Jewish World Review August 6, 2003 / 8 Menachem-Av 5763

Paul Greenberg

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The saga of Sam Phillips, or How the South rose again | Sam Phillips of Sun Records and the South's musical history died last week at the age of 80. He'll be remembered by others' names, for he was the promoter who brought us one household name after another, starting with B.B. King of blues fame and going on to many another: Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl "Blue Suede Shoes" Perkins, Roy Orbison, Conway Twitty, Charlie Rich . and his biggest find, Elvis himself.

Sam Phillips should be remembered in his own name, too. Because he didn't just bring us stars but validated the music we had had with us all along, the sounds we grew up with, the vibrations we caught when passing honky-tonks and blind pigs, the kind of rhythms and blues we were told was their music, not ours.

Sam Phillips knew better, and, as the son of a tenant farmer, always did. More to the point, he staked his life on it. Also his health. The money and reputation and security he risked were the least of it.

Sam Phillips didn't walk away from the big recording houses to start his own tiny studio in Memphis just because he wanted a fair break for himself and his artists, though that was certainly part of it.

Sam Phillips worked from dusk to dawn because he wanted a fair break for the whole, neglected musical heritage that was right under our noses all the time, the kind of sound the big boys back East thought was below them, or at least needed to be refined (that is, disguised) a la Duke Ellington. They had about as much soul as any bank account does.

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Sam Phillips knew better, and he believed better. He didn't want anything watered down, ordered up, cut to fit, made presentable. His salvation, and rock 'n' roll's, was that he didn't spurn his birthright. On the contrary, he knew it was priceless. Born in north Alabama, he wasn't blind to the lessons all around him in those cotton fields back home. ("A day didn't go by when I didn't hear black folks singing in the cotton fields. Did I feel sorry for them? In a way I did. But they could do things I couldn't do. They could outpick me. They could sing on pitch. That made a big impression on me.")

Soon young Phillips was a disc jockey, doing The Saturday Afternoon Tea Dance from the Beautiful Skyway Room at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, playing jazz and pop and the blues. And thinking about the real music that was missing from the popular culture.

All he asked was that his singers have a chance to be what they were -- what we were, really -- and not what some merchandiser thought they should be. Whether they were singing the blues in the night or making a joyful noise unto the Lord.

It was a long, long struggle -- not just financial but personal and physical and most of all mental. But he endured. And his endurance was rewarded when his music became what it had always been in these latitudes -- everybody's music North and South, East and West, and around the world. Especially if you were young.

The rare artists among us have the easy part; they have their talent to comfort them and they know it, even when the rest of us don't. However hard they must struggle, they're unassailable at the center.

But as for the promoter who spots that talent, like the patron who finds the great painter, the publisher who gives us real writers, the businessman-dreamers who make it all possible, all they've got is their own salesman's faith. All they ask is that attention be paid.

That's what Sam Phillips had -- a sublime confidence in his intimate judgment, a confidence honed over a lifetime spent with his eyes and ears wide open. He never learned, like too many, to despise his own and grow bitter; instead he celebrated what he could hear and see right in front of him.

Sam Phillips had a natural talent for sensing possibility, which was the easy part. He also had the sheer endurance to bring it to fulfillment, which was the hard part. He wasn't interested in style; he left that to the artists. He would find them and they would become the style. He knew that all he had to do was let his people do what they were born to do, which is a lot more challenging than it sounds.

You have to be a kind of natural psychologist to do what Sam Phillips did -- to stand aside and let others bring out their own essence. Maybe that's why he had his own integrity -- because he so respected the integrity of others.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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