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On the Tube: A&E honors the Sun producer who may have invented rock 'n' roll

Friday, June 16, 2000

By Ed Masley, Post-Gazette Pop Music Critic

He was there in '51 to oversee what may have been the birth of rock 'n' roll, the day Ike Turner's band, with Jackie Brenston on lead vocals, cut a tune called "Rocket 88."

A&E Biography:
Sam Phillips

When: It airs Sunday at 8 p.m.

He captured Elvis Presley, three years later, reinventing Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup's "That's All Right" as the perfect, spontaneous coming together of country, gospel, R&B and blues he knew would set the world on fire if only he could find a white boy with the right amount of soul.

And Elvis was only the tip of a rock 'n' roll iceberg that found him producing such legends in waiting as Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins for his label, Sun, in Memphis.

So we know he's done his share to make the world a better place. But is Sam Phillips, as the makers of a new two-hour A&E Biography suggest, the man who invented rock 'n' roll?

There's certainly a case there to be made.

Would Phillips make it?

Well, at first, he wasn't sure.

But after talking it over with Peter Guralnick, the rock 'n' roll historian and journalist who once wrote that without Sam Phillips, there would be no rock 'n' roll, he feels at least a little better accepting the credit.

"I asked Peter," Phillips says. "And he said, 'I think you invented it. The elements were there -- the country and the blues, black gospel and white gospel -- and you had to find a means by which to have that blend together where acceptance would be had.' And he knows my life pretty well."

For those who don't, a little background: Born in 1923 in Florence, Alabama, Phillips fell in love with Memphis and its music on his way to Dallas for a religious revival with friends from high school. If, in fact, it was a life-affirming religious experience Phillips was after, he found it on Beale Street at 5 in the morning, returning to Alabama convinced that "this is something that the nation and the world, possibly, should hear."

He got his chance to test that theory soon enough, after moving his family to Memphis in the '40s to work in radio. It wasn't long before he'd found an empty storefront where, in January, 1950, he opened the doors of his own recording studio, Memphis Recording Service.

His first discovery as producer was a singing D.J., B.B. King.

Within a year, he had Ike Turner and his band in Memphis, cutting "Rocket 88," a song that topped the R&B charts and is often cited as the birth of rock 'n' roll.

"I think that was the first rock 'n' roll record," says Phillips. "It had the ingredients. And boy, I tell you, people fell in love with it. You have to remember, the Rocket 88 had just come out and it was a hot car. You know how you dream and hope and pray and all that when you're young? And boy, the Rocket, boy, they were promotin' that thing. And everybody wanted one. The younger you were, the more you wanted it."

Released on Chess, the record sold about 100,000 copies, Phillips says, which at the time, was major sales.

When he started his own label, Sun, after losing a Turner discovery, Howlin' Wolf, to Chess, he knew the only way to reach a wider audience, given the state of race relations in the '50s, was to find a whiter face than Howlin' Wolf's to sell the music.

He was pretty sure he'd found that face in Elvis, but it took a while to find the perfect moment.

It happened one night after hours of fruitless recording.

As Phillips recalls the occasion, "We just couldn't get it. I knew I had to get what I thought was the right track or I couldn't achieve the type of thing I was after. Sure, I could make a good record, but I wanted it to be different. So I went in there and told him that we really should come back another night. And I turned around and walked back into the control room and was getting ready to close the door when I heard Elvis doing 'That's All Right.'"

And Elvis doing "That's All Right" was just exactly what he knew he had to get.

"I turned around, walked back in there and I said, 'Elvis, we've been working on this thing for two or three months. You've been holding out on me. You had this all the time.' And he said, 'Mr. Phillips, I really didn't know. I've just loved Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup ever since I heard his first hit.' "

For the flip side, they worked up a radical version of a hit by bluegrass legend Bill Monroe.

"I didn't know if Bill Monroe would kill me or not," says Phillips. "But we took his anthem, 'Blue Moon of Kentucky,' and boy, we kind of stabbed it pretty good. But boy, we made a rocker out of it. And I was scared when we went over and Elvis was on the Grand Ole Opry. I was afraid of Mr. Monroe but he came to me backstage and shook my hand and Elvis and Scotty and Bill and he said, 'I can't thank you boys enough. That is really different. I told everybody, man, this song could be done any way and it would sound good.' I was so proud, because Bill Monroe was a guy who told it like he felt it. And Bill had had some pretty good fights and everything. I hoped that wouldn't break out and it didn't."

A year after cutting the single that, for many, crystalized the moment that was rock 'n' roll, he sold the Presley contract to a major label, RCA, for what was then a totally unheard-of sum of $35,000.

"Now today," Phillips says, with a laugh, "that seems like a hamburger. But back then, the offer I made? It was daylight when I made the offer and 10 o'clock at night before they were able to get the $35,000 and convince everybody at RCA that this was a good investment."

When Carl Perkins' "Blue Suede Shoes," on Sun, outcharted Presley's first release on RCA, the label called him, Phillips says, insisting that he'd pulled some kind of scam -- "but I said, 'No, Steve, you have bought the right man.'"

Even though he always knew that Presley was the right man, Phillips still can't say for sure what made him that way.

"I'd be lying if I said I know," he says, "because I don't think he knew or you know or I know. But I think it was one of those types of contacts that this guy made. I'm not talking about because he was handsome, because he was certainly handsome, but there was just something about this guy, whether you were looking at him or not, that had a command of your attention. And I guess it's great that you can't really explain it. That's one of those charms of life that some people have and are blessed with."

As for Phillips' own role in the birth of rock 'n' roll, he figures, "I just think that when you do good with people and you mean well, you may get some slack, but in the end, it'll work out. And if nothing else was proved by what I did, I proved that to myself to my own satisfaction, I sure did."

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