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One of The Washington Post's Notable Nonfiction Books of 2015
"Mr. Guralnick is a sensitive biographer who has landed upon a perfect topic in Phillips, the brilliant Memphis producer who, in the 1950s, recorded the earliest work of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Howlin' Wolf. This is vital American history, smartly and warmly told."―Dwight Garner, New York Times, Top Books of 2015
"Definitive...With Presley's story at its core, Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock 'n' Roll is in some ways the third volume [to] Guralnick's double-volume Elvis bio. What makes it more illuminating and arguably truer is seeing Elvis in the broader context of Phillips' career, [which was] in many ways a mission to transform [t]his nation's history of bigotry....You may come away born again."―Rolling Stone
"A book so thoroughly steeped in its subject that it is almost an autobiography in the third person.... 'This is a book written out of admiration and love,' Guralnick states frankly in an author's note. As such, it honors Sam Phillips elegantly, by devoting itself to the one subject Phillips seemed to admire and love as much as he did music: Sam Phillips himself."―David Hajdu, New York Times Book Review
"Lovingly crafted.... With crisp prose and meticulous detail, Guralnick gives Phillips the same epic treatment he previously employed in acclaimed biographies of Sam Cooke and Elvis Presley.... An astonishing feat.... It is difficult to imagine a more complete or poetic account of his life than this remarkable volume.... 'I didn't set out to revolutionize the world,' Phillips once told Guralnick in a moment of humility, but in this book [the author] convincingly argues that Phillips did just that."―Charles Hughes, The Washington Post
"Peter Guralnick isn't just a music writer or a biographer--he's one of the essential chroniclers of American popular culture, and his work illuminates some of the crucial components of our national identity: race, religion, fame, and the big business of having fun, among others. In this epic biography of Sam Phillips, Guralnick bears witness to the birth of rock and roll and the cultural revolution it inspired. It's not only an unforgettable portrait of an eccentric visionary, it's a testament to the power of ordinary people to change the world with nothing more than a beautiful idea and a handful of songs."―Tom Perrotta, author of The Leftovers
"When Elvis Presley stepped into a Memphis recording studio with producer Sam Phillips in 1954, they defined rock 'n' roll as we know it. Peter Guralnick already gave us Elvis's story in two landmark books. He now returns with a brilliant, intensely human look at Phillips, the endlessly fascinating figure who also recorded Johnny Cash, B.B King, Howlin' Wolf, and Jerry Lee Lewis. It's a bold, insightful work that tells us in novelistic detail about the obsessions and struggles of the man who presided over the uneasy birth of rock 'n' roll."―Robert Hilburn, author of Johnny Cash
"Sam Phillips is an epic biography, at once sweeping and personal, in which the gifted writer Peter Guralnick captures the voice and life of a transformational figure in American music."―Jess Walter, author of Beautiful Ruins
"A monumental biography of the larger-than-life loner who fought for the acceptance of black music and discovered an extraordinary group of poor, country-boy singers whose records would transform American popular culture.... A wonderful story that brings us deep into that moment when America made race music its own and gave rise to the rock sound now heard around the world."―Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
"Guralnick wrote definitive biographies of Elvis and now does the same for Phillips, a visionary who gave voice to a rich and diverse culture long marginalized.... Essential reading for music fans."―Ben Segedin, Booklist (starred review)
"Epic, elegant and crisply told."―Henry L. Carrigan, Jr., BookPage
"Acclaimed music historian Guralnick has written landmark accounts of Elvis and the history of American roots music, and he now turns his considerable skills to the life of Sun Records producer Sam Phillips in this delightful and comprehensive volume. Guralnick energetically tells the must-read tale of a Southern boy intent on enacting his vision of freedom and justice through music."―Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"The book is a labor of love. Guralnick is passionate about the music, but he doesn't let his passion overinflate his prose, and he seems to know everything about everyone who was part of the Southern music world... It's natural for us to take events that were to a significant extent the product of guesswork, accident, short-term opportunism and good luck...and shape them into a heroic narrative....But a legend is just one of the forms that history takes -- which is why it's good to have Guralnick's book."―Louis Menand, The New Yorker
"With his latest book, Guralnick has penned his most intimate work yet. Over the course of 700-plus pages, Guralnick documents Phillips as both a musical visionary and a champion of a kind of humanist democracy--someone who sought to document the expressions of the poor and disenfranchised, those consigned to the narrow margins of society. In trying to understand Phillips' work, legacy and philosophies, Guralnick doesn't shy away from the more difficult aspects of his life. By doing so, Guralnick creates a complex, compelling and unflinching portrait."―Bob Mehr, Memphis Commercial Appeal
"Peter Guralnick tells it like it was. If you want to dig into the truth and read about what really went down in Memphis in the '50s, this is the definitive book."―Lucinda Williams
"Mr. Guralnick has conjured the magic of Elvis in the Sun studio as Presley's biographer, but his knowing Sam Phillips makes this the superior version... Mr. Guralnick takes you right to the room, and rather than gliding past a scene that has been written about many times, he immerses himself comfortably in it and revives its original intensity....[He] has produced the gold-standard Presley bio and now a complete portrait of his inspiration. Mr. Guralnick, the historian, writer and fan, has captured what was different, real and raw about a great artist."―Preston Lauterbach, Wall Street Journal
" With this book, Peter Guralnick brings popular music and the man who gave us so much of it, Sam Phillips, to the very centre of American social history. And he does it quite brilliantly."―Roddy Doyle, author of The Commitments
"Superb.... No one could tell Sam's story -- a complex mixture of music business reportage and personal narrative -- with the level of detail and affection that Guralnick brings to these 700-plus pages. Sam Phillips may well be the capstone to Guralnick's career.... This book gives Phillips and his judgments their due. Bridging American music's racial divide and transforming its pop, he was as much an original as the artists he nurtured."―Matt Damsker, USA Today
"Guralnick's book is comprehensive, warm, thorough, captivating, and compulsively readable....It may just be the best music book of 2015."―Henry Carrigan, No Depression
"A rollicking good time. Sometimes reading can rattle the cage and stomp the floor, and no one rattled the cages more than Sam Phillips."―Memphis Flyer
"A cornerstone addition to Guralnick's unmatched backlist of music history and biography."―Shelf Awareness
" A deeply intimate portrait that never veers into hagiography....For Guralnick and for the reader, the book becomes the quintessential Phillips production: an altogether profound and revelatory experience."―Memphis Commercial Appeal
"A sprawling, engaging biography stuffed with stories and tidbits."―Knoxville News
"Much-anticipated and long-awaited, Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock 'n' Roll, is as much a labor of love for Peter Guralnick as Sun Records was to Sam Phillips. And that's saying something."―Trevor Cajiao, Now Dig This
"Thoroughgoing and thoroughly satisfying.... Guralnick has injected enough helium and momentum into the material to get it airborne and moving stately forward."―Peter Lewis, Christian Science Monitor
"If his two-volume life of Elvis Presley, biography of Sam Cooke, Dream Boogie, and trilogy on southern roots music haven't convinced you that Peter Guralnick is our finest chronicler of American music, [this] should do the trick....Magisterial yet lively....it's a book that places Guralnick in some pretty heady company. Arguably, he is to music what Robert Caro is to politics: a dogged researcher and graceful writer who has a genuine feel for his subjects and the knowledge to place them in a larger context.... A wonderfully nuanced and shaded portrait."―Best Classic Bands
"What shines through this sympathetic but warts-and-all bio is that for Phillips it wasn't about the money or even just about the music. It was about music's ability to bridge the considerable racial divide that existed at the time....Compelling and even revelatory to those who thought they knew it all."―Curt Schleier, Minneapolis Star Tribune
"Phillips's stories and philosophies light up these pages....By the book's end, the weight of Guralnick's mission comes into full view. Phillips had advised him early on, "It ain't for you to put me in a good light. Just put me in the focus I'm supposed to be in." And that's exactly what Guralnick has done. His subject would no doubt be proud that he got it right."―James Reed, Boston Globe
"Guralnick's biography of Sam Phillips is a key work of Americana."―Downbeat
"An accumulation of minute and fascinating details about apprenticeship, the glory, and the very assembly of a man who conjured spells out of valves, wrestled with small-time double-dealers, caught lightning, and swam against the tide to introduce the world to Howlin' Wolf, Elvis Presley, and Johnny Cash, to name but three. An exceptional portrait of a singular force."―Elvis Costello
"The story of Sam Phillips is not just a musical journey; it's a portrait of a polymath, an incredibly driven Southern eccentric....Guralnick clearly delights in telling Phillips's tale. He is known for being an excellent and empathetic biographer: straightforward, never florid. ...Forty pages before the end of this tome, the author comes uncharacteristically clean. "Hell, why not just come out and say it? I loved Sam." By that point, so do we."―Michael Barclay, MacLean's
"Guralnick paints a detailed and sympathetic picture of Phillips as a relentless visionary,a talker, a loving but imperfect family man and a perfectionist who relished imperfections that could make recordings special."―Michael Hill, Associated Press
"Just as the two magisterial volumes of Guralnick's Presley bio paint a much more nuanced picture of Presley, The Man Who Invented Rock 'n' Roll captures the complexity of the colorful Phillips....The author loves his subject and loves writing about him.... A book that can stand with his best, and that is [both] entertaining and lively....For that rock-and-roll fans should be eternally grateful."―Dan DeLuca, Philadelphia Inquirer
"Essential reading."―Isabella Biedenharn, Entertainment Weekly
"Phillips' rich and oracular storytelling permeates this book....He was huckster, trickster, dreamer and architect compressed in one roiling, flamboyant package. If he hadn't existed, it would have been necessary for Mark Twain to invent him."―Gene Seymour, Newsday
"Few biographies have anything like this degree of insight, rigor, or command of detail; crucially, it also drives you back to the music. Written with sensitivity and love, it captures more than any other book this writer can remember the Fifties' limitless possibilities, and is a gripping depiction of an empire in its pomp--not only Sun Records, but also America."―Paul Trynka, Mojo
"A large part of the book's appeal consists in Guralnick's easy, conversational style. With its frequent use of anecdote and reliance on reported conversation, Sam Phillips could have been sprawling and uneven. In the hands of a storyteller as deft as Peter Guralnick, however, it effortlessly engages the reader throughout."―Lou Glandfield, Times Literary Supplement
"One of the most profound biographies of recent years....Sam Phillips has many of the characteristics of a Sun recording session: epic but as intimate as sex...[and] delivering a figure so quintessentially American he might almost be a character in Mark Twain or Melville."―Brian Morton, Glasgow Herald
"Sam Phillips is Guralnick's most personal book....The author injects himself into the book more than ever before--not only because he's part of the story in the later years but also because Phillips' credo of breaking down of class and race barriers through the 'extreme individualism' is so essential to Guralnick's life work--and his conception of American music. You can hear Phillips' evangelical fervor resonating in Guralnick's prose much as you could once hear it reverberating in Presley's vocals."―Geoffrey Himes, Paste --This text refers to an alternate kindle_edition edition.
About the Author
- Publication date : November 10, 2015
- File size : 32746 KB
- Word Wise : Enabled
- Print length : 748 pages
- Publisher : Little, Brown and Company; Illustrated edition (November 10, 2015)
- ASIN : B00U6DNYZE
- Language: : English
- Text-to-Speech : Enabled
- Enhanced typesetting : Enabled
- X-Ray : Enabled
- Page numbers source ISBN : 0316042730
- Screen Reader : Supported
- Lending : Not Enabled
- Best Sellers Rank: #446,261 in Kindle Store (See Top 100 in Kindle Store)
- Customer Reviews:
Top reviews from the United States
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The main text (not including endnotes, index. etc.) is 661 pages. I made it through about 71 pages, wanting to throw in the towel in frustration many times, before I just couldn't go any further.
The problem? Several, but two main ones just kept irritating me, and they both contribute to making a book that could have easily been 300 (or, let's be generous, even 400!) pages long into a 661 page needless ramble.
First, Guralnick (who, according to the credits in the jacket, is the author of many books - I wonder if they're ALL like this?) very frequently writes in run-on sentences that take up a ridiculous amount of space on the page, often up to 10 lines in a book whose font is pretty small. I don't know about you, but I find this distracting and just plain sloppy. Who edited this thing? Was an editor used at ALL? I kid you not, this was not an occasional thing - it happened so often that it drove me crazy. I found myself having to go back to the beginning of sentences to re-read them, in hopes of figuring out what he was talking about.
Second, Guralnick describes events in Phillips' early life (remember, that's as far as I got) with a level of (again, rambling) detailed prose that would lead the reader to believe that he either 1) was writing about his own life, so specific are the descriptions of what Sam did, said or thought in the most mundane situations (like, his first visit to Memphis), or 2) had the uncanny ability to inhabit Sam's mind and read it to the utmost detail. Granted, I know that the jacket says he knew Sam for 25 years. Still, so much of it reads less like an adept and skillful recounting of biographical events and memories, and more like someone channeling the innermost thoughts and feelings of the subject, down to sometimes silly, needless detail. The result, for me, was the feeling that I was reading a praise piece written by a fawning, worshipful fan infatuated with their subject, rather than a biography. A great biographer, or even a pretty good one, may admire his or her subject, but never loses their objectivity. To do so would produce a product that is not honest and balanced in its perspective. I submit to you Walter Isaacson's superb work dealing with Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, and others. He may be fan in many ways, but he doesn't come across like a schoolgirl with a crush, for whom his subject's every action and thought is worthy of awe, overstatement, and (rambling, wordy) exposition.
Let me be clear. This is only the third review for a book (and my fourth ever) on Amazon in decades of shopping here, This is not about "liking the sound of my own voice (pen? keyboard?)", or leaping at the opportunity to play the part of a wannabe book critic. It's more about my confusion over what is considered skillful writing - and specifically, skilled biography writing - these days. It surprises me that a supposedly seasoned author could write such a wordy, fawning mess as this. How did this pass muster with Guralnick himself, never mind his editor?
Sad, because perhaps this book could have been that "great book" about Sam Phillips that I was hoping for - instead of what it is, which is WAY too long, and WAY too subjective. A biographer can love his subject. He just shouldn't wear that love on his sleeve, and ramble on about it, to the exasperation and disappointment of his readers.
To say Sam Phillips was a complicated man would be too easy...that was only part of his character make-up. Guralink, over a span of almost three decades, knew Phillips almost better than anyone, and the man he describes is, at once, a perfectionist who believes that "imperfection" is perfect in its own way, a formidable foe to those who wrong him, as well as one of the kindest, most-generous friends, relatives, or, aquaintances, you'd ever know. A man who tried to control every part of his own destiny...be it in radio,the radio stations he owned, music, recording, building a house, or, his own health...and later, his own history/legacy by which he would ultimately be remembered.
Sam Phillips loved Florence, Alabama, where he grew up, and traveled back home whenever he could. Too, he was amazed at Memphis the first time he cruised down Beale Street, and adopted it as his "new home" when he decided to move there. But his Alabama roots were always the strongest. His love for his entire family is well documented here, as well as the personal demons that haunted him: his mental state - early on - that triggered his self-diagnosed need for Electroshock Therapy in a mental hospital, and his - later in life - alcoholism. So, both "the good & the bad" sides of his nature are explored...but, I will leave those up to any potential readers to discover for themselves.
Gurlanick's Interviews with Phillips - both recorded & some just with notes - were spread-out over many years, and even though Sam passed-away in 2003, with other committments and projects, the book wasn't finished & published until the Fall of 2015. It's an excellent book, and a microcosm of the early history of not just Rock & Roll, but music itself, and, the "business of music", that you can truly learn a lot about...knowledge you wouldn't otherwise have, from that magical time in our culture's Music History. Plus, the information and Interviews with many involved with Sam, and the recording Industry itself at that time, are well-documented in the book...as are the stars themselves. Peter Guralnick's love of his subject shows through on every page..."warts and all"...just as Sam wanted it.
However, the title of the book, "Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock 'N' Roll", is up for debate. Did Sam Phillips really "invent" Rock 'N' Roll...or, was he in the forefront: a leader who pioneered that sound...along with others who were like-minded at that time ? Or, was it that combination of black & country music, mirrored in the "sound" & the "soul" of the artists that he recorded, along with his expertise & secrets of sound design he had perfected, that then spearheaded the movement that eventually became "Rock 'N' Roll" ?
WHATEVER THE CASE, Sam Phillips, and all of the achievements he accomplished during his career, will stand the test of time. They show beyond a shadow of a doubt, how one man, with his dreams, his vision, his self-learned, deep-rooted brilliance and understanding of the sound & subject of music, and, his inate judge of talent & creativity, can be a force in changing the world around him...knowing, believing, and, proving, that music is one of the most powerful, and, universal connections that all can relate to, bond with, and, understand.
Top reviews from other countries
Like Guralnick’s other work, the story is meticulously researched, tracing Phillips’ life from childhood in rural Alabama, working in radio (his prime, and lifelong, interest), which led him to launch a recording studio and, in turn, the birth of Sun Records, the small label born out of recording blues artists that evolved into white artists creating rock ‘n’ roll. Alongside his major stars, passages are given over to his other artists including Jackie Brenston, Howlin’ Wolf, The Prisonaires, Ire Turner, Billy Lee Riley, Carl Mann, Roy Orbison and Charlie Rich and more.
But success hadn’t come easy and before the Sun artists hit bigtime, Phillips had his share of struggles – healthwise and financially, with the selling of the Presley contract to RCA eventually allowing him to clear debts. Then came the rise of the conglomerates and he led the independent labels’ struggle for existence. (A similar situation would arise with radio stations some years later). In 1969, he sold Sun to Shelby Singleton and returned to making radio stations his prime activity. Among many other topics, the book also covers Phillips’ personal life, family and friends, and the women who were companions throughout the years.
Perhaps the book’s one shortcoming comes in the coverage of Sam Phillips’ later years where, I feel, the author might done a little editing of the text. Minor nitpick! Peter Guralnick has created another masterly contribution to the history of popular music, that’s completed with comprehensive appendix notes and index.
Sadly so many youngsters won't know his name - but without Sam Phillips we might never have had rock n roll and everything that followed him.
The book charts his amazing life story from growing up by the Bend in the River to his death early in the 21st century - a time of huge social and technological change, party driven and taken advantage by, by Sam.
I hugely enjoyed the first half of the book - his early years, setting up the Memphis Recording Service, launching Sun Records, recording Elvis, Jonny Cash, Howlin' Wolf etc. I thought the book - like Sam - lost its way a little in the third quarter, after the Jerry Lee Lewis debacle, the end of Sun as an original label - but it picked up again at the end. Again, a bit like Sam himself!
Great research. One quibble - occasionally there are complex sentences filled with asides, when a few short ones could have been used to break up and control the flow of information. The content, insights though are worth the ride alone all the way.