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.