bit aggrieved at Thomas' charge. As he explained in last week's interview, "Rufus didn't know that my whole purpose, the main thing was to get more play for black artists. You've got to keep in mind that there wasn't a radio station on every corner back then." At some point the man whose own dirt-poor origins gave him exposure to the music of field hands and black church music (a point made in the documentary) began to search for a white exemplar.
"I was trying to find a white person -- and you've heard it 5,000 times -- who could sing with the same feeling, but not try to copy these people. That would have been a joke. I honestly believe had we not done what we did with Elvis, or with somebody, and got that feel over and broke down a little bit of the wall or if somebody else hadn't done the same type of thing, I honestly feel that we would have still had segregation in music."
And in society, too, Phillips suspects. He protests, "I don't want people to think I was doing all this as a Good Samaritan." But he notes that his own work as a music pioneer paralleled in time "all the good work that Martin Luther King did." And the effect was not just national. "From this little country here, 250 million people, we flat-ass changed the world!"
As is recapitulated in the documentary, Phillips arrived here from Florence in the late '40s, having landed a job at WREC radio that had him, among other duties, handling the technical end for the Big Band broadcasts which used to emanate from the roof of The Peabody. Ted Weems. Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey. He set up for them all, and if you think you hear a bit of the swing sound in those Sun records, and even in one of the later Phillips International songs, like Charlie Rich's "Lonely Weekends," that's probably where it came from.
As a kid in Alabama (from the same Muscle Shoals area where, coincidentally or not, a thriving music-recording industry sprang up in the '60s), Sam Phillips had played virtually every instrument you could -- trombone, sousaphone, drums, etc. -- for the high school band that he dominated with his energy, his dedication, and the sheer force of his personality.
"I organized a little band myself out of the 72-piece marching band," he remembered last week, his verbal stream floating up isolated bits of memory and carrying them along. "We formed a choir when I was president of the 11th grade. We had people from East Florence who didn't have money to buy a robe. I sold magazines, had a fight with Mrs. Rogers, my homeroom teacher, had to quit school after the 11th grade. These people felt like they were somebody! We were always so damn poor, couldn't say I wanted orange juice or chocolate milk in the cafeteria. They kept electing me to every damn thing, and everybody there was more popular than me!"
The reality of the poor folks he grew up among, black and white, was "a picture to me in four dimensions, not three." Sound was a huge part of that fourth dimension. "About sound and radio, I'll take on anybody," he said. (Biographer Guralnick suggests that when Sam Phillips talks about "sound" he means not just music but the wind, birds, car noises -- all sound.)
Phillips' basic epiphany came early. "With music you could go all over the world. There's so much diversity in music, the most amazing thing I have found in all my experience with dealing in sound." There is a Fellini-like sequence in the A&E biography in which the bearded, intense-looking Phillips is shown, on a trip back to his home grounds in Alabama, addressing current members of his old high school band. They would never be satisfied if they didn't follow through on their dreams, he tells them, and you wonder if the respectful kids understand how literally the wild-eyed man in front of them means that.
There is an obvious missionary element to Sam Phillips, which every artist who dealt with him must have been keenly influenced by. After a few years at WREC, he set up shop with his recording service down at 706 Union, a shrine now to the Elvis pilgrims and others who stream into Memphis every year looking for The Source. Just as the wannabe singers and players once did.
"Knowing how poor they were and how poor I was, nobody did more in my opinion to help people in a certain way than I did, many ways psychologically, to make them feel they had achieved something in life. One thing I never did. I never slighted one person who came in there for an audition. Not one damn penny did they pay me before we signed a contract and had sessions. God didn't make us perfect or He wouldn't have messed around with Adam and Eve and the apple. I am honest, and some things turn on the fact of what you believe honesty to be."
Honesty to Phillips was the way Jerry Lee Lewis used the piano to think out loud, each time a different way; it was in the depths he glimpsed in the hulking, ever-attentive Chester Arthur "Howlin' Wolf" Burnet; it was the simple strumming sincerity of the Johnny Cash Trio. It was the strange, and finally inexplicable, commitment of Phillips himself, who headed himself into two nervous breakdowns in the early '50s, complete with electro-shock therapy, as he worked around the clock, sleeping maybe two, maybe four hours a night, trying both to keep the faith with his WREC job and get his studio launched.
"I had to face the IRS every damn month for I don't know how long," Sam remembers. "I couldn't save the money but I didn't lie about what I owed 'em. This guy kept threatening me. All I had for them to take was my recording equipment, which was just what I'd put together, and some Army surplus stuff. Another [IRS] guy looked at me and looked at my bony ass and me exhausted all over and could see that I was probably the most depressed guy he'd ever seen, and here I am, a young man, should be carefree and happy and not have all of this on him. 'Look, folks,' he told 'em, 'if we close this young man, we'll never have the money. If we let him operate, I believe we'll eventually get it.' It wasn't six months until Junior Parker's 'Love My Baby' and 'Mystery Train.' Lord, that helped me so much and in a year's time I was able to catch up. This guy gave up calling on me, he felt so damn sorry for me."
It is tempting to say that Sam Phillips' story is a close parallel to that of Elvis, the shy prodigy-in-waiting whom the older man (he was 30, Elvis 18 when they first encountered each other) found in poverty and obscurity and midwifed into fame and fortune in the big, wide world.
Except that the story of Phillips has so far ended more happily, and his story is really a parallel, too, to all the other artists he nurtured -- Charlie Rich, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, B.B. King, Wolf, Little Milton, Ike Turner, Junior Parker, et al., et al. In his otherwise perceptive book, Elvis, Dave Marsh makes Sam into an "aristocrat." He was anything but. His origins were as lowly and deprived and (key word) ordinary as any of theirs.
And they found him, not the other way around. Elvis did, too, fresh out of school and driving a delivery truck and walking into Memphis Recording Service (slogan: "We Record Anything/Anytime/Anywhere") one summer day in 1953 on the cockamamy premise that he wanted to make a birthday recording for his mother (whose birthday was a full six months away) and doing a reedy if note-perfect version of "My Happiness."
Memphis Recording was the To-Whom-It-May-Concern service Phillips used to help pay the bills. Sun was the record label he alternately thought of as a way to maybe make some real dough from and as the mission he had sworn himself to, even if for free forever. Elvis was trying to connect from one to the other, and eventually he did, Big Time.
It is a well-known story, now -- how Sam put the young prodigy together with Scotty and Bill and waited until they found a sound, which happened finally with a spontaneous take by Elvis on a primitive Arthur Crudup blues. All that came of that was "That's All Right," a transmuting of "black" music, backed by an up-tempo version of the countrified "Blue Moon of Kentucky" which, Sam concedes in the A&E biography, had to sound "brutalized" to the admirers of its bluegrass composer, Bill Monroe. All that came of all this transgressing and fooling around, you understand, was that aforesaid hybrid of various folk sources, rock-and-roll.
Even as the A&E documentary is clear about who the originator of modern secular music is, the man who transmuted plain earth into the kind of syncopated ecstasy that has by now sustained several successive generations, it is somewhat more obscure as to who was the prime mover in ginning up the documentary celebrating Sam Phillips.
The prime candidates are executive producer Jerry Schilling, a Memphis native and veteran of the music wars who serves now as the current president of the Memphis and Shelby County Music Commission; writer Guralnick (whose tomes on soul music and the blues, as well as his definitive two volumes on Elvis, Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love, are all classics), and Phillips' older son, Knox, a gutsy and dedicated man who has survived both cancer and the tragic loss of a daughter last year and remains somehow the embodiment of positive thinking and good cheer.
Mind you, none of the three are trying to hog the glory (in fact, they each stress the collective aspects of the project), but each of them can trace his involvement far enough back to have some claim on the honor.
Guralnick had been keen on such a project ever since he wrote Lost Highway a few years ago, a book which focused on "the journeys and arrivals of American musicians" and which concluded with a chapter on Phillips. "I felt what he was articulating were principles to live by -- individuality, trying to draw out the best of everybody he ever worked with." Though Guralnick is famously likable and mixes easily in virtually any kind of company, he is also a pure artist in his own right and has, at least to this point, been the archetypical loner, doing books the way most authors do -- solitary, in private. Working with others to execute a video biography of Sam Phillips, he decided to emulate the ways of his subject.
"It was a learning experience, working with other people. I tried to do it in the spirit of Sam's own production methods -- truth, warts and all, reality. He never wanted perfect sessions. He believes in relying on the accidental. The biography reflects Sam's approach. We used a hand-held camera and did no setups, none at all. There was lots of imperfect reality."
Indeed there was, just as in the work of the master himself. Both in last week's interview and in the Biography documentary, Phillips cited the example of a phone ringing in the studio during the recording of Junior Parker's "Love My Baby" -- the flip side of the original "Mystery Train." The faint jangling of the nearby telephone served as the perfect correlative to Parker's plaintive longing in his inspired jump-blues number (whose up-tempo pacing prefigured the later Sun work of Elvis, guitarist Scotty Moore, and bass player Bill Black). "I wadn' about to do it over or take it out," recalls Phillips resolutely.
In the documentary, there are several instances of the "accident" declaring its own reality. There is, for example, a scene in which Johnny Bragg, lead singer on the haunting ballad "Walking in the Rain," returns to the austere Nashville penitentiary where he and his mates of the "Prisonnaires" served their time back when Phillips borrowed them for a Memphis recording session. (The producer's intercession would eventually result in the men's commutation and release.)
The old, stooped version of Bragg, both weighed down and exalted by the awakenings of memory, suddenly does a few verses of the song, on key and in a decent facsimile of his youthful, eerily beautiful voice. Neither Guralnick nor co-producer and director Morgan Neville had expected it, but they eagerly accepted the serendipity and what Guralnick calls "the visual effects, the way the camera followed Johnny into the shadows."
And there is a long montage in which Phillips goes through one deserted room after another at the site of the old Chisca Hotel in search of the space where redneck visionary Dewey Phillips, Sam's deejay sidekick (no relation) did his nightly WHBQ radio show back in the late '40s and early '50s when the two of them together, the producer and the messenger/apostle, knew and communicated more about the soul of music -- and black music in particular -- than the over-immortalized Alan Freed of Cleveland and New York ever dreamt of. By a factor of maybe 20.
Sam Phillips literally stumbles through the open spaces like a man returning to the desolate planet where he and his exotic breed once thrived. And then finally: "This is it! This is where it was!"
Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock 'n' Roll is also where it is and where it was.
And first-time viewers should be forewarned, especially if they are the kind of shallow skeptics who don't believe in ghosts: There are what appear to be many casual, transitional, or even empty moments which, upon repeated viewings, turn out to be inhabited. This is a production which bears more than one watching.
Just as the man whom it concerns bears continued watching. Sam Phillips mused aloud last week on the nature of Memphis as a crossroads of musical influences which had brought him and other pioneers here and scattered their influence in the world. He wondered if it could be done again, as he had done it, and as Jim Stewart of Stax/Volt Records and Joe Cuoghi of Hi Records and John Frye of Ardent Studios and Chips Moman of American Studios had done it (all of them influenced and, in some cases, directly assisted by him).
"Hell!" he thundered. "There's still a whole lot to do, and there's no reason why we can't do it here. I'm not scared of anything in this whole damn world. Let's bring it on!"
Is it possible there is a sequel to this tale?
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