He was the man who signed Elvis

Friday, August 8, 2003

When Sam Phillips died last week, at age 80, it was easier just to say he signed Elvis Presley than to explain what he was really after -- to find in music a common ground where black and white Americans could get to know each other. Simple. Also revolutionary.

Sam Phillips won't be canonized. He was a businessman, a hustler really, who after World War II saw an opening for entrepreneurs in the wide-open field of pop music. Based in Memphis, he scouted Southern talent and cut freelance recordings.

He bought a studio and recorded everything from weddings to vanity acetates, like the one Elvis sung for his mother that caught the ear of Phillips' assistant, Marion Keisker.

Phillips heard it and signed Elvis. Not to make history. To make money.

He saw the possibilities at the intersection of what the rest of his business divided into white "country Western" or black "rhythm and blues."

Truth is, many white folks liked "black" music and vice versa. What Sam Phillips did was marry this dirty little secret -- that social segregation didn't mean cultural segregation -- to the tidal wave of young people who now had the technology and cash to claim pop music for their own.

Keep some of the melody of pop, add the beat of R&B, the power of blues, the drive of country, the resonance of gospel. Make it exotic, okay, a little naughty. Phillips never got all that in one artist. Who did?

But add Elvis to Little Richard and you had music that tore great wonderful holes in the walls between black and white.

"I wanted to put together elements that had not been exposed enough," Phillips said in 2000. "I felt people would accept it if they heard it."

But he knew that music was a ragged process that required Fats Domino and Jerry Lee Lewis, Ike Turner and the Coasters. He knew he'd never control it. That was okay.

"Individuality is what made it work," he said in 2000. "This would be a helluva world if everyone wore the same suit. I'd take a gun and shoot myself."

When he said, "We're much further along today," he's right, no matter how badly we can still behave.

And it's a pretty good epitaph.