SAM PHILLIPS by Peter Guralnick
Kirkus Star


The Man Who Invented Rock 'n' Roll
Email this review


A monumental biography of the larger-than-life loner who fought for the acceptance of black music and discovered an extraordinary group of poor, country-boy singers whose records would transform American popular culture.

Celebrated music historian Guralnick (Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke, 2005, etc.) recounts the life of Sam Phillips (1923-2003), an Alabama farmer’s son who founded Sun Records in Memphis, where, during the 1950s, he first recorded the music of Ike Turner, B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Charlie Rich, and others. In earlier books, including a two-volume Presley biography (Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love), the author has written about such artists and the rise of rock ’n’ roll, “this revolutionary new music that combined raw gutbucket feel with an almost apostolic sense of exuberance and joy.” Now he turns to “unreconstructed individuali[st]” Phillips, who opened the door to untutored talents, recognizing their originality and mentoring them with “patience and belief.” A sickly child who became enamored of African-American music while picking cotton alongside black laborers, Phillips was bright, observant, and much influenced by a blind black sharecropper who lived with his family. He started out as a radio DJ and engineer and realized when he recorded Ike Turner’s hit “Rocket 88” (1951) at Sun that black music had potentially universal appeal. His discoveries—related here with contagious excitement—were not happenstance but rather the result of his dedication to finding the “pure essence” of performances. Guralnick met the charismatic Phillips in 1979 and became a close friend, and he makes no secret of his affection and admiration. However, he also covers his subject’s problems and foibles: his early mental breakdowns, his troubled marriage and affairs, his financial difficulties, his later drinking, and his penchant for bragging about his (rightful) place in music history.

A wonderful story that brings us deep into that moment when America made race music its own and gave rise to the rock sound now heard around the world.

Pub Date: Nov. 10th, 2015
ISBN: 978-0-316-04274-1
Page count: 600pp
Publisher: Little, Brown
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1st, 2015


NonfictionST. MARKS IS DEAD by Ada Calhoun
by Ada Calhoun
FictionTHE MARE by Mary Gaitskill
by Mary Gaitskill
NonfictionI BLAME DENNIS HOPPER by Illeana Douglas
by Illeana Douglas
by Lorin Stein
NonfictionS.P.Q.R. by Mary Beard
by Mary Beard
NonfictionYOUNG ORSON by Patrick McGilligan
by Patrick McGilligan


NonfictionDREAM BOOGIE by Peter Guralnick
by Peter Guralnick
NonfictionCARELESS LOVE by Peter Guralnick
by Peter Guralnick
NonfictionLAST TRAIN TO MEMPHIS by Peter Guralnick
by Peter Guralnick


NonfictionROOTS, RADICALS AND ROCKERS by Billy  Bragg
by Billy Bragg
NonfictionALL SHOOK UP by Glenn C. Altschuler
by Glenn C. Altschuler
NonfictionJOHNNY CASH by Robert Hilburn
by Robert Hilburn