Monday, May 30, 2011

What I'm Reading: Let's Rock

When I received the galley for the revised edition of Good Rockin' Tonight, my knowledge of Sun Records was minimal - I knew basically that it existed. I had known some of the legends of early rock and roll cut records with the label - Elvis, Jerry Lee, Roy - but I hadn't realized the richness of the label's history before now. While reading this book, what grabbed me the most was the sheer amount of minor record labels active in the 50's and 60's, and the preference of cutting singles as opposed to whole albums since one was likely to find more profit - a practice one sees now with iTunes, where one can buy individual songs.

I can remember, as a child, sifting through stacks of 45 RPM discs my parents had collected over the years. There may have been a Sun or two in the mix, but I recall quite a variety - Dot, Decca, Buddha, Stax...the music business doesn't appear that different from publishing, particularly in this time of transition. It is interesting to note how some labels operated to serve a specific market (in Sun's case, the South - perfecting what became known as the "Memphis Sound") and gain a following before broadening their reach. This makes sense when you think about it - popular music variety shows like American Bandstand and the Grand Ole Opry had roots in localized followings before expanding. Rockin' touches on the Sun Records connection to these national outlets, in particular with their more prominent artists.

When the original Sun studio opened, it had originally served as a place for musicians and organizations to make use of the equipment until it was realized that money could be made representing and distributing artists. Rockin' goes on to break down, chapter by chapter, the many relationships Sun and Phillips enjoyed with various artists and architects of R&B, rockabilly, and early rock and roll. The Sun histories of Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Roy Orbison - some of them so brief - are recorded with academic detail and very little gossip. Though it's not revealed directly, as you run down the list of songs recorded and released by Sun you realize the butterfly effect Phillips had on rock and roll - one can argue that if not for the Sun discs making the rounds in the UK, where American artists of this period were quite popular, The Beatles may not have come into existence (indeed, check the Fabs' earlier albums for their covers of some of Perkins' Sun songs.).

Probably the juiciest tabloid-esque bits one can expect to find are Lewis's exploits, mainly because they resulted in nearly damaging his career while with Sun. Given the same amount of play here, though on the radio it was a different story, are the careers of second and third-tier artists like Charlie Rich, Malcolm Yelvington, Warren Smith, Billy Riley. You might not know the names, but perhaps if you had parents like mine who held a wealth of records you may recognize the music - a thorough appendix of Sun recordings at the end of the book provides the information you need to educate yourself.

A friend who has also read and enjoyed this book noted his amazement that Phillips not only had so much talent in his stable, but seemed to willingly let it go. The passages on Johnny Cash support this - one reads this entire book and wonders how a man of such innovation, who once had the organization so many others imitated, didn't seem perceptive enough to know he should hang on to the likes of Presley and Cash. Would Sun have survived the changing landscape of music in the 1960s if Phillips had been more aggressive in keeping certain artists? We can only guess at what might have been, but we do know the legacy left by one of the more influential independent labels in music history, and thanks to this book we know so much more.

1 comment:

Joy said...

What a great idea for supporting the troops and spreading the word about indie authors. I'm so happy to meet you and read your work. Joy@joyinhisjourney.com