“I have never been conventional. I don’t know if that’s good, but it set me apart in the sense that I had a certain independence and individuality. And I knew one thing: believe and trust in what you’re doing or don’t do it. I just knew that this was great music. My greatest contribution, I think, was to open up an area of freedom within the artist himself, to help him to express what he believed his message to be.”
- Sam Phillips, 1978, speaking to Peter Guralnick in his book Lost Highway
Sam Phillips has passed away and anyone who loves rock ‘n’ roll needs to take a moment to thank him for everything he has given us. Part of the standard, skeletal obituary (like this one from AP) reads as such:
Phillips founded Sun Records in Memphis in 1952 and helped launch the career of Presley, then a young singer who had moved from Tupelo, Miss. He also worked with B.B. King, Rufus Thomas, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Conway Twitty and Charlie Rich, among others.
I mentioned to a friend on the day of Phillips’ passing that he had died, and he wasn’t quite sure who he was – he had him mixed up with Colonel Tom Parker. Sad, but maybe things like that happen because people my age and younger grew up in a world where we have always had rock ‘n’ roll. Yes, we love it to death, but we take it for granted that it’s here; we don’t remember that there was a time when it did not exist, and we tend to overlook the original masters – Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, etc. – for the Deep Artists that followed in the sixties and the ensuing decades. Which leads to the baby boomer/KQRS conceit that significant rock ‘n’ roll didn’t start until the mid-sixties with the advent of the Beatles and all the Art they spawned. And that’s complete bullshit. If you buy into it, you’re welcome to Abbey Road and all those other yawners. Just wake me when the real rock ‘n’ roll is back on the turntable.
Sam Phillips wasn’t simply the man who discovered Elvis. By creating the rockabilly sound in his Sun Studio, he was one of the essential founding fathers of rock ‘n’ roll. As the curatorial director of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, Howard Kramer, said after Phillips’ passing: "He meant everything. Without Sam Phillips, the landscape of contemporary music would be completely different."
I was at a Finn gathering in north-central North Dakota a few years ago. We were in my uncle’s garage for an open mike. Various relatives and neighbors took turns playing songs. This went on for an hour or two, then suddenly my mom grabbed my dad and me and hustled us out the door and into the car. Why? Someone was strumming a guitar and playing “The Doggie In The Window.” As we drove, she explained how she had hated that song as a teen, how rock ‘n’ roll came along - into a world in which there was no rock 'n' roll (And God said "Let there be light" and there was light. - Genesis 1:3); - and the music was exciting, made the dances so much more fun, made “The Doggie In The Window” sound even more useless. Nearly fifty years later and she still hated that song with a passion, nearly fifty years later and she was still so thankful for the birth of rock ‘n’ roll.
This scenario had played out in her hometown and those surrounding little towns ten miles from the Canadian border in the middle of nowhere. Just imagine how rock ‘n’ roll exploded across the country, coast-to-coast in small towns and big cities. Sam Phillips was largely responsible for that; and he and his discoveries did it all from a little studio down in Memphis, Tennessee. In the words of Jerry Lee Lewis: “Sam’s crazy. Nutty as a fox squirrel. He’s just like me, he ain’t got no sense. Birds of a feather flock together. It took all of us to screw up the world. We’ve done it.”
Amen, Killer, amen. And have you heard the news? There’s good rockin’ tonight.