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, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Charlie Rich and 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 Junior Parker sides, "Mystery Train" (RealAudio excerpt) and "Love My Baby" (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 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.