The power of Elvis (part 3)

It occurs to me that it simply wouldn’t be right to post all this stuff in praise of Elvis without making at least a small mention of Sam Phillips here as well. Obviously, as talented as Elvis was, as astute as he was about where he wanted his music to go and how best to take it there, he would have been stuck making deliveries for Crown Electric his whole life were it not for the hard work, dedication, and sometimes pure genius of the people he worked with: Scotty Moore, the inimitable Bill Black, Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips, and many others too. But of all the names on the list of this stellar supporting cast, the one that jumps to the front in just about everybody’s opinion has got to be Sam Phillips.

Sam opened the Memphis Recording Service in 1950 with the idea that he would provide an opportunity for unknown (mostly black) artists to record their stuff, which he would then lease to other labels for wider distribution. He’d grown up working the fields with poor black sharecroppers and had developed a deep and abiding love for the blues and R&B music that provided the soundtrack for their arduous struggle through an always-difficult daily life. He quickly tired of dealing with the other labels and started his own, Phillips, which failed after one release by Joe Louis Hill. He tried again with Sun Records in 1952 and soon hit the rich vein of creative talent he’d been doggedly seeking his whole life.

Even if he’d never worked with Elvis at all, Sam Phillips’ legacy would be almost unbelievable; he launched the careers of Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, B.B King, Howlin’ Wolf, Rufus Thomas, Jerry Lee Lewis, and a great many others. He cut what is generally regarded as the first rock and roll record, Jackie Brenston’s “Rocket 88.” He recorded sides by James Cotton, Little Milton, and Junior Parker. Sam truly believed and still believes to this day that the only road for eliminating inequality and hostility between black and white in America runs through a union forged in music; it’s the most delicious kind of irony for a guy like me who has heard every kind of ignorant comment about the absolute ubiquitousness of racism in the South that Phillips stands as an unequivocal refutation of that rotten stereotype. And so does Elvis. Both of those guys could never have happened anyplace but here. There have always been idiots out there who like to cry racism on Elvis’ part, and they’re full of the worst kind of shit – Elvis was loved in the black community of Memphis almost as much as he was in the white one, and he loved them back. He spent a goodly portion of his youth attending black as well as white churches, drinking in the gospel music he loved best till the end of his days, enthralled and later heavily influenced by the quartet singing of the Blackwood Brothers, the Statesmen, and other groups like the Ink Spots and the Mills Brothers. Those who like to sneeringly point out Elvis’ (or Phillips’) “racism” are merely revealing themselves as superciliously ignorant or at best ill-informed.

Sam was a man of his time in many ways, but he was also a man beyond it too. Peter Guralnick has called Sam “probably the only true genius I’ve ever met.” This genius manifested itself in Elvis’ case as an ability to coach the absolute best out of the young singer, to keep his nose to the grindstone and nudge him along, revealing what it was Elvis most wanted to say in each song a little more with every take, getting at the raw nugget of emotion that Elvis was capable of expressing so fantastically by gradually peeling away the stylistic layers that sometimes obscured it. He taught Elvis how important it was to use his diverse influences as a launching point for his own creativity rather than as a crutch to rest his insecurity on. I said in Part Two that Elvis was in charge of every session from early on, and that’s true, but in the early going he learned to trust Sam’s finely-tuned instincts and use the lessons he learned there to his advantage. In fact, a lot of people have speculated that the biggest problem for Elvis when he signed with RCA was that Steve Sholes never really understood what Elvis was after and simply couldn’t draw the juice out of him in the studio the way Sam could. I happen to agree with that idea myself, although Elvis certainly did a lot of very credible and creditable work for RCA.

Sam’s still around, and he’s said time and again over the years that he regrets selling Elvis’ contract with Sun to RCA for a mere $35,000 not a whit. He knew at the time that Elvis’ destiny was already shaping up to be way too big for Memphis and Sun Records to ever completely encompass it, and he looks back not with bitterness over what might have been but with satisfaction and pride in having played such a vital role. And it could only have been Sam in that role; nobody else had the combination of creative talent, technical know-how, business contacts, and relentless drive, coupled with an egalitarian vision and a purist’s love of American roots music – plus a plain and forthright ability to see and recognize unvarnished magic when it walked into his door on Union Avenue. He’s a sometimes grouchy old curmudgeon by all accounts, but the simple fact of his gracious and unselfish historical perspective probably says more about the man and the illimitable truth of his vision than any words I or anyone else could ever put down.

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