The Man And The Mistakes That 'Invented Rock 'n' Roll' In his new book, Sam Phillips, music writer Peter Guralnick profiles the founder of the Sun Records label. Guralnick says Phillips rejected perfection in favor of spontaneity and individuality.
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The Man And The Mistakes That 'Invented Rock 'n' Roll'

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The Man And The Mistakes That 'Invented Rock 'n' Roll'

The Man And The Mistakes That 'Invented Rock 'n' Roll'

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ike Turner, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Howlin' Wolf and B.B. King are some of the great musicians who were discovered by Sam Phillips, which is why the new biography of Phillips is subtitled "The Man Who Invented Rock 'N' Roll." My guest is the author of the book, Peter Guralnick. He also wrote the definitive two-volume biography of Elvis Presley, a biography of Sam Cook and books about soul, blues and country music. Guralnick has described Phillips as having left a remarkable legacy, both of black blues and the white adaptation of it, which became rock 'n' roll. Phillips recorded many of the performers he worked with on Sun Records, the label he founded in Memphis in 1952 and sold in 1969. Along with the biography of Sam Phillips, Guralnick has compiled a double CD that's also called "Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock 'N' Roll." It collects many of Guralnick's favorite tracks that Phillips produced. We'll hear and talk about some of those recordings, and we'll hear a couple of excerpts of my 1997 interview with Sam Phillips. He died in 2003 at the age of 80. Let's start with a track from the new compilation. This is an impromptu 1956 session recorded after Elvis walked in on a Carl Perkins recording session where a then unknown Jerry Lee Lewis was at the piano. The session was released under the name the "Million Dollar Quartet."


PRESLEY, PERKINS, LEWIS AND CASH: (Singing) Good, Lord, I shall not be - I shall not be moved. I shall not be moved. Just like a tree that's growing in the meadow down by the water, I shall not be moved. I'm on my way to glory land. I shall not be moved. On my way to glory land, I will not be moved. Oh, look (inaudible) tree planted by the water, I shall not be moved. I shall not be, I shall not be moved. I shall not be, I'll shall not be moved. Just like a tree that's planted by the water and I shall not be moved.

GROSS: Peter Guralnick, welcome back to FRESH AIR. You've written about Sam Phillips before in writing about other musicians, most especially in your two-volume book about Elvis Presley. Why did you want to devote a separate book to Sam Phillips?

PETER GURALNICK: Well, because I think he's as original and as strikingly individuated and as determinedly motivated an artist, really, as anybody I've ever written about. And from the time that I first started writing, he was somebody who absolutely fascinated me, which is the reason I spent 10 years trying to get an interview with him

GROSS: So you describe Sam Phillips as an artist. What makes him an artist?

GURALNICK: Well, you know, let's call him a visionary then. I mean, he is an artist in terms of audio. That was the one thing that he took the greatest pride in, that he could get - he could hear sound, he could get sound. He prided himself not just on his microphone placement, but on his use of the equipment on replicating sound in a way that was realer than real. He wasn't interested in having a sterile, you know, washed out perfect version of sound which just had no life. He created a live sound. But his vision from the very beginning was that music, and specifically African-American music, could conquer all of the prejudice, all of the race prejudice, you know, the class prejudice, the divisions, the categories into which music, like everything else in American life, was divided. And from - long before he started the studio in 1950, he believed that the music in which he so - which he so strongly espoused, which was primarily African-American music, that this music would, once a mainstream audience - and by that you can mean - you can read largely white - once a mainstream audience encountered this music they would be won over completely.

GROSS: Howlin' Wolf - the great blues musician-singer Howlin' Wolf was one of Sam Phillips first big discoveries. Talk about the importance of Howlin' Wolf in blues and rock 'n' roll history

GURALNICK: Well, I think what Sam said when he first heard Howlin' Wolf, he - a friend of his, an engineer over at KWEM in West Memphis, said we've got this guy on the air every day at noon - around noon - selling farm implements and, you know, farm tools. And he's got - he's the kind of guy - he plays the kind of music I think you'd be interested in, which I don't was intended as a compliment by this friend of Sam's. I don't think he meant it entirely altogether positively. But Sam always said - he said he tuned in to the program on KWEM. It was a weak signal. It came through crackling. It was a terrible connection. And he said that from the first moment he heard Howlin' Wolf's voice, he said this is it for me. This is where the soul of man never dies. And I'm with Sam on that. I mean, I think Sam - you know, Howlin' Wolf is not just the epitome of Sam's vision of expressing - I mean, Sam considered him and Charlie Rich two totally different musicians. He considered them the most profound artists he ever recorded. The first time Sam invited Wolf into the studio he tried to make it as low-key as possible. He didn't want to put any pressure on him. He didn't want Wolf to feel that he was making a command performance or that some little white guy was trying to twist him in some direction. When Wolf came with the guitarist Willie Johnson and the drummer Willie Steel - and Sam said he was so overwhelmed, he was just so overcome by the sound of the music that for the - one of the few times in his life he had no idea what to do. I mean, he prided himself on everything to do with recording and he said he was out there in the studio moving the mics around. But really he wasn't doing anything. He was just completely mesmerized by the sound of Howlin' Wolf's voice.

GROSS: Let's just hear a little bit about what Sam Phillips had to say in 1997 when I interviewed him and I asked him about Howlin' Wolf. And I guess I owe this interview to you, Peter, because you're the one who convinced Sam Phillips to occasionally do interviews. And I feel very lucky to have spoken to him directly. So this is Sam Phillips talking about recording Howlin' Wolf.


SAM PHILLIPS: The Wolf, as I've said so many times, is one of my favorite artists. He was so individual in the things that he did. He had, number one, a voice that was so distinctive that there is - nobody could mistake it for anybody else. That intrigued me. He was so absolutely untrained in so many ways, but at the same time it was so honest that it was just - it brought about a certain passion just by listening to him to sing. And there was one thing about the Wolf that you never had to worry about. When he opened his mouth in the recording studio and he would talk real low when he was talking to you and he was a big man, about 6 feet 4 and weighed probably 225 or 30 pounds and nothing but muscle. But when he talked to you, you could barely hear him. When he sang to you, you hardly needed a microphone or an amplifier. But more than that, though, I think that his ability to get lost in a song for two or three minutes, or however how long the song was, was certainly as good as anybody I've ever recorded. And when I say get lost in a song, I simply do mean that. And I think that is a good unsophisticated term of saying that we all tried to get lost in what we were doing. And I think that was part of our success.

GROSS: That was Sam Phillips, recorded in 1997. My guest is Peter Guralnick, who's written a new book about Sam Phillips. One thing that strikes me, like, reading your book and listening back to the interview with Sam Phillips is that he - his thing was trying to get, like, the most out of people. And as spontaneous as things sounded, he usually did, like, lots and lots of takes until he felt that the intensity level was at the maximum.

GURALNICK: Well, yeah, and he didn't care about the mistakes. He cared about the feel. And many of his artists - I mean, Carl Perkins said, you know, but, Mr. Phillips, I made a mistake on that. Let's do it again. And, you know, from Sam's point of view, perfection - Sam would say I hate that word perfection. It should be banned from the English language because what he was looking for was something far beyond perfection. It was spontaneity, individuality, what he talked about with Wolf. And when Carl said, Mr. Phillips, I made a mistake and Sam said, well, nobody's going to notice that mistake. You had the feel on that. And Carl would say, but it's a mistake. And Sam said, that's what we are at Sun Records. That's what Sun Records is. We're one big inspired mistake, and he believed that. I mean, that was his artistic credo.

GROSS: OK, so let's hear Howlin' Wolf and this is "Moanin' At Midnight" from the early 1950s.


HOWLIN' WOLF: (Singing) Well, somebody knocking on my door. Well, somebody knocking on my door. Well, I'm so worried, don't know where to go. Well, somebody calling me, calling me on my telephone. Well, somebody call me over my telephone. Well, keep on calling, tell them I'm not at home.

GROSS: That's Howlin' Wolf as recorded by Sam Phillips. My guest is Peter Guralnick, who's written a new book about Sam Phillips called "Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock 'N' Roll." And there's a companion CD, and the track we just heard is featured on it. There's a lot of distortion on the track. How much of that is intentional?

GURALNICK: It's totally intentional. I mean, Sam believed in taking things to the edge of distortion and then beyond. When he sent his - Elvis's "Mystery Train" out to Bill Putnam at Universal Studios in Chicago, one of the people he most - one of the few people he expressed his admiration for as a soundman, that was the first record he ever had - he ever had mastered by anybody else. But he felt his equipment - Sam felt his equipment wasn't good enough to get the sound he wanted. And I include the note that he had on the tape box - a photo of the tape box that he sent to Bill Putnam - and it's cut it hot.

GROSS: My guest is Peter Guralnick, who's written extensively about blues, country music, soul music, rock 'n' roll. His new book is called "Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock 'N' Roll." Let's take a short break. Then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Peter Guralnick. And his new book is called "Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock 'N' Roll." And Sam Phillips is the person who discovered Howlin' Wolf, Ike Turner, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Charlie Rich, Roy Orbison and more. And Sam Phillips created Sun Records.

Let's hear some more music. Elvis is probably - is definitely (laughter) Sam Phillips's most famous discovery and the discovery that most changed music. And you have this new compilation that's companion to the Sam Phillips book. It's a collection of recordings that he produced. And you suggested that we play, back-to-back, Elvis's "Mystery Train" and Junior Parker's recording "Love My Baby." Now Junior Parker had recorded "Mystery Train" before Elvis did. But why did you wanted (ph) to play "Love My Baby" back-to-back with Elvis's version of "Mystery Train"?

GURALNICK: Well, "Love My Baby" really provided the model for "Mystery Train." Even - I mean, Elvis recorded "Mystery Train." One of the things that he was most drawn to of the recordings that Sam made was Little Junior Parker's "Mystery Train." "Love My Baby" was the B-side. I don't know if there were A-sides and B-sides so much. But "Love My Baby" - the guitar part by Floyd Murphy is almost the exact pattern for rockabilly that came along a year or two later. I mean, in fact, Sam believed in the record so strongly that he had no doubt that this record was going to be the one to cross over. And if you listen to it now, it couldn't be anything but color that prevented it from being a major pop hit. But when...

GROSS: By color, you mean Junior Parker was black.

GURALNICK: Exactly, yeah, as was his band the Blue Flames (laughter). Yes. But Sam played "Love My Baby," in particular, over and over again for Scotty Moore, Elvis's guitarist. And you can hear on Elvis's "Mystery Train," it's not imitation in any way. Incidentally, the guitarist in the Blue Flames was Floyd Murphy, who was Matt "Guitar" Murphy's younger brother. He was 18 about the time he recorded it. Sam considered him one of the finest guitarists he had ever encountered. But Scotty studied it. Sam's lesson to Scotty, who was a great musician and a great man - I mean, as Sam said of Scotty, he's the most honest man I ever met. If he disagrees with me, well, I don't know, there's something wrong with me. But he played this, "Love My Baby," for Scotty because his lesson to Scotty was to simplify, simplify. I mean, Sam was a Thoreauvian and a Thoreauvian in his own way. And this - the guitar solo, the driving sound on "Love My Baby" was so much what Sam was looking for in music in general, I mean, in much of the music that he recorded.

GROSS: OK, so let's hear, back-to-back, Little Junior Parker's recording of "Love My Baby" and Elvis's version of "Mystery Train." And both of these recordings are on the Sam Phillips compilation that's the companion to Peter Guralnick's new biography of Sam Phillips.


JUNIOR PARKER: (Singing) Love my baby, keeps her business to herself. Love my baby, keeps her business to herself. Well, her friends don't know it. Don't need nobody else. Big, fat mama, meat shakes on her bone.


ELVIS PRESLEY: (Singing) Train I ride, 16 coaches long. Train I ride, 16 coaches long. Well, that long, black train got my baby and gone. Train, train, coming 'round, 'round, the bend. Train, train, coming 'round the bend. Well, it took my baby, but it never will again. No, not again. Train, train...

GROSS: That was Elvis Presley doing "Mystery Train" and before that, Little Junior Parker doing "Love My Baby."

And my guest is Peter Guralnick. He's the author of a new book about Sam Phillips called "The Man Who Invented Rock 'N' Roll." And he's put together a double-CD compilation of recordings made by Sam Phillips, many of which, I confess, I was unfamiliar with before because some of them are relatively obscure.

So, you had mentioned that Sam thought that what was holding back Junior Parker from, you know, having big hits was race because he was African-American. Would you describe a little bit what Sam Phillips was up against in the music market in trying to break black artists to diverse audiences?

GURALNICK: Well, the point was - it wasn't so much that he believed that was the reason for its rejection, that color was the reason. It is that from the very beginning, from before he had opened up his studio in January of 1950, he believed that the greatness of this music that so moved him, of this African-American music, couldn't help but win over the general public, the mainstream and mainstream audience. When he put out "Rocket 88," which, to my amazement - I mean, I only discovered this recently - he sold over 100,000 copies.

In his - one of his first public utterances to the commercial appeal, he spoke of how this was music for all people. I can't remember how explicitly he said it, but the point - it was no question that he believed that "Rocket 88" - it had such drive. It had such personality. It had such appeal that it couldn't help but break into the popular market. Well, it didn't. It sold 100,000 copies. There must've been white sales in there, but it didn't change the charts, which were totally segregated, like every other aspect of American life at that time.

But Sam, when he - Sam started Sun Records in 1953. He had one hit after another. They were big hits by R&B standards. One of them was The Prisonaires' "Just Walkin' In The Rain." One - and he had a couple of hits with Little Junior Parker. He had a big hit with Rufus Thomas with "Bear Cat." A big hit in R&B meant that it sold 35,000, maybe 50,000. That was the ceiling, and he was on the verge of going out business. Sam Phillips was on the verge of going out of business. When Elvis came into his studio in June of - well, in July of '54, when he made "That's All Right," Sam was on the edge of bankruptcy, but he was determined to present the music in a way that was absolutely true to itself, not to present imitation music, not to present music that tried to ape the sounds or the feeling of the great blues singers, the great R&B singers. But it had its own original sound. And in Elvis, he found that.

GROSS: My guest is Peter Guralnick. His new book is called "Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock 'N' Roll." That's also the title of the double-CD collection Peter has compiled of recordings produced by Phillips.

After we take a break, we'll hear more music and more stories about Phillips. And Maureen Corrigan will review the new novel by Mary Gaitskill, who she describes as a tough and brilliant writer. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


PRESLEY: (Singing) Well, that's all right, Mama. That's all right with you. That's all right, Mama, just any way you do. That all right. That's all right. That's all right now, Mama, any way you do. Well, Mama, she done told me, Papa done told me, too. Son, that gal you're fooling with, she ain't no good for you. But that's all right. That's all rights. That's all right.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Peter Guralnick. He wrote the definitive two-volume biography of Elvis Presley. Now we has a new biography of Sam Phillips who discovered Elvis. As well as Jerry Lee Lewis, Ike Turner, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Howlin' Wolf and B.B. King. Phillips founded Sun records in 1952. He died in 2003 at the age of 80. Peter Guralnick knew him for about 25 years. We're listening to music from the companion CD compiled by Guralnick collecting recordings produced by Phillips. It has the same title as the book. "Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock 'N' Roll." Well, why don't we hear another recording? And this is - this is Jerry Lee Lewis. Who was obviously a real wild man (laughter). And you suggested that we play "Whole Lotta Shaking" which you describe - you say, never has there been a more breathtakingly iconic moment. So what makes this recording so iconic?

GURALNICK: Sam considered Jerry Lee Lewis the most talented of all the performers he ever had in the studio. He had a superlative for everybody so, you know, it's not as if this ruled out Elvis's charisma or Wolfs profundity. But the drive in Jerry Lee Lewis's music, the wildness barely, you know, the barely contained wildness, the sense of structure imposed on something that was just on the verge of breaking out at every single moment and the piano playing of Jerry Lee Lewis. Listen to the bass notes that he plays in this. I - there was a bass player in the studio who could be heard and it was Jerry Lee's father-in-law actually. Now the bass player can be heard in earlier takes. But there is no bass on the master take. And there's Jerry Lee's left-handed taking it all in this drive that just carries you away. I mean, there - there were many other great Jerry Lee Lewis performances. I mean, almost every performance was great. But there was nothing that can surpass this.

GROSS: OK. So this is Jerry Lee Lewis "Whole Lotta Shaking" on Sun records, one of the many great recordings produced by Sam Phillips who's the subject of Peter Guralnick's new biography.


JERRY LEE LEWIS: (Singing) Come on over, baby, whole lotta shakin' goin' on. Yes, I say come on over, baby. Baby, you can't go wrong. We ain't faking, a whole lotta shakin' goin' on. Well, I said come on over, baby, we've got chicken in the barn. Come on over, baby, baby got the bull by the horn. We ain't faking, a whole lotta of shakin' goin' on. Yeah, let's shake, baby, shake. I said shake, baby, shake. I said shake it, baby, shake. I said shake it, baby, shake it. Come on over, a whole lotta shakin' goin' on - oh, let's go.

GROSS: That was Jerry Lee Lewis' recording "Whole Lotta Shaking," and that recording is on the new anthology of Sam Phillips recordings. That's the companion to my guest Peter Guralnick's new book "Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock 'N' Roll." Sam Phillips was really a genius at discovering talent - take Jerry Lee Lewis. The way you describe it, Jerry Lee Lewis and his father sell all the eggs on their farm so they can have the money to travel to Sam's studio because Jerry Lee Lewis had read in a magazine that he's the man - like, he's the guy who discovers the talent. And Sam Phillips is smart enough to recognize Jerry Lee Lewis' genius. And then you describe some of the songs that Jerry Lee Lewis records - you know, wants to do before getting to things that are really, you know, like, "Whole Lotta Shaking." He's doing songs by Jimmy Rogers and Gene Autry Stephen Foster (laughter) you know, not what he becomes famous for. But anyways, among Sam Phillips' great discoveries among the people he recorded was The Prisonaires. This is a singing group that was in prison at the Tennessee State Penitentiary in Nashville. Who were the people in this group? What were they in prison for?

GURALNICK: They were in prison for a lot of years. I mean, Johnny Bragg, who was the lead singer and whose idol was Bill Kenny, just as Bill Kenny was Elvis's idol, was in for a succession of rape convictions, which, you know, many people have said it was a setup. He was first convicted I think when he was 14, and he had something like 600 years of consecutive sentences. He did get out. But for Sam, when he first heard the Prisonaires, who were very much an Ink Spots-inspired group, not only did the music overwhelm them, he said, you know, that's when the devastation came over me. But it was the idea of prison reform, of people being able to better themselves. It was his original ambition in life was to be a criminal defense lawyer like Clarence Darrow and basically to right the wrongs, the inequities. But he said then the devastation came over me. And then he had to devise a strategy to convince Gov. Clement - Gov. Frank Clement, who was a great liberal in Tennessee politics. Like Sam, a lifelong Democrat, big D and little D and somebody Sam very much admired. He had to convince Gov. Clement to let The Prisonaires be transported with a guard and a trustee to Memphis to record at Sam's studio.

GROSS: And although The Prisonaires often sang gospel music, Sam had them record something that the lead singer had co-written, "Just Walking In The Rain," a totally secular song, a love song. This is a great recording. Why don't you introduce the recording for us?

GURALNICK: Well, one of the remarkable things about "Just Walking In The Rain" is it's totally opposite to the view that most people have of what Sam wanted to record, which is that raw gut-bucket blues, as he called it - Howlin' Wolf, Jerry Lee Lewis - you know, and this is the sweetest sound in the world. It - like so many of the songs that Sam recorded, whether it was "Whole Lotta Shaking" or "That's All Right," there were many takes. He worked all day to get the simplicity of the sound, to get what he felt was the purity of the sound, as opposed to the distorted sound that you mentioned earlier, you know, of so many of his records. And he worked all day to get this, which is very little - there's very little difference between the master version of the song and the version of the - the acetate that had come to him originally or the early takes of the song. And yet it makes all the difference. He waited for the sound that he heard, for the purity of that sound to refine itself and to reveal itself. And that's what you hear on this record.

GROSS: And do you remember what year this was recorded?

GURALNICK: This was recorded in the summer of '53 problem and was probably the reason that Elvis Presley came into the studio as an 18-year-old to record an acetate, what was called a personal record. Pay $4 and, you know, get two sides for it. And it was always said that Elvis recorded the song for his mother. But actually, I think the real reason was to put himself in the way of being discovered. And the reason for that was that he had read a story in The Commercial Appeal - the Memphis Commercial Appeal - about The Prisonaires and this Mr. Phillips. This was Sam's greatest celebrity in Memphis up until that time - this Mr. Phillips, who was open to talent of all kinds. All he wanted - he was just looking for original talent, but he was open. He was ready to listen to anybody who came in. And that I think is what led Elvis to walk into the studio and plunk down his $4 and record two songs, one of which was an Ink Spots song.

GROSS: OK, something that makes this Prisonaires recording even more special. So here's The Prisonaires, as recorded and produced by Sam Phillips.


THE PRISONAIRES: (Singing) Just walking in the rain, getting soaking wet. Torture in my heart, I'm trying to forget. Just walking in the rain, so lonely. All because my heart still remembers you. People come to windows, and they always stare at me. Shake their heads in sorrow, saying who can that fool be? Just walking in the rain, thinking how we met...

GROSS: That's The Prisonaires, and it's one of the recordings featured on a new double album anthology of recordings produced by Sam Phillips. And the album and the book are both titled "Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock 'N' Roll." My guest Peter Guralnick wrote the book and put together the anthology. Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Peter Guralnick. And his new book is called "Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock 'N' Roll." Let's get in one more artist here that Sam Phillips discovered, Charlie Rich, who I know you feel very strongly about, Peter. You've written about him. And, you know, Sam Phillips' thing was working with someone to try to find out what - what they were capable of and then recording that. Like, what was the deepest emotion that they could express? What was the process he used for working with Charlie Rich?

GURALNICK: Well, with Charlie - by the time Charlie came in, Sam had, to a large extent, drifted away from the business. And it's ironic that he considered Charlie, along with Howlin' Wolf, as I've said before, the most profound of any of the artists he recorded. He - Charlie was the one artist that Sam went to see again and again and again. He never saw Howlin' Wolf perform. He said he didn't need to. He got the greatest show in the world just Howlin' Wolf sitting in a chair in the studio. But Sam always faulted himself for not having taken Charlie to the point that he knew Charlie's talents could go, for not bringing out of him the depth of feeling that was so clearly embedded in Charlie's music. And it was only when he opened his new studio in Nashville on 7th Avenue - a studio that he absolutely loved and at a time when he was getting out of the business - he built the whole thing from the ground up. Every square inch of it, he was responsible for. And Charlie was the second session that he recorded at that studio. He recorded "Who Will The Next Fool Be?" one of Charlie's greatest compositions, and the one time that Sam got out of Charlie just almost a perfect or a perfectly imperfect representation of the depth of his feeling and of his talent. And Sam was enormously proud of that. Charlie went on to record for other labels, like Smash and RCA, where you can hear the full extent of his talent. And Sam faulted himself to the end of his days that he did not - he didn't bring that out of Charlie himself. But he did this one time anyway, and it's just a knockout.

GROSS: So this is Charlie Rich, "Who Will The Next Fool Be?"


CHARLIE RICH: (Singing) After you get rid of me, who will the next fool be? I know, I know, I know, I know there's things he'd like to know about the girl that I love so. 'Cause after all is said and done, you won't be satisfied with anyone. So after you get rid of me, who will the next fool be? Will he believe all those lies and end up like me with tears in his eyes? I know, I know, I know...

GROSS: That was Charlie Rich, "Who Will The Next Fool Be?" And that recording is featured on a new anthology that my guest, Peter Guralnick has put together of recordings produced by Sam Phillips. The album and the companion book are called "Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock 'N' Roll." And Sam Phillips discovered Howlin' Wolf, Ike Turner, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Charlie Rich, Roy Orbison and many others. You end your recording compilation - the anthology of Sam Phillips' recordings - with Elvis's "Trying To Get To You." And I think you end it for a very specific reason. So I thought we'd end our interview with that recording, too. And I'll ask you why it's the end.

GURALNICK: Well, I hope it's not the end. Maybe it's the introduction to a future that we can't envision yet. But (laughter) it's - no, I always thought that "Trying To Get To You" was one of the greatest, if not the greatest, of all the songs that Elvis recorded for Sam and Sun. But, in fact, it's not the version that we're about to hear that reaches its pinnacle. It's the next take, which was never done, that would've been the transcendent version. But it's an astonishing performance, and it's - there's so much conviction and so much belief in it. One of the things that's most extraordinary about it is it's a song that stayed with Elvis all his life. And even at the very end of his life, in his last or his next-to-last concert, he's singing it with the same conviction and the same desperation. He'd always had a freshness and a spontaneity that, you know, some of his hits didn't always bring out of him at the end. It's one of these many - it's like so many songs. How do you define what it is about "Funny How Time Slips Away" that's so great? But it's a song you can - or "You Are My Sunshine" - but it's a song you can listen to again and again. And with Elvis's commitment to it, it's really an extraordinary achievement.

GROSS: What do you mean by the next tape that was never made would've been the best?

GURALNICK: Because I think they were on the verge of refining the song, of simplifying the song, of creating the same kind of take that Elvis had on "Mystery Train." But Elvis's career at Sun was just then coming to an end and he never came back into the studio to do another take.

GROSS: Oh, did Sam Phillips intend to do another take?

GURALNICK: Oh, I don't think there's any question. I mean, I think, yes, absolutely. I mean, I think that - I think this is not a final version. And yet, in its raw spontaneity, it continues. It represents Elvis's music as well as anything I can think of. It's not as - it's not a - Sam didn't release this. But one of the reasons he couldn't have released it is he sold the contract before he might have. But, no, I don't think there's any question that this was a song in the process of evolving. And Elvis puts everything into it. It seems to me that the instrumentation - not that he would change the instrumentation - but that it could have - it could have been refined. It could have been simplified. You can hear Elvis playing piano very, very faintly, chording in the background. Whether that would've stayed in the final version or not, I don't know. There is no rhythm guitar on this.

GROSS: Well, Peter Guralnick, it's great to talk with you again. And Peter Guralnick has written a new biography of Sam Phillips, which is called "Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock 'N' Roll." And there's also a companion double CD that has the same title. And this is the final track on that compilation. Thank you again, Peter.

GURALNICK: Well, thanks, Terry. I've really enjoyed it.


PRESLEY: (Singing) I've been traveling over mountains, even though the valleys, too. I've been traveling night and day. I've been running all the way, baby, trying to get to you. Ever since I read your letter where you said you loved me true, I've been traveling night and day. I've been running all the way, baby, trying to get to you. When I read your loving letter, then my heart began to sing. There were many miles between us, but they didn't mean a thing. I just had to reach you, baby, spite of all that I've been through. I kept traveling night and day. I kept running all the way, baby, trying to get to you.

GROSS: Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews a new novel by Mary Gaitskill about the hard realities of reaching across the lines of race and class. This is FRESH AIR.

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