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Southern Maverick 

Phillips embodied the region's changes

Sun Records founder Sam Phillips, who played a pivotal role in the birth of rock & roll in the 1950s, died last week in Memphis at the age of 80. Phillips was a guy who, the usual post-mortem praises notwithstanding, wasn't particularly well-liked by a lot of folks in the music business. A lot of authentic geniuses aren't. They're often too cocky, confident in their particular vision of what's possible, or even overbearing. Phillips was certainly all those things, as well as being a certified genius -- at least during the 1950s.When Phillips launched Sun Studios in 1952, his clients were some of Memphis' best-known black performers, including BB King and Rufus Thomas. The story of Phillips' subsequent "discovery" and early encouragement of a young teenaged Elvis Presley has been told so often it's become part of our national mythology, and deservedly so. What isn't often emphasized is how daring, even fearless, Phillips had to be to run the kind of place Sun Studios became. Even in Memphis, where a culture had developed that accepted more interracial back-and-forth than most Southern towns, Phillips was an oddball. Not so much for his love of the blues and R&B -- whites enjoying black music had been a constant in the region since before the days of 19th century minstrelsy. No, Phillips stood out like a sore thumb in the 1950s South because he valued black music, he treasured it, he "talked it up" to others and -- his real sin -- he liked and became friends with most of the black musicians who recorded at Sun.

In a lot of ways, Phillips was the embodiment of what was going on in the South during that time. In the shadows cast by legal segregation, in the nooks and crannies of the region's back alleys, the margins of the two races created their own nuclear era by fusing elements of their cultures into new, hybrid artforms.

The South was waking up, and new possibilities -- social and artistic as well as economic -- were slowly coming into view.

And that's where a Southern wild-ass like Sam Phillips found his niche. He had an independent streak a mile wide, and was full of himself to the point of being obnoxious, but he let musicians play what they wanted to play and be what they wanted to be. He let Presley and Sun house musicians, for instance, play around in the studio for days until they hit upon a sound that hadn't been heard before: beat-heavy R&B played with country accents and sung in Elvis' pop-friendly voice.

According to rock mythology, and Phillips himself, he immediately knew that this was the "million-dollar sound" he'd been looking for. Who knows? It may be true, maybe not, but it's not that important. The important thing is that Phillips had the open-ended vision to encourage the kind of experimentation that blew away musical, racial and even political conventions. In time, his wild streak and daring -- and Sun artists Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison -- played a central role in setting off the cultural explosion that was 50s' rock & roll.

Later in life, Phillips was part of the inaugural batch of honorees elected to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1986 and he became a bit of a blowhard, trumpeting his historic importance to anyone who'd listen. But never mind. The adage is right: if you can do it (or did it) it ain't braggin'.

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