'No one beats me behind a damn control board'

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The Independent Culture

Sam Phillips was excited, very excited, though to be fair it didn't take much. There, feet up on a stool in the living room of the rather modest East Memphis home he had owned since the 1950s, he was looking ahead to his first trip to London.

"Good God almighty," he blurted out and slammed a fist down on the table at his elbow. This was an expletive much favoured by the puckish little man in the denim jacket and the longish hair, its auburn lustre borrowed from a bottle. Phillips had sent music all over the world but he had not seen much of it himself, other than in the southern states. He had always been too busy, whether working as a disc jockey, running his radio stations, keeping his eye on his slice of the Holiday Inns chain, or superintending the birth of rock 'n' roll.

Now, though he was coming to England for the premiere of a documentary about his life, he seemed exercised about who was likely to meet him at Heathrow - Tony Blair or the Queen. Even well into his late seventies, Phillips could not quite determine whether it was serendipity or a brand of genius that had made him the alchemist of the soundtrack to the modern world. On balance, he might have preferred the g-word.

Phillips talked - and talked and talked - amazed at what he had done, almost as though he were reviewing someone else's history. And he was a kind of oral history of the South, of cotton-picking and the Tennessee river, of radio masts and the ravages of Rocky Mountain spider fever, of family and race, integration and disintegration.

But the inventor of rock 'n' roll? "It's a big thing to say. I've had more accolades than I deserve." Then Phillips awarded himself a few: "Nobody can beat me behind a damn control board, nobody can beat me on sound, nobody can beat me on getting stuff out of people."

The facts speak for themselves. What is more, no one could beat him on stories about Elvis Presley. "He came here one night and he looked really sick. He said, 'Man, I've got a sore on my stomach'. I said, 'drop your pants' and right above his pubic hair was this great big carbuncle. Man, it was Mount Vesuvius.

"He thought he might have syphilis. I said, 'you might have syphilis but that's not a part of it'. I called my doctor and he came and lanced that carbuncle right here. Man, the stuff shot out halfway to the ceiling. Good God almighty."

And with that we drove back downtown - and, yes, it was in a long, white open-top Cadillac.