Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Sam Phillips and Elvis Presley

In 2000 I interviewed Sam Phillips, the man who started Sun records and 'discovered' Elvis Presley, at his home in a Memphis suburb. I mainly talked to him about the Blues, his work with Howlin' Wolf, Ike Turner and others, but of course we had a chat about the Lip. This is what he had to say about the King of Rock and Roll.

“And then Elvis came in.

Later in talking with him I found out the main thing that bought him to cut an audition record was Little Junior Parker’s ‘Mystery Train’, a record that he and I did at Sun Studios. Meanwhile we were trying to keep the doors open, doing little private sessions, not recording sessions but making records for funerals and conventions. Elvis came in to cut something, supposedly for his mother's birthday

Elvis was a raw as anything you've ever heard when he came into my studio. I don't mean that he didn't sing good. He sang good, but what I heard in Elvis was this beautiful untrained voice, unpolished, and it did need polish. What it needed was to find the place that it could take off from and then you played with it as you go along. And I was just amazed. Elvis could not get up the courage to come in and ask for a free audition.

Here’s a guy with a great voice, but he had something more than that to me - and I'm not talking about looks because there's a lot of good looking men, movie stars and good looking singers. It wasn’t a criteria I was going to use to find that white guy that could deliver what you normally heard coming from a black face. I called Bill Black and Scotty Moore to come and work with Elvis, He never had a band, usually everybody that came near a studio, black and white, had some sort of a band, be it two, three pieces, whatever. Elvis didn't. Elvis was a loner.

Scotty Moore' has a lot of patience, and was the type of person who was willing to try some things that were different. The worst thing I could have ever done was to come out and cut a conventional - I don't care how good the ballad was, or how well we put it together - record. That would have been the wrong thing to do.”

Elvis finally got around to cutting ‘Mystery Train’ on 11th July 1955, a year and five days after he recorded ‘That’s All Right’.

“With ‘Mystery Train’ it was one take, you’ve heard this one take stuff before, but this really was. ‘Mystery Train’ is just something that was so embedded in Elvis' mind that when he started to sing it, it was a natural as breathing. And that does make a difference in how a record or performance sounds, if it's natural it's going to be awfully hard to beat. I didn't always achieve it, but that natural feeling of 'Man I'm enjoying this, please won't you come and join me' type of feel was what I tried to do on the records I cut. My whole approach to recording wasn't just twisting the knobs, I wanted things different.”

“But we did it because Elvis has that connecting power, because he felt that Black music influence from childhood, just like I did, from poor white childhood, days, months and years in deep old Mississippi. The second stage of Elvis' birth in this world was when he came to 706 Union Avenue and I heard him, that's when he was truly born.”

Sam Phillips was gracious and just a delight to talk to, despite him having talked about Elvis probably too many times there was no sense of him going through the motions. A year later I was back in Memphis with Bill Wyman for the book we did together called Bill Wyman's Blues Odyssey. We had diner with Sam and it was one of the most most memorable nights in my musical life. I wish I had taped him on that occasion as he told story after story. We ate at his favourite restaurant, not far from his home, and he was like a Southern preacher talking passionately about his love for music and the South. At important parts of his stories or when he reached a climax he would push his chair back and stand up to put greater emphasis on what he was saying.

Elvis Presley at Prestwick Airport in Scotland, the ne occasion he set foot on British soil.

Two years after this dinner, in June 2003, Sam Phillips died aged eighty years old. Without him who knows where music would be right now. There's no doubt in my mind - one man can make a difference.


r morris said...

Great story, Richard. You've met some legends, for sure. Thanks for sharing a little bit of Phillips lore.
As for the late, great Elvis Presley--what a guy. He's missed.

Ellee Seymour said...

Lucky you, I would love to go to Memphis. I am a big Elvis fan, he has never been beaten. A few years ago we hosted a French group in our village and I took the adult party to see an Elvis impersonater in a village hall. His nylon costume was smelly and he was really gross, short and fan, thee was just him and his recorded backing tracks. But they thought it was wonderful, they had never seen anything like it before, and the only word on their lips for the rest of their trip was "Elvis". He certainly was a king.

I'm 99% done now on my project, btw, and am taking the morning off for a 5 mile hike as I desperately need fresh air.

sexy said...
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