Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock 'n' Roll


By Peter Guralnick

Read by Kevin Stillwell

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From the author of the critically acclaimed Elvis Presley biography: Last Train to Memphis brings us the life of Sam Phillips, the visionary genius who singlehandedly steered the revolutionary path of Sun Records.

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.


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Sam and Becky with Knox and Jerry, May 1949. Courtesy of the Sam Phillips Family

In which SAM PHILLIPS addresses the AUTHOR: excerpted from a real-life PLAY IN ONE SCENE

It's a great story, and it will go down in history. I don't know how great the book will be—but it's a great story. Peter, look, let me just tell you like I told all of my children, like I told every artist that walked in the door. Don't be afraid of it. No matter what I say to you, don't be afraid of it. But be frightened to death of not giving your best judgment to everything. Don't let history down. Fuck Sam Phillips. Fuck anything that goes. It's an important era—you got so much more responsibility to that than you got to any one person, including my ass.

The AUTHOR acknowledges that this is so. The AUTHOR suggests that if he doesn't come in for criticism, in Sam's terms he will have fucked up.

If you don't, you're just another one of the motherfuckers that are using this thing to the detriment of the beautiful changes it wrought. That's not right. If you let that happen, you ain't a very conscientious, dedicated, devoted person. It ain't for you to put me in a good light. Just put me in the focus that I'm supposed to be in. Man, I don't give a damn if you say one good thing about me. Your charge is to put all of it in focus and ferret out the bullshit. There's been enough of that. I'm going to tell you, Peter, Ferret it out, for God's sake. Look, and tell your damn publisher, "Hey, if it takes me forever to write it, it's going to be the most authentic thing that has ever emanated from this era. With all the contradictions to the contrary." You read me?

AUTHOR: I do. (And he does.)

"From this, he took a lesson: value the original, fragile, and rough. That's the art."HOLLAND COTTER on the art of Henri Matisse

"To us, their less tried successors, they appear magnified… pushing out into the unknown in obedience to an inward voice, to an impulse beating in the blood, to a dream of the future. They were wonderful; and it must be owned they were ready for the wonderful."JOSEPH CONRAD, Lord Jim

Author's Note

IT WAS A HEAVY CHARGE, as I think should be evident from the dramatic reconstruction on the opposite page—but one from which I never felt I could shrink.

I met Sam Phillips in a flood (see chapter 9), and as I wrote at the time, from that first meeting his words had all the weight of vatic truth. He seemed like an Old Testament prophet to me, in both looks and manner. Or, as singer-songwriter John Prine said, in describing his own first meeting with Sam: his eyes would grow wide, "like fire and brimstone. It looked like his eyebrows and his eyes themselves were on fire—they were just wild—you'd swear that his hair would kind of get curly, and his hands moved like a preacher's."

I mean, it was something!

But that wasn't it—not really. At least not all of it. I suppose I should confess at the start what I am sure will become immediately apparent to the reader: this is a book written out of admiration and love. Nor will it be any less evident that this book is different from the two other biographies I have written, on Elvis Presley and Sam Cooke. Not that there was any less admiration or love in those books. But I knew Sam Phillips, I knew him for almost twenty-five years, I was with him through good times and bad, and while I might not necessarily have chosen to have my responsibilities read to me by my subject, they are the same responsibilities felt by any other biographer (ferret out the truth, don't be afraid of it, and, in the end, "Fuck anything that goes")—they are the self-imposed responsibilities taken on by every writer, of fiction or nonfiction, for better or worse.

In that spirit perhaps I should also add that Sam would have disclaimed the subtitle of this book—well, to be perfectly honest, he would have both claimed and disclaimed it, as he frequently did, more often than not in the same elongated sentence. "I didn't set out to revolutionize the world," he said one time. Instead, what he wanted to do was to test the proposition that there was something "very profound" in the lives of ordinary people, black and white, irrespective of social acceptance. "I knew the physical separation of the races—but I knew the integration of their souls." That was what he set out to capture when he first opened his studio in January of 1950, "when Negro artists in the South who wanted to make a record," he declared early on, "just had no place to go." It went against all practical considerations, it went against all well-intended advice. He considered himself not a crusader ("I don't like crusaders as such") but an explorer. To Sam, "Rock and roll was no accident. Absolutely not an accident at all." "You can say," he told me, "he had the light coming on, and it spotted the possum. Right there."

Well, I guess that's one way of putting it. Let's just say Sam was the man who discovered rock 'n' roll. But more to the point, he considered it his mission in life "to open up an area of freedom within the artist himself"—whether that artist was Elvis Presley or Howlin' Wolf or B.B. King or Johnny Cash—"to recognize that individual's unique quality and then to find the key to unlock it." That is what he sought to do with every artist who entered his studio, whether or not they ever achieved worldly success, whether or not they were ever likely to achieve it.

It might have seemed sometimes to an outsider as if the musicians were just fumbling around, and the producer (a term that did not even exist then, and that Sam to some extent would always disdain: I think he might have preferred to be called a practicing psychologist) was just letting things go to rack and ruin. But he wasn't. He was simply trying to pare things down to their most expressive essence. Michelangelo said: "In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it." That was what Sam Phillips saw not in marble but in untried, untested, unspoken-for people: an eloquence and a gift that sometimes they did not even know they possessed. Like other celebrated American artists—like Walt Whitman, who sought to encompass the full range of the American experience in his poetry; like William Faulkner, who could see past prejudice to individual distinctions; like Mark Twain, who celebrated the freedom of the river and a refusal to be civilized—Sam was driven by a creative vision that left him with no alternative but to persist in his determination to give voice to those who had no voice. "With the belief that I had in this music, in these people," he said, "I would have been the biggest damn coward on God's green earth if I had not."

From the day I first met him in 1979, Sam Phillips began telling me the story of his life. Not in so many words, of course. But then, given his discursive nature, it may well have been so many words. To Sam his life was epic, mythic, intimate, and instructive by turns, and the tone he used to describe it was casual, colloquial, lyrical, thundering, and eloquently collusive. All of which pretty much ruled out any hope of linearity. What you were going for, in Sam's terms, was "just another swinging day at the fair."

He saw himself as a teacher and a preacher. That was the motivation that drove him to expound his message to the world, long after he had stopped making records. But in a very real sense the persona that he created in later life to convey that message did a disservice to the watchful, reactive role he had fashioned for himself when all of his attention was focused on no more than "to bring out of a person what was in him… to help him express what he believed his message to be." To Sam every session was meant to be like "the making of Gone with the Wind," with all its epic grandeur—but at the same time every session had to be fun, too. If it wasn't fun, it wasn't worth doing, he said, and if you weren't doing something different, of course, then you weren't doing anything at all. As far as failure went, there could be no such thing in his studio, because in the end, Sam insisted, it was all about individuated self-expression, nothing more, nothing less.

"Perfect imperfection" was the watchword—both in life and in art—in other words, take the hand you're dealt and then make something of it. If Ike Turner's guitarist's amp fell off the car on the way up to Memphis to cut "Rocket 88," well, stuff some paper where the speaker cone was ruptured, and THEN YOU HAD AN ORIGINAL SOUND! If a telephone went off in the middle of a session, well, you kept that telephone in—just make sure it's THE BEST-SOUNDING DAMN TELEPHONE IN THE WORLD.

You can see how this could affect a person—and by "person," in this instance I mean me. Meeting Sam for me was a life-changing event—but for all of the impact of his message, and for all of the fact that in retrospect I think I can say he hit virtually every point in his narrative at that first meeting, I soon discovered that it was a message that could all too easily be misunderstood. When Sam referred to his mental breakdown and electroshock treatment, for example, not long after opening the studio (he even called his wife, Becky, to verify the dates of his hospitalization), I thought it represented a triumph over darkness once and for all. But that wasn't quite what Sam meant, although there would have been no telling that at the time. (He didn't mean the opposite either.) So many of the conclusions I came to, after that first immersion in the Book of Sam, the conclusions to which Sam was pointing, in a sense was always pointing, were so much more nuanced than the supremely confident language in which they were clothed. I mean, it wasn't that they didn't hold up over the years. They did. They were, if anything, reinforced. But they were modified, as all of our truths are modified, by the life that was lived. They were like the family anecdotes that we all tell one another, a neat summation that encapsulates a far deeper and more complex reality.

Since that time I have continued to be engaged in a running dialogue with Sam, as I'm sure will escape the notice of no one who reads this book. The conversation is never anything less than lively—it is thought-provoking, engaging, frequently as challenging as it was in real life. The difference is, simply, that in real life, there was no shut-off valve. Now, more than ten years after his death, I can simply take my leave of Sam after three, four, maybe even five hours, and go on to other pursuits. It is, I suppose, more civilized—but given the choice, I'm not sure with Sam polite discourse would ever be the preferred mode.

How many times have I wanted to ask him questions of both fact and opinion? I study the transcripts of our conversations, I pore over other interviews and try to read between the lines, attempting to gauge what his vocal and facial expressions must have been—I torture my brain sometimes trying to interpret Sam's Ciceronian syntax or, in many instances, guess at the periodic conclusion at which he never quite arrived.

Occasionally—well, more than occasionally—I think of Sam's reaction. More than once I've hesitated momentarily at revealing some of the things he appeared to have kept secret. Or at least that I didn't know about. Which, of course, are by no means the same thing, though often one is tempted to conflate the two. But in the end I hope I've kept faith with Sam's charge of total honesty ("I don't want any accolades. I just want the truth. And, God believe me, Peter… if you fuck it up, then you're a goddamn crook as far as I'm concerned, and I'll tell you to your teeth"), tempered with the same consideration for people that Sam so often showed, in his own way, particularly in his creative endeavors. I've also tried to hold up as an example to myself his inextinguishable faith in humanity. Not soppy inextinguishable faith. What I'm talking about is the broad framework that would banish forever the exclamation "That's disgusting" with reference to behavior with which we're not familiar or of which we do not approve, and substitute instead the recognition That's human. There was nothing, in other words, in Sam's cosmogony that could make us less than human, even if it didn't conform to the more convenient tale we would like to tell about ourselves.

Sam always made it plain—not just to me but to everyone around him—that he wanted hard, unvarnished truths, and I never doubted for a moment that he did. As Jerry Phillips said at one point while pondering whether or not to tell a particularly uncomfortable story about his father, "Sam would just say, 'Tell the goddamn truth'"—and that is what he and every other member of Sam's family was committed to. Not so much in the sense of, Let the chips fall wherever they fucking may (his wife, Becky, was too kind for that, his older son, Knox, too devoted, and his longtime companion, Sally Wilbourn, underneath a fiercely protective outer shell, perhaps in the end too fragile), but there was never any sense on anyone's part, least of all Sam's, of hiding his humanity under a neatly formed construct, of sacrificing the truth at any point to an invitingly colorful legend.

There were so many crazy times, so many two-fisted drinking dinners (I'm speaking here of Sam's two fists)—Knox and I discussed all the time the wreck of all our well-conceived plans and expectations. ("That was a weird interview with Sam," Knox might say. "I mean, weird good.") But without meaning in any way to equate my own outsider status with Knox's own indissoluble bond with his father—I mean, close doesn't even begin to describe it—there was not, we always hasten to agree, there was not one single moment either of us would not give everything to have back. As Sam would certainly say, they were all great, they were all to be prized—because they were all, each and every one of them, indubitably real. R-E-A-L.

As you can see, nearly everyone who loved Sam has contributed to this book. Not all of them understood Sam. In fact, outside the immediate family, most—with the notable exception of self-proclaimed-and-proud-of-it "nuts" like Jack Clement and Sputnik Monroe or more reserved wisemen like Roland Janes—probably did not. Some preferred to think of him as a kind of high-achieving "rodeo clown"—and permitted themselves to be, simply, amused by some of his more outrageous pronouncements or actions (cf. his appearance on the David Letterman show). But there was no one that I encountered who was untouched, or was not in some way inspired, by Sam. There was no one who failed to recognize his unique—well, if they wouldn't give him "genius," every one of them was ready to concede they had never met anyone else even remotely like Sam.

Which brings me back to my role in this book. Because, of course, like everyone else in Sam's life, I was assigned a role, however small—and like everyone else, as should be clear from just a smattering of our dialogue, I was expected to carry it out. In writing the book I felt I had to take advantage of that role, not to enlarge myself but to give the kind of firsthand insight that however well I might feel I knew Elvis or Sam Cooke, I simply was not afforded by personal experience. It's not that the events that I witnessed were magnified in any way by my presence—but they were no less colorful or characteristic either, and it was, of course, a rare opportunity to report from the front lines.

Occasionally (very occasionally) I was a witness to history, more often to the unfettered expression of personality—but, most important, I was afforded a glimpse, whether advertent or inadvertent, as Sam might say, of some of the dramedy of real life. Sitting with Sam just before (and just after) he delivered his paean to Johnny Cash and Jesus and the Hotel Peabody at a NARAS celebration in Memphis that shocked and offended half the audience while raising Sam up even higher in the shockabilly esteem of the rest. Private moments of desolation and despair (well, perhaps despair is too big a word for his feelings—doubt maybe?), when he might unburden himself of his frustrations, then castigate himself for giving in to negative thinking, against all of his strongly held beliefs. Those times when he would call up a long-since-forgotten past and summon up unsung heroes (unsung even in the body of this book) like Alex "Puddin'" Beck, an African-American plumber's assistant, who was as brilliant as any advanced-degree sanitary engineer, Sam said, and could emerge from the messiest and smelliest job as clean as a whistle. "Hey," said Sam without a smidgen of irony, "are you gonna tell me people like that are not brilliant?" And then there were those rare exposed moments when all pretense was cast aside and Sam stood, like Lear upon the heath, raging at unseen cataracts and hurricanoes.

One thing that for me can be difficult about many biographies—well, about so many stories in general—is the predictable spinning out of the tale. With Elvis Presley and Sam Cooke that issue never really presented itself—they both died so young. But Sam Phillips lived to the age of eighty, and to all intents and purposes he had by then been retired from any active engagement in the record business for over forty years. Sam was never boring—at least not to me—but a recitation of all his accolades and honors would have been. I have done my best to avoid that recitation. Instead, I have attempted to write a book that conforms to Sam's definition of what a recording session ought to be, as epic as, well, take your pick of epics, but as intimate as sexual relations. That tells a story that, like most stories, can be both heroic and tragic at the same time, in its own mortal way.

Sometimes in the middle of the night he arrives unbidden. He even sets me riddles. In one dream he said to my bewilderment (both then and now), "I am nothing if not an idealist.… I am everything but an idealist.… The boy cannot fully understand." I dream of Sam. I dream of my grandfather. I dream of Solomon Burke and the songwriter Doc Pomus. All gone. They come around less frequently now. But whenever Sam arrives, as often as not rattling at the window in the midst of a torrent of conflicting concerns, I always listen.

Sam at eight. Courtesy of the Sam Phillips Family

ONE | "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!"

The Phillips Family, 1916 (before J.W. and Sam were born). Left to right: Charles, Irene, Horace, Madgie, and Tom. Standing at back: Mary and Turner. Courtesy of the Sam Phillips Family

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.

Sam and J.W. (Jud). Courtesy of the Sam Phillips Family



  • New York Times Bestseller

    One of The Washington Post's Notable Nonfiction Books of 2015

    "Mr. Guralnick is a sensitive biographer who has landed upon a perfect topic in Phillips, the brilliant Memphis producer who, in the 1950s, recorded the earliest work of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Howlin' Wolf. This is vital American history, smartly and warmly told."—Dwight Garner, New York Times, Top Books of 2015
  • "Definitive...With Presley's story at its core, Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock 'n' Roll is in some ways the third volume [to] Guralnick's double-volume Elvis bio. What makes it more illuminating and arguably truer is seeing Elvis in the broader context of Phillips' career, [which was] in many ways a mission to transform [t]his nation's history of bigotry....You may come away born again."—Rolling Stone
  • "A book so thoroughly steeped in its subject that it is almost an autobiography in the third person.... 'This is a book written out of admiration and love,' Guralnick states frankly in an author's note. As such, it honors Sam Phillips elegantly, by devoting itself to the one subject Phillips seemed to admire and love as much as he did ­music: Sam Phillips himself."—David Hajdu, New York Times Book Review
  • "Lovingly crafted.... With crisp prose and meticulous detail, Guralnick gives Phillips the same epic treatment he previously employed in acclaimed biographies of Sam Cooke and Elvis Presley.... An astonishing feat.... It is difficult to imagine a more complete or poetic account of his life than this remarkable volume.... 'I didn't set out to revolutionize the world,' Phillips once told Guralnick in a moment of humility, but in this book [the author] convincingly argues that Phillips did just that."—Charles Hughes, The Washington Post
  • "Peter Guralnick isn't just a music writer or a biographer--he's one of the essential chroniclers of American popular culture, and his work illuminates some of the crucial components of our national identity: race, religion, fame, and the big business of having fun, among others. In this epic biography of Sam Phillips, Guralnick bears witness to the birth of rock and roll and the cultural revolution it inspired. It's not only an unforgettable portrait of an eccentric visionary, it's a testament to the power of ordinary people to change the world with nothing more than a beautiful idea and a handful of songs."—Tom Perrotta, author of The Leftovers
  • "When Elvis Presley stepped into a Memphis recording studio with producer Sam Phillips in 1954, they defined rock 'n' roll as we know it. Peter Guralnick already gave us Elvis's story in two landmark books. He now returns with a brilliant, intensely human look at Phillips, the endlessly fascinating figure who also recorded Johnny Cash, B.B King, Howlin' Wolf, and Jerry Lee Lewis. It's a bold, insightful work that tells us in novelistic detail about the obsessions and struggles of the man who presided over the uneasy birth of rock 'n' roll."—Robert Hilburn, author of Johnny Cash
  • "Sam Phillips is an epic biography, at once sweeping and personal, in which the gifted writer Peter Guralnick captures the voice and life of a transformational figure in American music."—Jess Walter, author of Beautiful Ruins
  • "A monumental biography of the larger-than-life loner who fought for the acceptance of black music and discovered an extraordinary group of poor, country-boy singers whose records would transform American popular culture.... A wonderful story that brings us deep into that moment when America made race music its own and gave rise to the rock sound now heard around the world."—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
  • "Guralnick wrote definitive biographies of Elvis and now does the same for Phillips, a visionary who gave voice to a rich and diverse culture long marginalized.... Essential reading for music fans."—Ben Segedin, Booklist (starred review)
  • "Epic, elegant and crisply told."—Henry L. Carrigan, Jr., BookPage
  • "Acclaimed music historian Guralnick has written landmark accounts of Elvis and the history of American roots music, and he now turns his considerable skills to the life of Sun Records producer Sam Phillips in this delightful and comprehensive volume. Guralnick energetically tells the must-read tale of a Southern boy intent on enacting his vision of freedom and justice through music."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
  • "The book is a labor of love. Guralnick is passionate about the music, but he doesn't let his passion overinflate his prose, and he seems to know everything about everyone who was part of the Southern music world... It's natural for us to take events that were to a significant extent the product of guesswork, accident, short-term opportunism and good luck...and shape them into a heroic narrative....But a legend is just one of the forms that history takes -- which is why it's good to have Guralnick's book."—Louis Menand, The New Yorker
  • "With his latest book, Guralnick has penned his most intimate work yet. Over the course of 700-plus pages, Guralnick documents Phillips as both a musical visionary and a champion of a kind of humanist democracy--someone who sought to document the expressions of the poor and disenfranchised, those consigned to the narrow margins of society. In trying to understand Phillips' work, legacy and philosophies, Guralnick doesn't shy away from the more difficult aspects of his life. By doing so, Guralnick creates a complex, compelling and unflinching portrait."—Bob Mehr, Memphis Commercial Appeal
  • "Peter Guralnick tells it like it was. If you want to dig into the truth and read about what really went down in Memphis in the '50s, this is the definitive book."—Lucinda Williams
  • "Mr. Guralnick has conjured the magic of Elvis in the Sun studio as Presley's biographer, but his knowing Sam Phillips makes this the superior version... Mr. Guralnick takes you right to the room, and rather than gliding past a scene that has been written about many times, he immerses himself comfortably in it and revives its original intensity....[He] has produced the gold-standard Presley bio and now a complete portrait of his inspiration. Mr. Guralnick, the historian, writer and fan, has captured what was different, real and raw about a great artist."—Preston Lauterbach, Wall Street Journal
  • " With this book, Peter Guralnick brings popular music and the man who gave us so much of it, Sam Phillips, to the very centre of American social history. And he does it quite brilliantly."—Roddy Doyle, author of The Commitments
  • "Superb.... No one could tell Sam's story -- a complex mixture of music business reportage and personal narrative -- with the level of detail and affection that Guralnick brings to these 700-plus pages. Sam Phillips may well be the capstone to Guralnick's career.... This book gives Phillips and his judgments their due. Bridging American music's racial divide and transforming its pop, he was as much an original as the artists he nurtured."—Matt Damsker, USA Today
  • "Guralnick's book is comprehensive, warm, thorough, captivating, and compulsively readable....It may just be the best music book of 2015."—Henry Carrigan, No Depression
  • "A rollicking good time. Sometimes reading can rattle the cage and stomp the floor, and no one rattled the cages more than Sam Phillips."—Memphis Flyer
  • "A cornerstone addition to Guralnick's unmatched backlist of music history and biography."—Shelf Awareness
  • " A deeply intimate portrait that never veers into hagiography....For Guralnick and for the reader, the book becomes the quintessential Phillips production: an altogether profound and revelatory experience."—Memphis Commercial Appeal
  • "A sprawling, engaging biography stuffed with stories and tidbits."—Knoxville News
  • "Much-anticipated and long-awaited, Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock 'n' Roll, is as much a labor of love for Peter Guralnick as Sun Records was to Sam Phillips. And that's saying something."—Trevor Cajiao, Now Dig This
  • "Thoroughgoing and thoroughly satisfying.... Guralnick has injected enough helium and momentum into the material to get it airborne and moving stately forward."—Peter Lewis, Christian Science Monitor
  • "If his two-volume life of Elvis Presley, biography of Sam Cooke, Dream Boogie, and trilogy on southern roots music haven't convinced you that Peter Guralnick is our finest chronicler of American music, [this] should do the trick....Magisterial yet's a book that places Guralnick in some pretty heady company. Arguably, he is to music what Robert Caro is to politics: a dogged researcher and graceful writer who has a genuine feel for his subjects and the knowledge to place them in a larger context.... A wonderfully nuanced and shaded portrait."—Best Classic Bands
  • "What shines through this sympathetic but warts-and-all bio is that for Phillips it wasn't about the money or even just about the music. It was about music's ability to bridge the considerable racial divide that existed at the time....Compelling and even revelatory to those who thought they knew it all."—Curt Schleier, Minneapolis Star Tribune
  • "Phillips's stories and philosophies light up these pages....By the book's end, the weight of Guralnick's mission comes into full view. Phillips had advised him early on, "It ain't for you to put me in a good light. Just put me in the focus I'm supposed to be in." And that's exactly what Guralnick has done. His subject would no doubt be proud that he got it right."—James Reed, Boston Globe
  • "Guralnick's biography of Sam Phillips is a key work of Americana."—Downbeat
  • "An accumulation of minute and fascinating details about apprenticeship, the glory, and the very assembly of a man who conjured spells out of valves, wrestled with small-time double-dealers, caught lightning, and swam against the tide to introduce the world to Howlin' Wolf, Elvis Presley, and Johnny Cash, to name but three. An exceptional portrait of a singular force."—Elvis Costello
  • "The story of Sam Phillips is not just a musical journey; it's a portrait of a polymath, an incredibly driven Southern eccentric....Guralnick clearly delights in telling Phillips's tale. He is known for being an excellent and empathetic biographer: straightforward, never florid. ...Forty pages before the end of this tome, the author comes uncharacteristically clean. "Hell, why not just come out and say it? I loved Sam." By that point, so do we."—Michael Barclay, MacLean's
  • "Guralnick paints a detailed and sympathetic picture of Phillips as a relentless visionary,a talker, a loving but imperfect family man and a perfectionist who relished imperfections that could make recordings special."—Michael Hill, Associated Press
  • "Just as the two magisterial volumes of Guralnick's Presley bio paint a much more nuanced picture of Presley, The Man Who Invented Rock 'n' Roll captures the complexity of the colorful Phillips....The author loves his subject and loves writing about him.... A book that can stand with his best, and that is [both] entertaining and lively....For that rock-and-roll fans should be eternally grateful."—Dan DeLuca, Philadelphia Inquirer
  • "Essential reading."—Isabella Biedenharn, Entertainment Weekly
  • "Phillips' rich and oracular storytelling permeates this book....He was huckster, trickster, dreamer and architect compressed in one roiling, flamboyant package. If he hadn't existed, it would have been necessary for Mark Twain to invent him."—Gene Seymour, Newsday
  • "Few biographies have anything like this degree of insight, rigor, or command of detail; crucially, it also drives you back to the music. Written with sensitivity and love, it captures more than any other book this writer can remember the Fifties' limitless possibilities, and is a gripping depiction of an empire in its pomp--not only Sun Records, but also America."—Paul Trynka, Mojo
  • "A large part of the book's appeal consists in Guralnick's easy, conversational style. With its frequent use of anecdote and reliance on reported conversation, Sam Phillips could have been sprawling and uneven. In the hands of a storyteller as deft as Peter Guralnick, however, it effortlessly engages the reader throughout."—Lou Glandfield, Times Literary Supplement
  • "One of the most profound biographies of recent years....Sam Phillips has many of the characteristics of a Sun recording session: epic but as intimate as sex...[and] delivering a figure so quintessentially American he might almost be a character in Mark Twain or Melville."—Brian Morton, Glasgow Herald
  • "Sam Phillips is Guralnick's most personal book....The author injects himself into the book more than ever before--not only because he's part of the story in the later years but also because Phillips' credo of breaking down of class and race barriers through the 'extreme individualism' is so essential to Guralnick's life work--and his conception of American music. You can hear Phillips' evangelical fervor resonating in Guralnick's prose much as you could once hear it reverberating in Presley's vocals."—Geoffrey Himes, Paste

On Sale
Nov 10, 2015
Hachette Audio

Peter Guralnick

About the Author

Peter Guralnick’s books include the prize-winning two-volume biography of Elvis Presley, Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love; an acclaimed trilogy on American roots music, Feel Like Going Home, Lost Highway, and Sweet Soul Music; the biographical inquiry Searching for Robert Johnson; and Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke. Guralnick won a Grammy for his liner notes for Sam Cooke Live at the Harlem Square Club, wrote and co-produced the documentary Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll, and wrote the scripts for the Grammy-winning documentary Sam Cooke/Legend and Martin Scorsese’s blues documentary Feel Like Going Home. His 2015 book Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ’n’ Roll was a finalist for the Plutarch Award for Best Biography of the Year, awarded by the Biographers International Organization. His most recent book is Looking to Get Lost: Adventures in Music and Writing.



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