1 Dec 2015

Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll

From The Sampler, 7:35 pm on 1 December 2015
Sun Records founder Sam Phillips

Sun Records founder Sam Phillips Photo: Supplied

Nick Bollinger reviews a compilation surveying the career of The Man Who Invented Rock 'n' Roll.

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Rock ’n’ roll has its creation myths, and one of the more popular versions has it all starting with ‘Rocket 88’.

Credited to Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats, ‘Rocket 88’ was actually the Memphis bandleader Ike Turner – later of Ike and Tina Turner - and his group The Kings Of Rhythm with their 1951 version of a jump blues that had been around in different forms since at least the 1940s. But the reason rock ’n’ roll starts here, according to the oracles, is mostly the sound of the guitar on this particular recording.

The mythology goes that, en route to the recording session, the speaker belonging to Kings Of Rhythm guitarist Willie Kizart had fallen off the roof of the band’s car, rupturing the cone. When he got to the studio and plugged in, it produced the honking, distorted sound you hear on the record. It’s a sound that would have caused most recording engineers to call for a replacement or cancel the session. But the engineer on this session was cut from a different cloth. He liked that ruptured effect; it sounded different, it excited him, and he made it his mission to capture it in all its glory. Which is essentially why ‘Rocket 88’ is called the first rock ‘n’ roll record and why – to extend the mythology even further – that engineer is called The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll. That’s the title of a new book about that man, Sam Phillips, written by Peter Guralnick, who has also compiled this 2-disc, 55-song companion set.

‘Rocket 88’ may have been groundbreaking, but unquestionably the best-known performer Sam Phillips ever recorded was Elvis Presley. And, in many ways, the recordings Elvis made with Phillips were even more groundbreaking than ‘Rocket 88’, fusing black blues and hillbilly country in a hybrid that would be permanently assigned the title rock ‘n ‘roll. Several examples of that fusion are included here, such as ‘Mystery Train’, a song Phillips had earlier recorded in a version by its author, the black bluesman Junior Parker.

As Guralnick details in his book, it was white singers like Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis that gave Sam Phillips his biggest hits, but that was only the culmination of a mission with which Phillips had set out many years earlier; a mission to create something that would change the world. And that would begin by putting onto record the voices of some of the most disenfranchised people in the United States. That meant artists like Chester Burnett, a.k.a. Howlin’ Wolf. If the guitar sound on ‘Rocket 88’ was revolutionary, Wolf’s ‘Moanin’ At Midnight’ – cut that same year, 1951 – applies that celebration of distortion to absolutely everything. Wolf’s voice is the first sound you hear, though it always takes me a few moments to remember it is a voice; it sounds more like a mountain waking up.

Phillips, who appears to have been a true egalitarian in a time and place where racial prejudice was rife, held (according to Guralnick) the belief that Howlin’ Wolf could and should have been as successful as Elvis. But Wolf isn’t the only bluesman featured on Guralnick’s quirky and personal survey of Phillips’ catalogue. Unlike earlier compilations of Phillips’ work, this one goes wider than just the Sun label, which came to be dominated by white rockers like Elvis, and among the artists I never realised had set foot in Phillips’s Memphis studio was the profound and idiosyncratic Sleepy John Estes, represented here in the near-surreal ‘Rats In My Kitchen’.

Though almost of Phillips’ signings came from the same region – Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee, Louisiana – they brought a variety of musical idioms, from the low-down blues of Sleepy John to the high church Howard Seratt, an angelic-voiced watchmaker from Arkansas who cut just one record for Phillips in a country gospel style.

Was Sam Phillips really the man who invented rock ‘n’ roll, or – like a lightning rod – was he just there to catch it when it struck? If luck played a part, it was clearly in combination with some kind of divine madness. And perhaps you’ll find some of that notion summed up in the most recent recording in this collection: a 1979 track by the singer-songwriter John Prine, which Guralnick calls ‘Sam’s last producing hurrah.’ The song is titled ‘How Lucky Can One Man Be’?

Songs played: Rocket 88, Mystery Train, Flying Saucers Rock ‘n’ Roll, Moanin’ At Midnight,  in my Kitchen, Every Night, Troublesome Waters, How LuckyR