Remembering Sam Phillips … and alligator shoes!

Louis Menand reviews the new book “Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ’n’ Roll” by Peter Guralnick.

In the early days, many of Phillips’ Memphis recordings were issued on the Chess labels for national distribution.

The pop sound in 1950 was smooth and harmonic. Phillips preferred imperfection. It made the music sound alive and authentic. Word got around, and musicians no one else would record started turning up at the Memphis Recording Service. Phillips got them to believe in him by getting them to believe in themselves.

To have the recordings pressed and distributed, he relied on small independent labels like Modern Records, in Los Angeles, and Chess, in Chicago. But he found the men who ran those outfits untrustworthy—he felt that they were always trying to poach his artists or cheat him on royalties—and so, in 1952, he started up his own label, Sun Records.

Not all recording sessions went smoothly for the new entrepreneur.

One of the first in 1950 was “the singing black boy”, a Memphis DJ, who, wisely, decided to call himself BB King on record. A year or so later, Phillips was recording teenage pianist Ike Turner and his band. They were crestfallen that their guitar amplifier had been dropped and damaged. Phillips was nonplussed. He stuffed it with lots of brown paper and told them to play. It’ll sound like another sax, he told them, “it would sound different”. The result, “Rocket 88” with its driving horns and fuzz-tone guitar, is now hailed by many as the first true rock’n’roll record.

As news of his studio spread, more artists were attracted to record for Phillips.

… Chester Burnett, … better known as Howlin’ Wolf, who would make the biggest impression on Phillips. With a voice, says Guralnick, that “mixed the roughest elements of the Delta blues… with its most graceful modulations” he cut through the studio atmosphere “with a sandpaper rasp” and an “almost overwhelming ferocity”. Phillips was more than impressed. He was overwhelmed. His music, he would later famously say, was where “the soul of a man never dies”.

It appears Chess had a few tricks up their sleeve as they built their record company.

Leonard Chess, of Chess Records, used to have a trunk full of alligator shoes when he drove around visiting local d.j.s. He’d ask for their shoe size and gift them a pair.)

Phillips liked experimenting with music styles and preferred the unconventional both in terms of the music he was recording and the way he was recording it. His techniques marked his recordings instantly recognizable. Just a few years after starting his record label in the early 1950s, and by harnessing the marketing power of the growing radio and television industries, his Sun Recordings were having impacts elsewhere.

African-American performers began to benefit from the popularity of the new sound. In May, 1955, Chuck Berry recorded “Maybellene” for Chess Records; Chess rushed the record to Alan Freed, in New York, and it went to No. 1 on the R. & B. chart and No. 5 on the pop chart. Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” was released a few months later.

Published in the UK by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

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