WEIRDLAND: Sam Phillips and Buddy Holly: The Men who invented Rock 'n' Roll

Monday, January 04, 2016

Sam Phillips and Buddy Holly: The Men who invented Rock 'n' Roll


Dubbing one individual “the man who invented rock ’n’ roll” may stir debate, yet there’s no doubt that Sam Phillips, founder of the iconic Memphis-based Sun Records, was the music’s pre-eminent catalyst. His 1950s talent roster: Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Howlin’ Wolf, Carl Perkins, Ike Turner, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and Charlie Rich. All were musical outliers when he found them and created much of their most enduring material in Sun’s tiny primitive studio. Phillips, an outlier himself, gave them creative freedom, shaping and focusing, yet never diluting, their raw talents.

In July 1954, he was producing Presley’s first groundbreaking single. By late 1955, his growing national visibility led RCA Victor to buy Presley’s Sun contract. Cash, Perkins, Lewis and others filled the void. A loose, impromptu jam at a 1956 Perkins session involving Presley, Perkins, Cash and Lewis became the famous Million Dollar Quartet. The others also joined major labels, yet most retained both admiration and affection for Mr. Phillips.

In unraveling Mr. Phillips’ complex life, Mr. Guralnick often finds more complexities. His family situation was complicated as he balanced relationships with wife Becky, sons Knox and Jerry, and his longtime companion Sally Wilbourn. There were darker sides as well. He suffered two mental breakdowns in the 1940s and ’50s, treated with electroshock therapy that left his intellect unimpaired. After his 1986 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, his bizarre sober behavior during a guest appearance on David Letterman’s NBC show left many shaking their heads. Source:

Sam Phillips had business to take care of, and Jerry Lee Lewis was opening at the Paramount Theater on Broadway on Christmas Day, 1957, with only Fats Domino above him and Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers just down on the star-studded bill. Roland Janes rejoined Jerry for the new Alan Freed package show he was headlining that featured sixteen acts, including Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly. The tour opened with a two-day engagement at the Brooklyn Paramount Theater.  "Sam Phillips: The Man who invented Rock 'N' Roll" (2015) by Peter Guralnick.

Buddy Holly adopted this new songwriting mode to produce the most stylistically varied body of original recordings of any late fifties writer/performer, with up-tempo rockers such as “That’ll Be the Day” and “Not Fade Away” contrasting with such sweet pop numbers as “Everyday” and “Words of Love.” Some were sonically brash, others subdued. Some featured energetic performances, others were gentle, caressing. Some were paradigm examples of rock and roll instrumentation, others used such unlikely rock and roll sounds as celesta and harp. Holly made most of his records at Norman Petty’s studio in Clovis, New Mexico, over an eighteen-month span beginning in February 1957, which suited his inclination toward intuitive experimentation.

Added reverb provided an imaginary “setting” for recorded music. It drew listeners into the imaginary realm of the Cadillacs’ wistful “Gloria” and it made Duane Eddy’s guitar appear to call forth the sound of vastness. A good example is Buddy Holly’s “Peggy Sue,” which alternated dry and ambient drum sounds in a way that made no acoustic sense. It is impossible to imagine what would make reverb in the natural world behave in this way. The ambient shifts are simply the result of creative whim applied to a denatured acoustic phenomenon.

Buddy Holly was an innovator. He was the first rock musician to use the recording technique (invented by guitarist Les Paul), known as “overdubbing.” Elvis may have been “the King”, but it was Buddy Holly who drew up the blueprints to build the palace of rock ’n’ roll. Holly’s creative arrangements sometimes combined rock ’n’ roll instruments -electric guitar, bass, and drums- with jazz sax or instruments one might expect to find in a symphony orchestra. Buddy’s brother Larry said that the first song he ever heard Buddy teaching himself on the guitar was Hank Williams’ “Lovesick Blues.” The strings in “True Love Ways” answered Holly’s phrases in a tender commentary, which turned faintly exotic at the song’s chromatic bridge, a Scheherazade moment in rockabilly history. In the song’s second A-section, the strings fell to a hushed tremolo as the saxophone took up the responses in gentle, dreamy jazz phrases perfectly suited to the rockaballad aesthetic but stylistically distant from rock and roll saxology.

Peter Guralnick called it “the treacle period of the late fifties and early sixties,” invoked in 1971 in his book "Feel Like Going Home"—“Rock ’n’ roll died. It was over,” he wrote.  Guralnick was talking not about commercial success but spirit. The first rock critics and historians were devoted to a particular construct of rock and roll authenticity, by which measure they concluded that rock and roll’s essence had in fact died by 1960. “The burst of creation that exploded in the fifties was drying up,” Greil Marcus lamented in a 1969 essay. Langdon Winner complained that “all of the elements in the life-support system of rock and roll withered and disappeared.”

In March of 1958, Buddy Holly and the Crickets became the first American rock ’n’ roll band to tour England. Buddy’s popularity among British teens is amazing when you consider the fact that, at the time, rock ‘n’ roll was banned from radio throughout England. Some call “Peggy Sue” the first international rock anthem, because it had such a great influence. The song was unusual for the echo effect on Jerry’s snare drum (using an elaborate set-up at the studio to create an echo chamber), and the forceful, insistent rhythm of Buddy’s distinctive, downstroke-only style of playing lead guitar with his pick. Jerry Allison later said, “I’ve never seen anyone since who plays it that way.”

According to Niki Sullivan, Buddy “was never hustling girls after the shows.” One musician who knew Buddy, Ted Scott, said, “I can’t even remember him using a cuss word, let alone taking drugs.” Bob Thiele, one of the New York executives at Brunswick records described Buddy Holly as  “a nice kid, an extremely sensitive individual. And somehow I found myself being aware of his sensitivity and trying to be careful of how I said things to him. Even with his country talk, he sounded like a gentleman. And he was a gentleman.”—Sources: "Oh Boy! The Life and Music of Rock ’n’ Roll Pioneer Buddy Holly" (2009) by Staton Rabin and "I Don’t Sound Like Nobody: Remaking Music in 1950s America" (2012) by Albin J. Zak 

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