Tuesday, November 24, 2015

"Sam Phillips : The Man Who Invented Rock n' Roll" by Peter Guralnick

ISBN: 978-0-316-04274-1 Little Brown and Company

"Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock n' Roll" by Peter Guralnick

I'm a mega-fan of Peter Guralnick's two volume biographies on Elvis Presley.   For sure I thought a biography on Sam Phillips, the brains and sound maker for Sun Records, would be equally fascinating.   But the truth is no.   For one, this biography is way too long.  Without a doubt, Guralnick feels very close to his subject matter, and clearly he loves the music that came out of Sun. Still, I had a hard time keeping my attention to this book.   One also gets the feeling that Phillips was right behind Guralnick's shoulder as he was writing it.  On many levels, it reads like an authorized biography - which can be good or bad.

Sam Phillips was a brilliant record producer.  The Sun Records sound is a very eccentric noise.  Which is not odd, considering that Phillips was an eccentric recording other eccentric artists.  Elvis was the man who fell to Earth.  Probably the closest thing to an alien in the early 1950s.   I feel Phillips captured all the oddness in this young singer's recordings.  One of the reasons why Sun Records era Elvis never sounds like an oldie, because it is still fresh due to the essence of his performance and voice.   In my opinion, there is no such thing as a bad Sun Records release.  My favorite is Carl Mann, and sadly he only gets a page or so out of this 660 page book. 
Sam's life is not really that dramatic compared to Elvis.  The narration of Elvis is a fascinating one, and it has all the trademarks of a tragic Shakespeare play.  Guralnick beautifully played out on the heights and the super lows of Elvis, and Sam Phillips just doesn't have the emotional range four such a biography.   Still, Sam Phillips is an interesting man.  It would have been more interesting to me if there was a book length Q & A format, instead of the biography.  Or even Guralnick's narration on knowing Phillips and what it meant to him.   He writes about that in the second part of the book, which I think could have been a stand alone piece.  

Still, this is a must read for anyone interested in Memphis or its musical history.   The shocking thing to me, especially admiring and reading his Elvis bios, that this book should have been the essential read on that subject matter.  It's up there, but not the best.  

- Tosh Berman

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