Genesis: Sam Phillips – The Man Who Invented Rock’n’Roll



This television review ran in The Sunday Herald in July 2000

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. Well, there are schools of thought on that. But what is known for damn sure is that Samuel Cornelius Phillips created Sun, and God Himself would be first to admit that things didn’t really get interesting until then, anyway.

Founder of the legendary Sun Records, Sam Phillips is – as per the title of a new documentary – The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll. While it essentially sums matters up, this is a tired title for a pretty great study of Phillips and Sun: for one thing, Phillips did not, of course, invent Rock ‘n’ Roll, or if he did, he invented it the same way people invented oil and gold: by opening up the right crack at the right time, by being singularly able to recognise what others might have taken for dirt, and by having the equipment on hand to help the raw stuff out into the light.

For another, “Rock’n’ Roll” is an almost bankrupt phrase, conjuring associations today that have little to do with the unfathomable things that were set free behind the Venetian blinds of that tiny white building at 706 Union Avenue in Memphis half a century ago.

Initially called The Memphis Recording Service, Phillips’s studio is famously remembered as the place where Elvis happened: when, in the summer of 1953, a lonely nineteen-year-old truck driver took notice of local newspaper ads publicising the facilities Phillips’s studio had for allowing members of the public to create their own personalised recordings on the premises, and wandered in and recorded a sweet, high-wavering ballad as birthday present for his mom – and then just kept hanging around.

If only by persuading “the kid with the sideburns” to record Big Boy Crudup’s “That’s All Right Mama” for commercial release, Sam Phillips changed the angle of the world.

Moving through this documentary aged seventy-seven, he still crackles with energy: “If Sam were to walk into the room right now,” comes a comment early in the film, “the molecular structure of the air would change.” Phillips looks formidable these days. With his testifying-preacher’s voice, and his face encased in a pointed beard so he resembles Rip Torn turning into a werewolf, he could fit a noisy cameo in a David Lynch movie. Indeed, one fascinating aspect of the film is seeing all these young men grown old, eyes still blazing the same fire.

Unleashing Elvis remains Sun’s Manhattan Project, the blast eclipsing most of the other events that the studio witnessed. But while the Memphis Flash is given due consideration, the documentary, written by the great American music critic Peter Guralnick, is equally entranced by the rest of the story (including the moment when Phillips opened the world’s first all-girl radio station: “WHER, 1,000 Beautiful Watts!”).

Phillips founded the Memphis Recording Service in 1950, while he was still working as a radio engineer for a local station. It originated purely as a studio facility for local musicians, creating records Phillips then licensed out to established companies. Phillips had Ike Turner as a talent scout, and an early recording was of Turner’s band member, Jackie Brenston, blasting out “Rocket 88.” The band had broken valves in their amplifiers while travelling to the session, and it was Phillips’ genius to recognise that the thick, burning, damaged sound of the faulty equipment added everything. Most of the people who get to agree about such things agree that the resulting single was the world’s first rock’n’roll record.

Turner also brought to Phillips’ attention a dignified, shy but mischievous 41-year-old local powerhouse bluesman, who, while a veteran live performer, had never before been recorded. The man came in and Phillips captured a colossal noise, a sound at once like the groan of the world’s first turning and an eternal electrical storm in space: this was the first record by Chester Arthur Burnett, better known to the universe as Howlin’ Wolf, and as such the keystone of about three quarters of all the interesting music that has since been created.

Working with black artists in that place at that time, Phillips was victim to the endemic racism surrounding him, and this pressure, along with that of combining his radio work with his work in the studio, led to a nervous breakdown in mid-1951. After undergoing a course of electroshock therapy, he gave up the day job and went full time with the studio. Sun was born.

Following Elvis, black artists fell away from the label as Phillips experimented with repeating the formula. Sun flooded with hillbilly talent, among them the sanctified foursome of Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis. In the case of Cash, an ex-Airforce man working as a household appliances salesman, Phillips’s brilliance manifested itself in two ways. First, he realised that the sound of Cash set against the primordial chicka-boom of his two-man back up – car mechanics who could barely play – a noise like the bones of music knocking sadly together, should remain undiluted, and unencumbered by any extraneous embroidering. Secondly, where Cash initially wanted to record religious songs, Phillips suggested, “see if you can’t be a little bit of a sinner.” Soon, Cash was in Reno, shooting men just to watch them die, then telling of it in gospel-haunted tones.

God was a constant presence at Sun. Jerry Lee Lewis, who funded his trip to the studio by selling all the eggs from his family’s chicken farm, protested bitterly about the Devil’s music, before plunging into that inferno with gleeful mania: a fantastic recording of Lewis and Phillips loudly debating the heretical nature of “Great Balls of Fire” is heard during the film, Lewis declaiming the song’s sulphurous stench, before laying down one of the most staggering performances of his, anyone’s, career.

Beyond the famous names, though, came other mild, wild madmen who would never otherwise have been heard beyond their front porch, names like Billy Lee Riley, Warren Smith, Ray Harris, Jimmy Wages, and more, and more. The records they made are still astounding: rushing and clattering , close to spinning out of control. But Sun caught it all. Sam Phillips – The Man Who Invented Rock’n’Roll catches most of it again, and throws in a wrestler for good measure. It sounds like heaven.