Monday, July 24, 2006

From the archives: Sam Phillips

This piece appeared in the February 2002 issue of Record Collectors' Magazine, Japan. For a title, it simply bore Phillips' name. Had I chosen one, however, The Father of Rock and Roll, strikes me as only slightly over-the-top. Phillips died in 2003 at age eighty.

Sam Phillips is famously and oft-noted for a remark he made in the early 1950s: “If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel I could make a billion dollars.” The “sound” the Alabama-born record producer heard in his head has come to be known as rockabilly; it also was a stylistic precursor to Stax-Volt southern soul. The medium via which he was finally able to give life to his vision in 1954 was, of course, Elvis Presley. Initially it was “The King” who made (and eventually lost) a fortune. But don’t feel too sorry for Phillips. He took the---even by today’s standards---inconsiderable sum of $35,000 he made from selling his discovery’s contract to RCA Victor in 1955, invested it in the then-new Holiday Inn hotel chain. And if he didn’t exactly make a billion dollars off of Elvis, he has earned a few million along the way since then through other business ventures: “I’ve got three radio stations in Alabama, one in Florida and I just sold my last one here,” he informed in a recent conversation I had with him.

“Sam Phillips is not just one of the most important producers in rock history. There’s a good argument to made that he is also one of the most important figures in 20th-century American culture,” reads a biographical entry on the internet for the recording legend. That position is reaffirmed by a millennial issue, “The 100 Most important Events & People of the Past 1,000 Years,” of the U.S. publication “Life” magazine. Inside, in between number 98, the invention of the calendar, and number 100, the Rosetta Stone, is nestled, at 99th, the discovery of Elvis Presley. Without discoverer Phillips, most likely there never would have been an Elvis.

I spoke with the still-vital septuagenarian in November 2001 on the occasion of the U.S. release of a major TV documentary, “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” about the entrepreneur and his historic record label, Sun. It is the second such film in as many years. The other, which premiered on U.S. TV last year on the Northern American A&E cable network, is a provocatively-titled feature-length documentary, “Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock and Roll,” a biographical study directed by Morgan Neville. It is now available on home video. The newer film is a history of Phillips’ fabled record label told through filmed recording sessions featuring latter-day “A’ list musicians and their 21st Century “takes” on the immediately identifiable mid-20th Century Sun Records “sound.” The executive producer was Phil Carson, who acted in a similar capacity on the 1999 Paul Rodgers hit album, “Muddy Water Blues.” That CD is a tribute to blues legend Muddy Waters, who was recorded early on in musician’s career by Phillips in the early fifties. According to Carson, both the “Good Rockin’ Tonight“ CD and the TV documentary are expected to see release in Japan in the early part of 2002.

Prior to talking with Phillips, I range up director Neville, currently at work on a documentary about Muddy Waters, who seems to be on several personal agendas these days (see above), to get his impressions of the larger-than-life producer. “What is Sam Phillips like?,” I asked. “Do you have two or three hours?,” Neville affectionately replied. It was also obvious from what he said to me that I would have no trouble getting the Phillips to open up.

“I think the new it is one of the best things I have ever heard,” Phillips said straight off of the CD soundtrack for the new documentary. “I had no financial connection except maybe a couple of songs on it that were publishing by us. I think that it is a very excellent view of what Sun was all about. Someone told me that the first time they heard it was in a car. So Sally [Wilburn, Phillip’s longtime companion] and I were driving around and we stuck it in our CD player and, man, just driving along and listening to it, it takes you back in time. At the same time you don’t feel like you’re going back and listening to the old records. Ahmet told me the artists had a choice of what they wanted to do and that to me has made this CD an outstanding piece of music as far as I’m concerned.” The recording project was produced by another member of the record producer pantheon, Atlantic Records’ Ahmet Ertegun. In essence the soundtrack album constitutes a collaboration over time and between these two record industry legends. I asked Phillips, long inactive in the recording studio, if he had played a hands-on role in the making of the CD. continued here

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