Sam Phillips biographer Peter Guralnick talks about the man who discovered Elvis, and reveals cover of his new book
Music biographer Peter Guralnick might be best known for his bestselling, critically acclaimed two-volume biography of Elvis Presley—Careless Love and Last Train to Memphis. But this November, he’ll release the crown jewel of his oeuvre, a biography he’s essentially been working on for 25 years: Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock n’ Roll — How One Man Discovered Howlin’ Wolf, Ike Turner, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis Presley, and How His Tiny Label, Sun Records of Memphis, Revolutionized the World! We have your exclusive first look at the cover below.
EW talked to Guralnick about Sam Phillips’s unmatched charisma, his lifelong mission to erase racial lines, and his three early heroes: A female whorehouse owner during the Depression, his brilliant, deaf Aunt Emma, and a blind, black sharecropper named Silas Payne who lived with Sam’s family.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When did you decide to write a biography of Sam Phillips?
Peter Guralnick: It goes back to the first time that I met Sam Phillips in 1979. With the possible exception of Solomon Burke, I’d never met anyone as inspiring or as charismatic. It was just such an astonishing meeting, and I had been trying for 10 years to get an interview, because Sam wasn’t doing any interviews at all at that time.
I showed up for the interview with Sam’s son Knox, who has just become a wonderful friend. I had known him for seven or eight years, and he had been trying all that time to get Sam to get with me. When I showed up at the radio station, Knox came out to the car and said, “I’m afraid we’re going to have to postpone. The station has been flooded.” The sprinkler system had been triggered, and the whole thing was underwater. I just said, “I can’t wait another 10 years!” I didn’t say that, but I said, “Is there any way I can help?” So I ended up just squeegeeing and carrying buckets all day and watching Sam Phillips command a legion of people. I mean, his whole family was there, all the people that worked for the station, everybody.
I never saw him produce a session, but I saw him produce a session in that way. And at the end of the day, after about eight or nine hours of cleaning up, we sat down in his office while the first rock and roll documentary, The Heroes of Rock and Roll, happened to broadcast for the first time. So we sat there watching Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis, and did the interview after. Just spent the whole day. I didn’t want to go away!
You knew Sam for years before you started writing his biography. How is it different writing about a friend, as opposed to someone you’d never met, like Elvis?
I knew Sam for about 25 years, and saw a great deal of him. It wasn’t that we started out as friends, but I saw him so much. Particularly when I was doing the Elvis biography, I would do these extensive interviews [with Sam] which could go on for five or six hours or more. In some ways, that’s what makes this book so different from the biographies of Elvis and Sam Cooke. And in this case, I knew Sam quite well, but I was also present at a lot of moments which were of some significance.
I would go to an event in Memphis honoring Johnny Cash, and Sam would be saying, “I believe if Jesus was to come back to earth—listen to me now! I believe if Jesus was to come back to earth—now hear what I’m saying! I believe if Jesus was to come back to earth, he would spend a night at the Hotel Peabody. No—he would spend two or three nights at the Hotel Peabody!” And so you have half the room just absolutely appalled at the irreligiously of it, even though Sam considered himself a religious person. And half the world, maybe the Brooklyn hipster half in Memphis, were absolutely delighted by it.
Sam believed in “individualism in the extreme,” he always said. And that was the life he lived. Whether it was a matter of calling Castro to tell him not to lose heart after the Bay of Pigs, or speaking of Jesus’s visit to the Hotel Peabody. He definitely made an impression. The point is, you could have made an epic movie by just spending one day with Solomon Burke, and similarly with Sam Phillips.
Ultimately, what you’re looking to do, whether you know the person or you don’t, is to be as honest as you possibly can. I guess these are my two aims: To tell the story as truly as I can, but at the same time, to tell a story that accords whoever I’m writing about, whether it’s Merle Haggard or Otis Redding or Sam Phillips, with as much dignity and respect as they deserve.
And you’ve always written about people that you did respect.
I’ve always written about people whose work I admire, whose creativity has drawn me to them. I think I’ve been very fortunate in the sense that I’ve never written anything that I didn’t want to write. Everything I’ve written, I’ve written by choice, which isn’t always easy.
No, it’s pretty rare!
You have to show a fair degree of ingenuity to figure out how to be able to write about those people, because they’re not always the most commercial. They’re not always the most attractive to the right demographic.
So from the time I started writing, it was a matter or trying to figure out, “How can I do these stories about Rufus Thomas, Charlie Feathers, and Charlie Rich?” I did all of those on one trip back in ’76, but the fact is that I had to do them all on one trip, because I couldn’t get a magazine to finance a story on Rufus Thomas.
So you had to prove why they should let you write it?
No, what I had to do was say, “Okay, I want to do a story on Charlie Rich,” who was kind of a pop superstar at that time, so that could pay for a trip to Memphis [to write the others too]. In other words, you had to be resourceful.
I started writing about music when I was maybe 22 or 23… because I just wanted to tell people about this music that I thought was so great. I didn’t want to be pretentious, but I didn’t want to write in the terms of the culture of that time—that everything was “groovy” and we were living in the midst of some utopian dream. I didn’t believe it then and wouldn’t believe it now.
But writing about somebody like Sam Phillips, for me, is not some arbitrarily chosen subject. It’s writing about somebody who changed the course of the world, and who had a democratic vision. [He believed] that there were these hidden resources, these hidden reserves in people who didn’t even know that they possessed this power. Whether they were black or white, they were held back by social strictures, by poverty, by the way in which they were looked at by society. And he saw it as a mission to get out of them something they didn’t even know, necessarily, that they had in themselves. That’s what he did with Howlin’ Wolf, with B.B. King, with Elvis Presley, with Johnny Cash. He was just looking to find the spark of creativity.
How did Sam talk about his impact on race relations?
He saw it of great significance. He saw what he was doing, from the start, as being fully intended. You can see in the interviews that he did, as early as ’51… in speaking about Ike Turner, Howlin’ Wolf, these great blues singers he recorded, he spoke about them as having the potential to reach a mass audience of black and white, of seeing no distinction between that.
He was very aware of the audience he was speaking to—he wasn’t going to get up on a tall stump and start preaching. But I’ve got all his correspondence that he sent out to distributors when Elvis’s first record came out, and he was essentially trying to urge them—in coded terms, I would say—to have the courage to stand behind this record, which could appeal to both black and white. Which was reaching all audiences in a way that no record had before that.
Sam’s father rented a pretty big farm, and there were white and black sharecroppers [who worked on it]. Sam always said he was so intensely aware of the way in which black people were treated. He thought to himself, “What if I had been born black? Could I have had the courage?”
Now you could think, “Well, all right, is this an after-the-fact realization?” But then in talking to some of his relatives from an older generation, they said—and not particularly approvingly—“Yes, that’s exactly what he was like when he was a kid.” It was clear they weren’t going to say anything bad [about Sam] at that point, but this was not the kind of thing they thought was appropriate.
What was your writing process like? Did you have to use stories Sam had told you from memory, or were you always taping, taking notes when you talked to him?
Well it was kind of both. I don’t want to take advantage of social situations by sitting there with the tape recorder in my pocketbook. But I had so many opportunities to have interviews with Sam—particularly when writing the Elvis [biography].
And then in ’99, we did the documentary about Sam [The Man Who Invented Rock ‘N’ Roll]. What was interesting is that Sam had, by then, gotten the idea that I would write his book with him. And I was going to do my biography of Sam Cooke no matter what. That was my next project. But he had that in mind, so I’ve got hour after hour of audiotapes [from the making of the documentary], where I would ask him a mainstream question, and he would start talking about his teacher in the 6th grade, or when he took his first drum lesson. What I realized afterwards was, in essence, he was determined to set down his story. If he chose to talk about one of his three early heroes at any given moment, then B.B. King and Johnny Cash could wait.
Who were those three heroes?
He would talk about Kate Nelson, who ran a local whorehouse, and the discount she gave him when he was 15 years old, how she ran her house. She was one of the best businesspersons he had ever met. She was fair, she was good to her girls. All of them married out of her house. Times were hard back then, in the Depression.
Another one of his three early models was his deaf Aunt Emma, who he said was the most brilliant woman he had ever met. He learned to sign when he was three years old, and signed with her all of his life. She was a woman of strong opinions. She would read the newspaper every day, a nd they would discuss it, even when he was a small child
And the third person was Silas Payne. Silas Payne was a blind, black sharecropper who his family took in. He would sit with Sam, and they would listen to the news of the war in Europe on the radio. They would sit there and talk about it, Silas would sit and tell him about the battercake trees in Africa. When Sam was about 12 or 13, he was very ill, not expected to survive, and Silas Payne would give him hope. He would tell him what a great man he was going to be someday—not in the sense of flattering him, just in the sense that you had to have faith in yourself.
I read—on Wikipedia, which you never know is true—that Sam called Howlin’ Wolf his greatest discovery, and Elvis his second. Is that true?
No. I think he felt that Howlin’ Wolf and Charlie Rich were the most profound artists that he ever worked with, and I would say he put them at the top. But he never said somebody was second. Somebody like Jerry Lee Lewis was the most purely talented, the most unabashed. Elvis may have been the most charismatic. But he would have recorded Howlin’ Wolf till the day either one of them died. It was one of his greatest regrets. He says, “I don’t have many regrets, but one of my greatest regrets is to have lost Howlin’ Wolf when he went to Chicago.”
You’ve met so many people throughout history that were so impactful. Did anybody disappoint you when you met them in real life?
No, I wouldn’t say so. I don’t see myself as having any business being disappointed. This sounds [silly], but I don’t feel the world owes me anything. I don’t feel as if people should say, “Oh great, Peter wants to interview me. What an honor this is for me.” It’s been the greatest privilege to be welcomed into all these worlds, which otherwise I would have no exposure to.
I knew a friend of Otis Redding’s named Carolyn Brown, and I wanted to interview Johnny Jenkins, who had started Otis Redding off. He had the band that Otis Redding sang with, and Johnny was the guitar player and the showman. Nobody knew quite where Johnny Jenkins was—he had just fallen out of sight. So Carolyn said, “Oh, he lives right near my mother.” So she dropped me off in this section of town, which was not the uptown section of town, and drove off. Left me in the driveway, because she determined that Johnny Jenkins was under his car.
So I start saying something to him, and he slowly emerges from under the car with a jack, and starts advancing towards me, and says, “What does a white motherf–ker like you want to find out?” And I took it seriously! But the point was, why should I expect anything different? In other words, I tried to explain to him how much the music had meant to me, different people I knew that he might know. I didn’t feel like he owed me anything. I just felt like, I have to explain myself. He doesn’t have to explain himself. And that’s what I did, and eventually got out his scrapbook, and he showed me the pictures, and he started crying.
I’ve never met anybody who doesn’t want to tell their own story. And if you can convince them that you’re interested in their story, I think they’re going to want to tell it to you. They may not tell you the story you want to hear—but I’ll take whatever I can get, because it’s their story I’m looking for.