Sunday, August 10, 2003

Sam Phillips larger than important life he lived

Memphis memorial sends off a legend

By Larry Nager
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Elvis Presley (left), bass player Bill Black and guitarist Scotty Moore, pose with Sam Phillips (right) during a 1954 session at Sun Records in Memphis, Tenn.
Enquirer file

Sam Phillips checks out his plaque at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, Tenn., in 2001. He's the only person to belong to the rock, blues and country music halls.

MEMPHIS, Tenn. - Master showman to the end, Sam Phillips knocked 'em dead at his funeral.

A crowd of 1,500 family, friends and fans - including a good number of rock legends - gathered Thursday at the Cannon Center for the Performing Arts to say goodbye to the man who invented rock 'n' roll.

Phillips, who died of respiratory failure July 30 at 80, was the flamboyant visionary who founded Sun Records in 1952 and discovered Elvis Presley, Howlin' Wolf, Johnny Cash, B.B. King, Jerry Lee Lewis, Rufus Thomas, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Little Milton, Ike Turner and dozens more.

But it's been said that even amid that pantheon, Phillips - or just plain Sam, as he was known to everyone in Memphis - was the label's biggest star, and his sons Knox and Jerry threw him a fitting memorial service.

The great Sun records he made at his storefront studio at 706 Union were played during Wednesday evening's visitation, as well as at the memorial service. Sam had been buried Thursday morning at a private family ceremony at Memorial Gardens Mausoleum in East Memphis. He was buried wearing his trademark copper-tinted sunglasses. His memorial service featured another of his beloved possessions sitting center stage, the blue 1960 Cadillac convertible he'd owned since it was new.

There was also live music, as Sun engineer and songwriter Jack Clement played a few songs with Sun disciple Marty Stuart and guitarist Kenny Vaughan.

Many of the surviving Sun family came to pay homage. Priscilla Presley had met with Knox and Jerry a couple of nights before, fittingly at Sam's favorite Memphis steakhouse, Folk's Folly, which was opened specially for the meeting. Lisa Marie Presley sent a large floral arrangement. Sun session guitarist Roland Janes, Charlie Rich's widow and songwriting collaborator Margaret Ann Rich and alt-rock producer Jim Dickinson, who got his start with a rock band in the last days of the label, all were in attendance.

Blues great B.B. King and Atlantic Records founder Jerry Wexler sent video tributes. Johnny Cash provided a touching audio remembrance of the release of his first Sun record, "Hey Porter"/"Cry Cry Cry."

Little Milton Campbell, one of the bluesmen Sam had recorded before Elvis turned Sun into a rock label, had just flown in from a blues festival in Norway.

Generous man of integrity

Before the ceremonies he remembered "Mr. Phillips" (the name all Sun artists, black and white alike, called him) as a civil rights pioneer.

"Back then, it wasn't the most popular thing for a Southern white man to record all these black musicians. He took a lot of verbal abuse for it, a lot of insults," Campbell recalled. "But he was recording the music he loved and he stuck to his guns."

No one spoke more eloquently about those times than Sam himself. I got to know the rock icon while covering the music beat for The Commercial Appeal, the Memphis daily paper, from 1991 through 1995.

He was no longer producing records and had nothing to promote, but he was always generous with his time. If he felt you understood the importance of Memphis music, you were his friend. He would later read through the manuscript and write the foreword to my book on the city's music history, "Memphis Beat."

Deep understanding

In an interview used in the book, Sam, who had grown up in Florence, Ala., explained his doctrine of freedom of expression as it related to his desire to record Campbell and the other Sun bluesmen.

"I knew what they were going through. They were people laboring under very difficult circumstances physically, but most especially emotionally. And not because they were beaten as slaves every day or anything like that; but that they, over all the years, were having to live their lives within themselves to such a degree. I felt these people must have something to say. I wasn't out to change the world or anything like that. I was out for these people to be heard."

A couple years later, he did the same with a shy, withdrawn teen-ager named Elvis. More than 40 years after that, it was easy to see how he could inspire the musicians at Sun to greatness. Sam had more charisma and personal power than anyone I have ever known.

I remember being at Jerry Lee Lewis' 60th birthday party at the Blues City Cafe on Beale Street. Sam had arranged for me to sit at Jerry Lee's table. His reputation as a wild man is no exaggeration. I have seen Jerry Lee drink straight whiskey from the bottle just a few months after life-saving, emergency stomach surgery. But in the presence of his old mentor, he turned into a meek little boy.

"I owe everything to Mr. Phillips," Lewis told me earnestly, putting an affectionate hand on Sam's shoulder.

Widespread influence

That same mix of love and awe was in the building Thursday, as Memphis said goodbye to the man who, as speaker after speaker noted, "changed the world." Graceland CEO Jack Soden told the crowd that the mansion would probably just be another shopping mall if it wasn't for Sam Phillips.

And though they came along a decade later, Stax star Isaac Hayes and his songwriter/producer partner David Porter were there to pay homage. Stax Records had been founded by Jim Stewart in emulation of Sam and Sun.

Elvis biographer Peter Guralnick recalled his love of all things auditory. "It was sound that carried him away." Sam had opened the first modern recording facility in Memphis, and there was a whole generation of black and white musicians waiting for the chance to record. Had he not been there, right on the city's main drag, chances are many of those musicians - including a certain truck driver from Tupelo. Miss. - might have just stuck to their day jobs.

It's no exaggeration to say he really did change the world as very few have done. And in the current state of the music industry, battered by digital downloads and afraid to take risks of any kind, trend-hating mavericks like Sam Phillips are extinct.

His motto was, "If you're not doing something different, you're not doing anything." He always expressed that with the fire of a true believer, and though Sam's religious mission took the form of the rock 'n' roll revolution, ultimately, it was about personal freedom, expressing the uniqueness within each of us.

That's what every record Sam Phillips ever made was really about, whether it was a hit like "Blue Suede Shoes" or an obscure track by Delta bluesman Howlin' Wolf, the man Sam repeatedly cited as his favorite Sun artist.

'I got into their 'heads'

The eloquent icon had the last word, as usual. The last time I'd spent a day with him was in 2000, for an extended video interview for a Memphis music archive. He had been ill, but as usual, he came with his sons and stayed for hours, until we'd gotten everything we needed.

Clips from those interviews were shown throughout the afternoon of his memorial service, as Sam colorfully recalled his life and his passion for people and music.

There were tears and laughter from the audience as the words and animated facial expressions of this larger-than-life personality brought the music community of Memphis together one last time.

"I didn't teach the people these things," he said, eyes flashing as he spoke from the huge screen above the stage. "I got into their heads and they learned it on their own."

Then the screen faded to a still photo as he ended the memorial delivering his own epitaph, "How lucky can one man be?"


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