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Last of the Titans

Memphis bids farewell to Sam Phillips and to an entire era.



With a week gone by since the death of Sun Records founder Sam Phillips, who passed away at age 80 Wednesday, July 30th, it's still difficult to register the magnitude of the loss.

For starters, Phillips is arguably the most significant nonperformer in the history of American music, such giants as Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. and Atlantic Records executive Jerry Wexler falling noticeably short of Phillips' impact. And while Phillips could be "the man who invented rock-and-roll" as he has been widely hailed (and only if one conceives history in such a way that an individual could be responsible for such a wide-ranging cultural phenomenon), there's no question that Phillips stood at the foundation of a sea change in American life.

One could debate whether Phillips' achievement is the result of serendipity or individual agency (though it surely derived from a confluence of those two factors), but there's no debate that during the decade between his founding of Memphis Recording Service in 1950 to his move to a new studio on Madison Avenue in 1960, Phillips discovered or nurtured a dramatic and even revolutionary array of talent, from blues artists such as B.B. King, Howlin' Wolf, and Little Milton to the "Million Dollar Quartet" of Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and, of course, Elvis Presley.

Along the way, Phillips presided over three of the most celebrated recording sessions in music history. In 1951, he recorded what many people consider to be the first rock-and-roll record, "Rocket 88," a revved-up rhythm-and-blues number about the then-fashionable Oldsmobile coupe by Ike Turner's band, featuring Jackie Brenston on vocals. The record sounded like a prototype for the Chuck Berry hits that would follow. Then, in 1954, Phillips recorded Elvis Presley's first single, "That's All Right, Mama," an impossibly smooth marriage of blues and country that changed everything. And, in 1957, he famously debated religion with Jerry Lee Lewis while the tape rolled, instigating the Pentecostal fervor of Lewis' "Great Balls of Fire."

Yet this figure of international acclaim never ventured outside North America, indeed, never left his adopted hometown -- where you might catch a glimpse of him at the grocery store or having lunch at Buntyn, as this writer did last year. Memphis was a place Phillips praised and defended, perhaps most memorably in a speech regarding his induction into the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, where writer Stanley Booth, in his book Rythm Oil, quotes Phillips: "I mean no disrespect to the people of Cleveland, who I'm sure are a fine people and a spiritual people, but Cleveland ain't ever gonna be Memphis."

Phillips' temple -- that little tourist site and active recording studio at 706 Union Avenue -- is, along with a certain balcony at the Lorraine Motel, the closest thing to sacred ground that Memphis, or, perhaps, America itself, has -- one a source of creation that helped instigate an era, the other a site of destruction that helped bring that same era to an end.

But Phillips' passing also bookends a profound civic loss that began a year and a half ago with the December 15, 2001, passing of Phillips' onetime recording colleague Rufus Thomas, the man who gave Sun Records its first hit with 1953's "Bear Cat."

In two recent documentaries -- an A&E biography on Phillips in 2000 and public television's Good Rockin' Tonight, which commemorated the 50th anniversary of Sun Records in 2001 -- Thomas is a bit of a thorn in Phillips' side, saying in Good Rockin' Tonight that "Sam Phillips wasn't the innovator of nothing" and telling A&E that, after the discovery of Elvis, Phillips discarded all of his black artists. "I don't even think that the walls were black," Thomas joked. And Phillips took exception to this notion in a 2000 interview with the Flyer's Jackson Baker, saying that "Rufus didn't know that my whole purpose, the main thing, was to get more play for black artists."

Despite the tension in their relationship, Thomas and Phillips were dual icons, inextricably linked: No other men were so crucial to Memphis' mid-century music boom, and together they embodied pretty much every facet of the city's musical culture -- black and white, native and outsider (Phillips arrived in Memphis from Florence, Alabama, in 1939), performer and behind-the-scenes actor.

Both men were rooted in the blues -- Thomas as a performer, Phillips through recording blues artists such as Howlin' Wolf and Junior Parker -- but found their true calling at the root of the city's two great post-war music explosions, Phillips by discovering the motherlode of "rockabilly" talent and Thomas as the paternal role model of the Stax-Volt soul years.

They also embodied the sense of Memphis music culture as a tight-knit, multigenerational affair as patriarchs of musical families: Thomases and Phillipses look to be impacting the landscape of local music well into the future.

In later life, they were remarkably similar figures -- flamboyant, larger-than-life men whose cartoonish surfaces could sometimes obscure serious, incisive remarks. But they were also crucially different in this respect. Thomas would play up his grandfatherly persona as adorable, playful curmudgeon. He inspired adulation, and, in his final years, whenever Thomas entered the room, everyone would leap up to clap. But when Sam Phillips entered a room, folks were more likely to brace themselves. If Thomas was a welcoming figure, Phillips was a towering, intimidating one, "a preacher and a prophet" as singer Marty Stuart called him. He inspired not adulation but awe. Sun associate Jack Clement rolling his eyes as Phillips waxes mystical about Elvis' hair in Good Rockin' Tonight is a priceless and telling moment, but Clement also said that when Phillips spoke, he was often profound.

If Thomas was perhaps the more beloved figure locally, it was Phillips who was acknowledged worldwide as the genius whose contribution and, thus, loss will reverberate the loudest. But one thing is certain: This city will not see the likes of either again. For a while, giants walked among us, and, with the passing of Sam Phillips, those days are now gone. So, to echo what critic Lester Bangs wrote on the occasion of Elvis' death, we say not goodbye to Sam Phillips but to an entire era.

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