At the man who helped make Elvis the once and forever King.
On the day Sam Phillips died, the crowd at the world’s (alleged) all-time biggest rock concert, in Toronto, booed and threw bottles at teen heartthrob Justin Timberlake, of the boy band ‘N Sync. Master Timberlake was said to be too “plastic” and “manufactured” for the taste of rock fans there to see Rush and AC/DC. This is the fellow to whom, as she revealed this summer, Britney Spears surrendered her much-advertised virginity, which suggests that letting the suits in the head office mold your identity is not without its compensations. But young Justin sportingly said he thought the bottle-hurling was “understandable”.
And so it is. Rock’n’roll may be the most aggressively corporate branch of showbusiness ever invented but it’s still obsessed with being “raw” and “authentic” and “countercultural”. That’s where Sam Phillips comes in: he represents rock’s BC era – Before Corporate -before Elvis said goodbye to Sam’s Sun Records, in Memphis, and headed for RCA and Hollywood and Vegas. But back in 1954 it was Sam who told Elvis to sing the country song (“Blue Moon Of Kentucky”) kinda bluesy and the blues song (“That’s All Right”) kinda country, and, as Elvis was a polite 19-year old who obliged his elders, somewhere in the crisscross something clicked.
No, no, a thousand times no. Or not quite, anyhow. Contrary to popular belief, Elvis allowed himself to be wheedled, cajoled, or otherwise manipulated by absolutely NOBODY when it came to his music. As Peter’s Guralnick’s brilliantly-done two-part biography of him makes abundantly plain, Elvis knew exactly what he was doing from the very beginning, only losing his way both musically and personally after succumbing to various excesses and overindulgences in the early 70s.
Phillips’s nevertheless crucial role in one Elvis Aron Presley’s (Aron pronounced “AY-ron,” the better to sync with the name of his stillborn twin Jesse Garon, actually) journey ever upwards from rawboned aspiring singer and interpreter of the Great American Songbook, which is how Elvis saw himself and was all he ever dreamed of being, was that of a collaborator and partner, not a Svengali.
It’s the Phillips tracks that redeem Elvis for everything that came afterward.
Not necessarily. Can even a remotely credible contention be made that these stellar vocal performances somehow need to be “redeemed”?
No sir, it can NOT. Onwards. Seeing as how my music posts tend to run a bit, um, long, and also that Elvis, Phillips, and rock and roll generally are subjects I’ve spent most of my “adult” (allegedly) life studying closely, I’ll tuck the rest of this one below the fold.
That’s why Phillips’ moment is central to rock’s sense of itself, and why critics still insist that Elvis’s The Sun Sessions is the all-time greatest album*. As Robert Hilburn put it, on the Sun set “you hear rock being born” – not to Tin Pan Alley hacks and big-time corporations, but in a one-story brick studio where a kid walked in off the street. Just as real revolutionaries watch the Revolution Day tank parade from the presidential palace and reminisce about the days when they were peasants with pitchforks, so fellows who spend eight months in a studio remixing a couple of tracks fondly reminisce about the days when Ike Turner’s amplifier fell off the car roof on the way to the studio and Sam Phillips stuffed the punctured speaker cone with paper and accidentally created a “wall of sound”. The Sun motto was “We Record Anything, Anytime, Anywhere” – including the men’s room, where the toilet served as the studio’s echo chamber. The conventional line on Phillips is that he’s the guy who encouraged Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Roy Orbison to “experiment”. “I’d try things I knew I couldn’t do,” Carl Perkins remembered, “and then have to work my way out of it. I’d say, ‘Mr Phillips, that’s terrible.’ He’d say, ‘That’s original.'”
I interviewed Phillips once for the BBC. Well, that’s not exactly true. I pretended to be from the BBC. Unfortunately, a genuine BBC chap had turned up the day before I did, which meant that, when I was ushered into his presence, Phillips seemed vaguely suspicious that I wasn’t quite what I claimed to be. Desperate to reassure him that I was a legitimate rock interviewer, I somehow fell into a terrible rhythm of earnest cliché questions I couldn’t get out of – about the “rawness”, the “authenticity” – and, Elvised out as he was, he politely gave the standard answers for the umpteenth time. He had a laid-back cool that Elvis never quite managed, and he wore a little lightning-bolt pin with the Presley motto: “TCB.” Taking Care of Business.
Here’s what I would like to have discussed. He knew Elvis before he was Elvis, before he was a star and then a parody. He knew Elvis when he was an 18-year old who parked his Ford pick-up outside the studio on Union Avenue and said he wanted to record a song for his momma’s birthday: “My Happiness”, as recorded by Ella Fitzgerald, and the Pied Pipers, and the Ink Spots. The teenage Elvis liked the Ink Spots, and Eddie Fisher. He wanted to sing like Dean Martin – as you can hear…
Elvis’s career after Phillips is regarded by rock critics as a ghastly sellout to commercialism and conformity, though there’s nothing obviously commercial or conformist about a ragbag like “Old Shep”, “Rock-A-Hula Baby”, “Peace In The Valley”, “No Room To Rhumba In A Sports Car”, plus adaptations of “O Sole Mio” and “The Battle Hymn Of The Republic”. Justin Timberlake’s minders would be unlikely to recommend any of ’em. Elvis had an extraordinary range – two octaves and a third – but not a consistent voice. He was a chameleon but unfocused, and when he wasn’t doing Dino he could sound like Al Jolson, Mahalia Jackson or an Irish tenor. The wacky eclecticism is the real Elvis. The “raw”, “authentic” Sun Sessions Elvis is the manufactured product. “I encouraged him to be real raw,” said Phillips, “because if he was artificial he wouldn’t be able to keep it up.” Au contraire: it was being raw he couldn’t keep up.
Go back to that summer’s day in 1953, when Phillips first heard that voice. He wanted Elvis, but he didn’t want him singing “My Happiness”. Nobody needed a one-man Ink Spots, or a hillbilly Eddie Fisher. “I always said,” Phillips told everybody, “that if I could find a white boy who could sing like a black man I’d make a million dollars.”
Probably his most well-known quote ever, that one, reminiscent of what the somewhat unjustly reviled Colonel Tom Parker famously promised the boy who would be King: “Son, right now you got a million dollars worth of talent. When I get done with you, you’ll have a million dollars.”
Although the pivotal part he played in advising, inspiring, and assisting a teenaged Presley on the initial steps along the road to becoming a true musical colossus he was ought to be accolade enough for any three or four of us, there was more to Phillips and Sun Records than Elvis alone, of course; much, much more. At his modest Sun Studio space in Memphis, Phillips recorded artists aplenty who would go on to become legends in their own right, from Jackie Brenston (whose “Rocket 88” is considered to be the very first rock and roll record), Rufus Thomas, and Howlin’ Wolf to Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, and Charlie Rich.
A bona fide genius and visionary was Sam Phillips. January 5th marked the 100th anniversary of the great man’s birth. May God forever bless and keep him.
* Almost forgot to mention this, but ironically enough, Elvis’s 54-55 Sun recordings weren’t compiled and released as the Sun Sessions full-length LP/album until 1976, not by Sam Phillips or Sun but by the label Elvis left Sun for, RCA.