The music that he shaped in his tiny Memphis studio with artists as diverse as Elvis Presley, Ike Turner, Howlin' Wolf, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash, introduced a sound that had never been heard before. He brought forth a singular mix of black and white voices passionately proclaiming the vitality of the American vernacular tradition while at the same time declaring, once and for all, a new, integrated musical day.
With extensive interviews and firsthand personal observations extending over a 25-year period with Phillips, along with wide-ranging interviews with nearly all the legendary Sun Records artists, Guralnick gives us an ardent, unrestrained portrait of an American original as compelling in his own right as Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, or Thomas Edison.
|Publisher:||Little, Brown and Company|
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The Man Who Invented Rock 'N' Roll
By Peter Guralnick
Little, Brown and CompanyCopyright © 2015 Peter Guralnick
All rights reserved.
"I Dare You!"
Nothing passed my ears. A mockingbird or a whippoorwill — out in the country on a calm afternoon. The silence of the cottonfields, that beautiful rhythmic silence, with a hoe hitting a rock every now and then and just as it spaded through the dirt, you could hear it. 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 would hear somebody speak to a mule harshly, I heard that. I mean, I heard everything. It wasn't any time until I began to observe people [too], more 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.
In later years Sam Phillips would always refer to the moment of his arrival on this earth with a wonderment not altogether free of caustic amusement. "You take my ass dying when I was born, and you take a drunk doctor showing up — man, he didn't even make it till I was born — and my mama being so kind she got up out of bed and put him to bed until he sobered up, and then the midwife comes and Mama feels so sorry for Dr. Cornelius she named me after him!"
Nobody ever took more pleasure in his own story than Sam Phillips. It was, in his telling, a poetic as much as a realistic vision, a mythic journey combining narrative action, revolutionary rhetoric, Delphic pronouncements, and the satisfaction, like that of any Old Testament god, of being able to look back on the result and pronounce it "good." He would return again and again to the same themes over the years, with different details and different emphases, but always with the same underlying message: the inherent nobility not so much of man as of freedom, and the implied responsibility — no, the obligation — for each of us to be as different as our individuated natures allowed us to be. To be different, in Sam's words, in the extreme.
But it always started out with a slight, sickly looking tow-headed little boy looking out at the world from the 323-acre farm at the Bend of the River, about ten miles outside Florence, Alabama. His daddy didn't own the farm, just rented it, and by the time Sam was eight years old, his two oldest brothers and older sister had all married, leaving him at home with his seventeen-year-old sister, Irene, his fifteen-year-old-brother, Tom, and the next youngest, ten-year-old J.W. (John William, later to be known as Jud), who was, like Sam, something of an afterthought for parents who were forty-four and nearly forty by the time their youngest child was born.
He and his family worked the fields with mules, along with dozens of others, black and white sharecroppers, poor people — his daddy was a fair man, he treated them all the same. His daddy didn't say much; the one thing that really made him mad was if someone told him a lie — it didn't matter who it was, he would stand up and tell them to their face. Daddy had a feel for the land, he grew corn, hay, and sweet sorghum, and the cotton rows were half a mile long. His mama was kind to everyone, believed wholeheartedly in all her children, and worried a lot — there was nothing she wouldn't do for any of them, and nothing she couldn't do as well as any man. Sometimes at night she might dip a little snuff and pick the guitar, old folk songs like "Barbara Allen" and "Aura Lee," the guitar took on all the properties of a human voice, but she didn't sing, it was almost as if she were quilting the music together.
Just like Daddy, she taught them how to work, by her example. She taught them responsibility by the kindness she and Daddy showed to others less fortunate, including relatives, passing strangers, and, by the presence in their own home, her sister Emma, blinded in one eye and made deaf and mute by Rocky Mountain spotted fever when she was three. Sam observed Aunt Emma closely and, in order to communicate with her (she was a well-educated woman, a graduate of the internationally renowned Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind at Talladega), learned to sign almost before he could read. He was the only one in the family who could communicate fully with her except for Mama and his sister Irene, who wanted to become a nurse. Even when he was working (and there was seldom a time that he wasn't), he was watching, listening, observing: the interactions of people, the scudding of the clouds across the sky, the communication of crickets and frogs (he was convinced that he could talk to them — and not just as a little boy either), the flow of the beautiful Tennessee River. He couldn't understand why all the little black boys and girls he worked and played with couldn't go to the same little country school that he did; he registered the unfairness of the way in which people were arbitrarily set apart by the color of their skin, and he thought, What if I had been born black? And he admired the way they dealt with adversity — he envied them their power of resilience, their ability to maintain belief in a situation in which he doubted he could have sustained belief himself. But, for the most part, knowing how different his feelings were even from those closest to him, from his very family, and knowing how much more different he intended to be, he kept his thoughts to himself and listened to the a cappella singing that came from the fields, testament as he saw it, whether sacred or secular, to an invincible human spirit and spirituality.
They found a way to worship. You could hear it. You could feel it. You didn't have to be inside a building, you could participate in a cotton patch, picking four rows at a time, at 110 degrees! I mean, I saw the inequity. But even at five or six years old I found myself caught up in a type of emotional reaction that was, instead of depressing — I mean, these were some of the astutest people I've ever known, and they were in [most] cases almost totally overlooked, except as a beast of burden — but even at that age, I recognized that: Hey! The backs of these people aren't broken, they [can] find it in their souls to live a life that is not going to take the joy of living away.
Samuel Cornelius Phillips (remember Dr. Cornelius) was born on January 5, 1923, in the only home that his father would ever own, in a tiny hamlet six or seven miles north of Florence called Lovelace Community, named for his mother's family and populated with musically talented Lovelaces and practical, hardworking Phillipses. When he was just nine months old, the house burned down, and the family moved in and out of town, then to the old Martin place on Chisholm Highway and then further out in the country to the old Pickens place in Oakland, which was an eight-year-old's (and later a seventy-eight-year-old's) 323-acre vision of Eden. His overwhelming impression, his overwhelming experience, was of hard work — his mama and his daddy never stopped, and his brother Horace, older by fourteen years, was, everyone acknowledged, a "mechanical genius," who would make a career in heavy equipment. The sensibility of the two youngest, though, Sam and his brashly self-assured brother J.W., was different in type if not in kind. J.W. possessed the sort of robust personality to which everyone, adults and children alike, was inevitably drawn. He was confident, articulate, outgoing, a natural leader, even if Sam sometimes mistrusted just where his leadership might be taking them. He was warmhearted and trustful just like their daddy, but unlike Daddy there was no holdback in his speech: he proclaimed his views eloquently and convincingly, although his younger brother occasionally questioned whether J.W. really knew what he was talking about.
Sam saw himself as set apart and wasn't about to apologize for it. He prized independence and artistry, even when he was too young to put a name on them. He saw Daddy as an artist of the soil, he saw music as an expression of innate spirituality. He was a delicate child, "a runt that really had a rough time surviving," as he frequently said, but for all of that, he was determined to go his own way. "I got impatient with children doing the same things other children did. I had the ability to love other people, but I also had the ability to tell them what I thought, even at an early age. I wasn't a spoiled person, but for some reason or another I was totally an independent cat, and to be that, and be as sickly as I was and not be screaming for Mama must have signified something." What it signified, Sam firmly believed, was that he had his own eyes and ears to assess things with, and they were going to lead him to the greater goal he had in mind, even if he couldn't say precisely what it was. It was not lost on him, however, what he sacrificed in terms of popularity. It was impossible not to like J.W., as his younger brother was well aware, and for J.W. the approval of others was the greatest authenticator. As for himself, despite all his bravado, he couldn't help but regret the absence of that same easy camaraderie. He was, he recognized with some asperity, "the greenest persimmon on the tree. If you took a bite of me, you didn't like me too much."
Growing up, he was surrounded by music — square dances, round dances, once a month, at a neighbor's, a relative's, sometimes at home. On those occasions you pushed all the furniture out of the room and everybody would sing and play — fiddle, banjo, ukulele, guitar — sometimes his sobersided daddy might even call. His sister Irene made sure to take him and J.W. along, from the time they were no more than four or five years old, and he would sit in a corner, just watching all of his grown-up brothers and sisters and all the others, hardworking farmers and their wives, dancing and having a good time. When he was six, just before the October stock market crash, they got a Graphophone record player at Kilgore Furniture Store — they set it on the floor and wound it up and played the one record they were able to afford with their initial purchase, Jimmie Rodgers' "Waiting for a Train," over and over. Though Rodgers has come to be universally invoked as the "Father of Country Music," the song was a blues, profound in its portrait of loss and displacement and uncanny in its foreshadowing of the Great Depression that hovered unseen just over the horizon. "'All around the water tank,'" Sam would quote sixty, seventy years later at the drop of a hat, "'Waiting for a train / A thousand miles away from home / Sleeping in the rain ...' And then he walks up to a brakeman 'to give him a line of talk'— you know, he was trying to get in that boxcar — and this brakeman says, 'Well, you got any money, I'll see that you don't walk.' But Jimmie didn't have any money, and 'he slammed the boxcar door.' If you can just visualize that — Depression, hard times, won't be another train for a long time. Let me tell you something, Jimmie Rodgers didn't waste a word."
The depression didn't hit the Phillips family as hard as some, but it hit hard enough to inalterably change the pattern and outcome of their lives. Charlie Phillips was able to hold on for the first few years, but then in 1933, when cotton was down to five cents a pound, he recognized that he could no longer make a living off the land, and the family moved to town. It was like being cast out of paradise.
Sam's daddy's first job off the farm was flagging on the old L&N railroad bridge, which had a single lane for vehicular traffic, working from six in the evening till six in the morning seven days a week for thirty dollars. He moved the family in and out of town over the next few years, keeping the job as the salary increased to thirty-five and then forty dollars a week but continuing to farm simply because of his love of the land. He grade-contracted for others, he terraced the Florence State Teachers College amphitheater with mules and sodded it with Bermuda grass ("He was," said Sam, "the greatest sculptor of the soil I've ever seen"), he grew an experimental vegetable garden for Dr. Willingham, the president of the college, he held out a helping hand to others when he could barely afford the rent himself — and his youngest son took it all in. The way he was with people, the way he was with animals, the kindness he showed to others, the expectations he had of himself. "My daddy didn't do things I didn't see. He didn't know I was looking at him, I wasn't staring — but my daddy never ceased to amaze me. He knew the soil. He knew mules. I mean, he knew mules! My daddy never used a stick or a whip or anything. Mules would work for him, people would work for him — and they would rise and achieve above their normal capacity." His daddy was never truly happy in town, the little boy felt. Even as a small child he saw his father fueled by an agrarian vision — though he certainly couldn't have named it at the time. There was an idealism, he believed, that fed his father beyond faith and hard work. His daddy would never have chosen to make a living off the land if he hadn't had to. "There was something clean about the soil, there was something clean about plowing a mule — he could just take the soil in his hands and watch it produce for him." It was the purity of a dream.
He was a frail but determined child. Even though his brother was twice his size, and much more physically commanding, he and J.W. fought like cats and dogs — but they always got together again afterwards. You just couldn't help but love J.W., but it was his aunt Emma who truly fascinated him for her refusal to be intellectually inhibited by her inability to hear or speak. He was well aware of the example of Helen Keller, across the river in Tuscumbia, and he had long, animated signing discussions with his aunt, who read the newspaper cover to cover every day and irritated some members of the family with her strong opinions and behavior that could just as easily be described as willful as strong-willed. Only Sam and his mother were able to calm Aunt Emma down, and of all the nephews and nieces he was clearly her favorite.
When he was in the sixth grade, the family moved to Royal Avenue in North Florence, directly behind the cotton gin where they had once brought their cotton. When the circus came to town, it passed right by their house, with the elephants at the head of the parade, before pitching tent by the railroad track in East Florence, a mile and a half away. The carnival set up in back of the store right across the alley from them. And any children in the neighborhood could ride for free.
It was in the sixth grade, too, that he had his first drum lesson, on the kind of "field" drum that you wore around your neck, from the city music director, Mr. D. F. Stuber. Sam had been begging his mama and daddy for music lessons, beating on pots and pans till he like to drove his mama crazy, and he had to rake leaves and mow Mr. Stuber's yard while his daddy grew a garden for Mr. Stuber to help pay for the lessons. He wasn't the best drummer in the world, he knew, but he was diligent in his application, and with sufficient practice, Mr. Stuber assured him, he could join the marching band the following year when he entered junior high school.
It was during this time that Uncle Silas joined the Phillips household. According to the official Phillips Family Reunion book, Charlie and Madgie Phillips "never turned anyone away who needed food, clothing, shelter, comfort, love, and affection." They raised three children in addition to their own, and many others, including Aunt Emma, lived with them, so that there were frequently as many as "nineteen or twenty ... around the Phillips supper table." In this case it was Silas Payne, a poor black sharecropper, originally from Louisiana, who had worked on the old Pickens place and was, said Sam, a "genius with chickens" even after he went blind from syphilis. Another family had taken him in after the Phillipses moved to town, but when the Miles family could no longer afford to care for him, Charlie Phillips borrowed the cotton gin manager Mr. Wiggins' 1929 Chevrolet and moved Uncle Silas in with them.
The story of Uncle Silas is at the epicenter of everything that Sam Phillips ever believed both about himself and the "common man," in that most uncommon narrative that became the lodestar for his life. It was not sympathy for this old black man's plight that drew him to Silas Payne — far from it, Sam Phillips always insisted. Rather, it was admiration for those same qualities of imagination, creativity, and invincible determination that he had first noted in the black fieldworkers on his father's farm — that and the kind of emotional freedom, the unqualified generosity and kindness that he himself would have most liked to be able to achieve.
Excerpted from Sam Phillips by Peter Guralnick. Copyright © 2015 Peter Guralnick. Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Also by Peter Guralnick,
1 | "I Dare You!" 1923–1942,
2 | Radio Romance 1942–1950,
3 | The Price of Freedom January 1950–June 1951,
4 | "Where the Soul of Man Never Dies" June 1951–October 1952,
5 | Perfect Imperfection June 1952–July 1953,
6 | Prisoner's Dream July 1953–February 1955,
7 | Spiritual Awakenings January 1955–December 1956,
8 | I'll Sail My Ship Alone 1957–1961,
9 | "They'll Carry You to the Cliff and Shove You Off" 1979–1961–1979,
10 | How Lucky Can One Man Get 1980–2003,
A Brief Discographical Note,