Meet Sam Phillips, the man who discovered the King - and sold him for $35,000

An interview with the Sun Studio pioneer who gave Elvis Presley his big break

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You can't go to Memphis and not visit Graceland, the colonial-style home that Elvis Presley bought in 1957 and which was to be his grandiose refuge until his death 20 years later. But for a deeper appreciation of how rock'n'roll changed the world, the city has another unmissable if less celebrated destination - the Sun Studio, where Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and others cut their early records.

There may not be a great deal to see, but almost all of it has been preserved in its original state: the tape machines, the microphones, the sound-proofing, the marks on the floor where the musicians had to stand, and, among other period instruments, a guitar belonging to Scotty Moore, who with bassist Bill Black provided Elvis's backing through the Sun era and beyond. But perhaps the greatest survivor of all is the man who founded the Sun label and kick-started the whole rock'n'roll phenomenon.

These days Sam Phillips doesn't appear at the studio very often, but he can be found not far away in leafy east Memphis, in an immaculate, spacious bungalow with a lovingly tended lawn and a swimming pool out the back – the home he shares with his partner Sally Wilburn, a one-time Sun Studio secretary. At 77, Phillips is no recluse - he says he “never has an un-busy day” - but his pivotal role in rock history might have been in danger of going under-acknowledged had he not been tempted out of relative obscurity to take part in a film about him for American television. The film - with Phillips in attendance - will be shown at the National Film Theatre later this month.

“My son Knox has been on at me for years to get something down either in print or on film,” Phillips told me. “But I did not really trust myself in somebody else's hands. I wasn't interested in having editorial control, but I did want someone who would understand the breadth and the girth and the depth and the height. You had to be able to transpose yourself back to 1950s America.”

That person was Peter Guralnick, the author whose two-volume biography of Elvis - Last Train to Memphis (1994) and Careless Love (1999) - forms the definitive account of the King's life and work. Guralnick approached Phillips, who “found a real thread of honesty and integrity” in him. The result is Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock'n'Roll, a 90-minute documentary that honours its subject simply by placing him in his rightful context.

What comes across in Guralnick's film is the regard in which Phillips is held by the people with whom he worked. “He's a teacher,” says Sun producer Jack Clement. “Whatever he's telling you, it's profound.” The singer John Prine talks about Phillips’s “fire and brimstone eyes”.

To be in Phillips’s presence was indeed quite daunting. He had the intensity and the expansiveness of a Southern preacher. He sat across the room from me on an amply upholstered sofa, gazing into the middle distance and pronouncing – often rather gnomically – on life, music and everything. This was less an interview than an audience, but what was clear was that even as a young man, Phillips had a way with musicians that unlocked something deep in their souls.

Of nobody was that truer than Elvis, who first crossed the Sun Studio threshold as a nervous 18-year-old in 1953. In tandem with his studio, Phillips ran the Memphis Recording Service, which for $4 would record two sides of an acetate for anybody who walked in off the street and was interested to hear the sound of their own voice.

Elvis was just such a client. That day, as it happened, Phillips was absent from the studio, and his secretary merely made the note that the young man was a "good ballad singer". It was a whole year before Elvis was invited back, when Moore and Black were recording at the studio and needed a singer. Even then what turned out to be their first hit, "That's All Right", emerged almost by accident, when Elvis started fooling around with his guitar, off-tape.

Phillips, whose recording of black singers took place in defiance of the segregation norms of the time, had been looking for a white man who could convey similar depths of experience, and now he had found him. As the son of a poor farmer from Alabama and the youngest of eight children, Phillips knew that deprivation was not exclusive to one race. ”My dad loved the soil he walked on,“ he recalled. ”But then in the Depression we had to come off the farm and move to the town.“

In the end Elvis and Phillips were together for only 16 months and five records, culminating in the one Phillips told me he was proudest of, 'Mystery Train', which he called "a masterpiece of rhythm and beat and feel". Elvis, Phillips said, was the shyest of men who needed careful handling. ”He wanted it so bad but at the same time he didn't want to impose on anybody. You had to deal with those feelings because otherwise you weren't going to get the best out of him.“

In 1956 Phillips sold Elvis's contract to RCA for $35,000 – one of rock history’s great “what might have been” moments. But Phillips needed the money. He was heavily in debt and in no position to take Elvis's career to the levels that beckoned. More troubling to Phillips now, it seems, is what happened to Elvis after the infamous 'Colonel' Tom Parker became his manager. "Elvis never had the opportunity to show what an actor he could have been and yet stay with the thing he loved most, which was music,” Phillips said. "We were cheated by his demise. We missed an awful lot of Elvis." But we should also be grateful for what we did have. And that means being grateful to Sam Phillips.

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