'Biography' Lauds Sam Phillips As Rock 'N' Roll Inventor

A&E series pays tribute to founder of legendary Sun Records.

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.

Elvis Presley,

color="#003163">Johnny Cash,

color="#003163">Roy Orbison,

color="#003163">Jerry Lee Lewis,

color="#003163">Carl Perkins,

color="#003163">Charlie Rich and

color="#003163">Howlin' Wolf are 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

narration.

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 Parker sides, "Mystery

Train" (RealAudio excerpt) and

"Love My Baby" (

href="http://www.sonicnet.com/artists/clip.cgi?track=~yy-

XXXXXX/0002295_0102_00_0002.ra">RealAudio excerpt), but

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 Bragg finds 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.