MEMPHIS, Tenn. Whether or not his name sounds
familiar, Sun Records founder Sam
Phillips the subject of an A&E "Biography"
airing Sunday at 8 p.m. EDT left an indelible mark on
the world of music and society at large, nurturing a renegade
vision and a burgeoning stable of artists.
color="#003163">Johnny Cash color="#003163">Roy Orbison color="#003163">Jerry Lee Lewis color="#003163">Carl Perkins color="#003163">Charlie Rich color="#003163">Howlin' Wolf
color="#003163">Jerry Lee Lewis,
color="#003163">Howlin' Wolfare among the many
legendary artists cultivated by Phillips, and A&E's "Sam
Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock 'n' Roll" takes a look at
how it happened.
"I set out to do something different," Phillips said. "I
didn't necessarily set out to change the world [with the
music] as it ultimately did, but I did know that the world
needed to hear more black music on white radio. It was a
tough route to go, and in our succeeding, I understand why
Peter [Guralnick] calls me the inventor of rock 'n' roll."
Guralnick, a noted music historian whose biographies Last
Train to Memphis and Careless Love are considered
the definitive works on Presley, is the writer behind "Sam
Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock 'n' Roll." Actor
Billy Bob Thornton provides the
Initially, Phillips disagreed with Guralnick about the term
"invented." "I thought of an invention as coming up with a
car or electric motor or something. But Peter said, 'You took
the most fragile elements of our society, but yet the most
potentially powerful ones, and put those together. If that's
not an inventor, I don't know what it is.' "
Executive producer Jerry Schilling also says he believes
strongly in Phillips' influence. "I have had a passion to
document Sam's life for over five years," said the longtime
friend of Presley. "Sam is the epitome of Memphis music, and
our sound is the apex of world music. People may know a
little of Sam's later rockabilly work, but if you look at his
vast catalog from the late 1940s through the '50s, you
realize he was a pioneer of blues before Elvis ever walked
into his studio."
The gritty film, appropriately lensed with a hand-held camera
by director Morgan Neville, starts at the beginning with a
look at Phillips' reverence for the music of field hands and
black churches when he was growing up in Florence, Ala.
It captures him at various stages of his career: moving to
Memphis, mixing records for Chicago's Chess Records, and in
1951, producing Jackie
Brenston's "Rocket 88," which is often touted as
the first rock 'n' roll record.
Phillips was searching for an original sound that broke color
barriers, and he eventually opened Memphis Recording Service,
now known as Sun Records, to create and capture that sound.
Sun found its first hits with two
color="#003163">Junior Parkersides, "Mystery
Train" (RealAudio excerpt) and
it was an unlikely quartet that put the indie label on the
map: the Prisonaires.
In fact, the highlight of A&E's biography for Phillips is the
scene in which Prisonaires member
color="#003163">Johnny Braggfinds the cell he
once occupied in the Tennessee State Prison and breaks into
an a cappella version of the group's hit "Walkin' in the
Rain" (RealAudio excerpt).
The best was yet to come for Phillips, though, as he went on
to discover and cultivate the iconic talent of Elvis Presley
who embodied the mixture of black music and white
culture with transcendent vulnerability and charisma. Other
young artists who worked with Phillips in this newly created
rockabilly style included Cash, Lewis, Orbison and Perkins.
Wolf and Rich rounded out the blues angle of this
revolutionary musical house.
Phillips was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in
1986 for his pioneering efforts.