Sam Phillips
Sam Phillips

Peter Guralnick's New Book & 2-Disc Set Spotlights Sun's Sam Phillips

This week and next Sam Phillips — who famously discovered Elvis Presley, Jerry Leee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and Howlin' Wolf and recorded them at his Memphis one-room Sun Records studio — is going to be in the news as a new book by Peter Guralnick, and a competing double-disc set compiled by the author come out on the 10th and 3rd respectively.

Here's an extract from Guralnick's book coming out via Little Brown on Nov. 10:

Elvis Presley came into the studio on Saturday, 26 June 1954. He was 19 years old; a good-looking boy with acne on his neck, long sideburns, and long, greasy hair combed in a ducktail that he had to keep patting down. But what struck Sam most was his quality of genuine humility – humility mixed with intense determination. He was, innately, Sam thought, one of the most introverted people who had ever come into the studio, but for that reason one of the bravest, too. He reminded Sam of many of the great early blues singers who had come into his studio, "his insecurity was so markedly like that of a black person".

They worked on the number all afternoon, with Elvis accompanying himself inexpertly on his own beat-up little guitar. When it became obvious that for whatever reason the boy was not going to get it right – maybe "Without You" wasn't the right song for him, maybe he was just intimidated by the damn studio – Sam had him run down just about every song he knew. He didn't need much of an invitation, and he didn't finish every song, but what Sam sensed was a breadth of knowledge, a passion for the music that didn't come along every day.

"I guess I must have sat there at least three hours," Elvis told Memphis Press- Scimitar reporter Bob Johnson in 1956. "I sang everything I knew – pop stuff, spirituals, just a few words of [anything] I remembered." Sam watched intently through the glass of the control room window – he was no longer taping, and in almost every respect this session had to be accounted a dismal failure, but still there was something. . .

Every so often the boy looked up at him, as if for approval: was he doing all right? Sam just nodded and spoke in that smooth, reassuring voice. "You're doing just fine. Now just relax. Let me hear something that really means something to you now." Soothing, crooning, his gaze locked into the boy's through the plate-glass window he had built so that his eyes would be level with the performer's when he was sitting at the control room console. He didn't really know if they were getting anywhere or not, it was just so damned hard to tell, especially when you were dealing with someone who was obviously unaccustomed to performing in public.

Then again, it was only from just such a person – pure, unspoiled, as raw, as untutored as anyone who had ever set foot in this studio – that he felt he could get the results he was looking for. He knew this boy, he knew where he came from, he could intuit all the things they had in common in background and sensibility . What you could never tell was whether it would ever add up to anything. He sent the boy on his way, exhausted.


© Peter Guralnick, 2015. Extracted from SAM PHILLIPS: The Man Who Invented Rock'n'Roll by Peter Guralnick. Published by Little, Brown and Company (784 p., hardcover $23.10, Kindle edition $14.99

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