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This is the book on Sam Phillips, Sun Records, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and on and on that I've been waiting for. I spent a credit for this one and I would've spent a hundred.
Peter Guralnick is best known for his two bios on Elvis Presley--which are incredible reads on the rise (what goes up) and fall (must come down) of the '50s rock 'n' roll legend. Get em.
But also get this one. In fact, get this one first. As Guralnick writes in the author intro, he was invested in the Elvis and the Sam Cooke books, but he was personally involved in the Sam Phillips bio because he knew the producer for 25 years. All Sam asked Guralnick to do when writing his life's story was to "tell the truth."
And it's a remarkable truth and remarkably well told. Sam Phillips opened a recording studio in Memphis at just the right moment, in 1950, right before the rock 'n' roll explosion. He grew up in the South with ears that heard genius blues musicians where others' eyes only saw black men and women. Memphis Recording Service (later renamed Sun Studio) opened its doors to these blues masters, who were sometimes veteran guitar pickers but as often as not raw young talents still trying to find their sound.
Howlin' Wolf, Ike Turner and B.B. King recorded at the Memphis studio. Scads more. (BTW, you can pick up a compilation album of Sun Records' blues artists, which you might want to have playing as you roll through this book. You can also get Elvis and Cash albums devoted to their Sun work. Probably for some others as well--Perkins, Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis--but I haven't checked.) One priceless tidbit about B.B. King that Guralnick adds is that when B.B. recorded with Sam he was a young guitarist and hadn't yet perfected the art of playing his guitar and singing at the same time. Even legends have to start at the beginning.
Guralnick spends a good chunk of the early chapters on the blues. And that's a great thing because popular history tends to shove that story aside to get to 1954 when Elvis Presley, a greasy-haired kid from every wrong side of every wrong track, worked up the nerve to pester Mr. Phillips for a recording session.
Sam put him together with guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black, who were anything but virtuosos. That first session has become mythic it's been talked about so much. Guralnick blows away the cobwebs. He takes us back into the stuffy room for the all-nighter that was going nowhere until, in an off moment, Elvis started horsing around with an Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup tune, "That's Alright (Mama)."
Sam heard something in that cut up nobody else would've. This is what made him a genius producer and a central figure in the genesis of '50s rock 'n' roll. And this is what makes Guralnick's book so damn good: that the author is able to expose how chancy a recording session is, how uncertain the creative act, and how a really good producer can help an artist throw out the common and elevate the original.
Musicians, recording engineers, music producers and music buffs will want to delve in this book and read between the lines. Even though this is a book about outdated recording technology and "ancient" music, it's also about finding diamonds in the coarsest stone. Guralnick gives example after example. Like when Johnny Cash wanted to chuck his lead guitarist. Luther Perkins struggled to pick out every note. Cash was getting frustrated. But Sam said, no, you want to keep Luther because it's his inexperience that is helping to create that fresh boom chicka boom sound.
Sam took chances on artists who didn't have money, who didn't have looks (Elvis wasn't as pretty then as he'd become later), who didn't already have fan bases. They weren't always great musicians and their songwriting needed some arranging. But he created a space in his studio where talent could be developed and could take its time--though these artists were itching to run.
And, yeah, Guralnick also tells the personal side of Sam's story. You get to know him about as well as Guralnick did, as well as you can from a book. But you'll want to get this book for the magic, and the magic is in the music.
13 of 14 people found this review helpful
Sun Records landed on me in a big way when I was around 8 years old. The first record I ever bought was Johnny Cash (Frankie's Man Johnny). I loved the Elvis Sun sessions (although they didn't have a name yet). But I lost interest in Elvis immediately after I saw Jerry Lee Lewis on TV. Peter Guralnick's biography of Sam Phillips told me exactly what was happening down in Memphis almost day-by-day while I was inventing the role of teeny-bopper in an industrial suburb of Toronto.
Guralnick has written a very detailed account of a complex man in exciting times in American, and world, culture. (Note: I believe in the power of rock 'n roll.) He's a brilliant biographer.
In a book this long, the narration is make-or-break. The narration of this book is excellent. Thank you, Kevin Stilwell, for making it possible for me to make it to the end. It took me a month, with breaks.
Notable passage: There are a number of passages describing the technical details of a recording session. The best to me is an hour-long description of Howling Wolf's first recording session: Sam Phillips and Howling Wolf in intense collaboration for hours and days in a little rickety building a few city blocks from the Mississippi.
2 of 2 people found this review helpful