In 2006, the piano-pumping wildman Jerry Lee Lewis released an album called Last Man Standing. The title wasn’t meant to reflect his status among rock and roll’s founding fathers—not while Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Fats Domino still drew breath. But among the “Million Dollar Quartet” who began their career at Sun Records recording studio/label in Memphis that also included Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins.
Perhaps too stubborn to die, he also outlasted label mates Roy Orbison, Charlie Rich and pretty much everyone else who recorded for the label during its initial heyday in the 1950’s.
That ended last month when Lewis passed as the age of 87. Legendary music journalist Peter Guralnick interviewed The Killer many times over five decades, and last saw him in 2020 at a gospel recording session.
“I can’t say enough about him. I probably saw him perform more times than anyone else I ever saw, and he was just incendiary. Sam Phillips described him as the most innately talented of all the people he recorded,” Guralnick says via Zoom.
“But I think the thing that people miss is how brilliant he was. He didn’t just have natural talent, he worked at it. And he had a perceptiveness and intellectual depth outside of music. Even if he wasn’t always easy or behaved in a fashion that was socially acceptable or made choices that weren’t in his interest. But he was truly a brilliant and funny guy.”
This year marks the 70th anniversary of when music industry pioneer/maverick Sam Phillips founded Sun, and the label’s music, legacy, and roster is celebrated in the beautiful coffee table book authored by Guralnick and Colin Escott, The Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll: The Illustrated Story of Sun Records & the 70 Records That Changed The World (256 pp., $60, Weldon Owen). Lewis himself provided the foreword.
Escott handles the biographical and historical essays, while Guralnick names and digs into the 70 records that he felt showed the development, influence and importance of the Sun. It’s not a “Greatest Hits” list by any means, and even includes a few pre-Sun discs.
Some of them are courtesy of the label’s biggest names and hits, one-name-only needed performers like Elvis (“That’s All Right,” “Mystery Train”); Carl (“Blue Suede Shoes,” “Matchbox”); Johnny (“Folsom Prison Blues,” “I Walk the Line”); and of course, Jerry Lee (“Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” “Great Balls of Fire”).
And while rock and roll is the star, there’s also plenty of spots for the label’s R&B and blues material like Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats “Rocket 88” (actually Ike Turner’s band and a perennial short-lister for “The First Rock and Roll Record”); B.B. King (“She’s Dynamite”); Howlin’ Wolf (“Moanin’ at Midnight”); and Rufus Thomas (“Bear Cat”). There’s also country and gospel tunes notated.
Readers also get to meet artists known mostly to the most dedicated historians/liner note readers like Joe Hill Louis, Howard Seratt, Charlie Feathers, Billy Riley, Sonny Burgess, Warren Smith, and The Prisonaires. The last were a group of actual inmates from Tennessee State Prison who got special dispensation to leave incarceration to record and perform.
“I’m thrilled with the book. It’s one more illustration of one of Sam’s sayings ‘If it’s not fun, it’s not worth doing!’” Guralnick says. In this book, he writes about how “ferociously” Father Sun believed in the music.
“He heard everything. He talked about as a kid hearing birds and wind and the chopping of cotton, and it all made an impression on him,” Guralnick says. “Then when he was, I think 16 years old in 1939 and went to Beale Street [in Memphis] for the first time and heard the music. That was it!”
Guralnick recalls going with Phillips to revisit a black church in his hometown for filming a 2000 documentary. A church that as a boy he used to stand outside and listen to the gospel music and was “still entranced” all those decades later. “He [tapped into] the spirit that takes you beyond the music, that transported you. That’s what Sam was about.”
It was important, Guranick says, to show the complete story of the label through the releases, adding that if Sun had closed its doors even before Elvis first walked into the building, it would still have a legacy and importance in recorded music.
“Sam didn’t record that many women, and I think he regretted that. But this was a [precursor] to his WHER, the first [all-female run] station in the nation to showcase his wife Becky’s talents and give the chance to shine to a population was then really excluded.”
The book also tells the tale of the time Sun got into trouble for copyright infringement with “Bear Cat” by Rufus Thomas. At the time, “answer records” were popular. They were discs that would “respond” to the sentiment from a popular song, usually using the exact same melody with different lyrics. Sun issued “Bear Cat” as an “answer” to Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog.”
Phillips received a letter from Don Robey, head of Thornton’s label, the Houston-based Duke/Peacock Records, and ended up paying a substantial penalty. Ironically, Sun’s biggest star, Elvis Presley, would have a hit with a cover of “Hound Dog,” but only after he left Sun for a label more able to handle his exploding career, RCA.
Phillips sold Presley’s Sun contract in 1955 for $35,000 (the equivalent of $389,000 today), apparently without remorse. Part of that problem was the popularity of his biggest star: Presley’s records were selling so fast and in such huge quantities that Phillips had trouble paying for new product since there was a lag in receiving monies that Sun earned from sales.
Guralnick says “instinct” and “feel” guided his pick of the eventual 70 out of the 300+ singles that Sun issued in its lifetime (by comparison, only 20 full length LPs emerged). Though in the years the label’s music and even outtakes have been endlessly compiled and anthologizes by many record companies.
Sam Phillips eventually sold Sun Records in 1969 to music businessman Shelby Singleton. But the glory days were gone to the point where they even launched an Elvis “soundalike” named Orion (nee’ Jimmy Hodges Ellis) after Presley’s death in 1977. Orion performed and was photographed while wearing a mask and well, if it led people to think that the King wasn’t really dead…so be it!
Nevertheless, The Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll is a beautiful and wonderfully put-together book. “I wanted to tell stories that would draw people in about the records,” Guralnick says. “I wanted people to grasp how broad, diverse and deep Sam Phillips was in his [output] and interests. And he was a man who went with his instinct.”
Currently, Guralnick is working on a book about Elvis Presley’s manager Col. Tom Parker that will be a combination biography and reprint some of the many letters the man born Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk wrote. Guralnick knew him personally in the last decade of his life, and the author promises it will “show a completely different side” that will “upend the caricature” of the controversial Dutchman that has been shown in other media.
Which brings to mind one last question: What did the man who wrote the definitive biography of Elvis Presley think of this year’s biopic, Elvis?
“Ah, I didn’t see it!” he says with a grin. “I’m not a big Baz Luhrmann fan. And this probably wasn’t going to turn me around!”
For more on Sun Records, visit SunRecords.com
For more on Peter Guralnick, visit PeterGuralnick.com