The Current's Rock and Roll Book Club: Peter Guralnick's Sam Phillips story

Detail of 'Sam Phillips' book cover
Detail of 'Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock 'n' Roll' book cover (Little, Brown and Company)

Who was Sam Phillips? That's the question answered by Peter Guralnick's exhaustive chronology of the birth of rock 'n' roll told through the life of the late disc jockey, studio and label owner.

Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock 'n' Roll tells the familiar rags-to-riches story of a 20th century record man. He was a small-town radio DJ who let his passion for music drive him in and out of the music business. On the surface, it feels like a story you've read before. However, what's different about Phillips's story is he was one of the first to see the power in the relationship between radio and records.

Through Guralnick's obsessive attention to detail, he reveals Phillips's restless path from radio announcer to studio builder and then record executive. The biography is peppered with granular details on Phillips's family and personal relationships, the shifting dynamics of radio broadcasting in the South, and new technology that captured the first recordings at Sun Studios (originally named Memphis Recording Service).

Phillips is most notably credited with recording the early works of artists such as Elvis Presley, B.B. King, Ike Turner, and Jerry Lee Lewis. Yet it wasn't his interest in simply recording the newly emerging sounds of rhythm and blues that made Phillips a central figure in the birth of rock 'n' roll. Instead, it was his innovative approach to producing records while having a vision for the final product.

To get the music from the studio to the airwaves, Phillips pushed the limits of recording technology and launched Sun Records. The label became his key to exploiting the rights in countless early rock recordings. From his role as a disc jockey, he understood the rising demand for rhythm and blues and knew the power of getting radio airplay in small towns across America.

Guralnick's book makes a subject relegated to rock academics accessible and engaging. He sheds a new light on the pre-Beatles era of rock music. The roots of rock music have been revised in the digital era, making Phillips's role in the creation of the modern music business a forgotten story.

Digital compilations have created a revisionist history of the evolution from rhythm and blues to rockabilly and, later, what we know as rock and roll. To accompany the book and give a true account of the music behind the story, Guralnick curated a companion album released by Yep Roc records. The compilation, as he states in the liner notes, "is not a Greatest Hits package." It's a soundtrack to the book that is a must-read for rock music fans and historians alike.

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