Published by: Omnibus Press
Release Date: 8/11/22
Whilst every musical movement has its cultural merits, there’s also an argument that such zeniths are a diluted version of what’s gone before. But what of the original seismic hip sway of 50’s rock and roll and in particular the birth of Sun records? More than any other label they created the outline of the pop phenomenon, dazzlingly handsome and gifted frontmen who whispered of forbidden love and angled their hips in such a way that America and the world was never going to be the same way again.
In the illustrated book of Sun records, a read through of their most esteemed artists is more than a pristine line up of jukebox stars – its literally the who’s who of the American songbook. From the release of Elvis Presley’s That’s All Right ( which some consider the birth of rock and roll ) – Sam Phillip’s label would provide safe haven for the likes of Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis amongst many others. Describing the blueprint of his Memphis sound, the book, in a prologue about Phillip’s, sets it’s stall out early. “I had a notion about Memphis and its potential in music. Never has there been a greater symphony than the symphony of soul,” he gushes, although in his wildest dreams even he couldn’t have imagined the blowtorch of talent he’d eventually end up acquiring for his label.
With the book being divided into seventy chapters, each describing in detail an iconic recording for the label, there’s almost a piece of history on every page. From Johnny Cash’s first laconic march towards his man in black persona via Folsom Prison Blues to Elvis’s iconic rebel yell bursting out on You’re A Heartbreaker and setting in motion a career that up until then had been spent singing tepid ballads and country covers. Although synonymous with the Sun label – Elvis would actually be signed to RCA in 1955 and the mantle of spiritual guru for Sun records was never really his to claim anyway. That went to an artist with swamp funk in his veins, the recently deceased Jerry Lee Lewis, who wrote the preface for this book and whose two monster hits for the label ‘Great Balls Of Fire’ and ‘Whole Lot of Shakin Going On’ tapped into teenage lust and witchcraft. A performance of the latter in 1957 is described as ‘cataclysmic’ by author Peter Guralnick. You sense the writers wide eyed wonder being transported back to a certain moment in time, one of the few occasions he lets his passion get the better of his superb, balanced prose.
That slip of restraint is understandable. In the hands of lesser writers, tracing the gargantuan history of one of the most famous labels in the world might have proved difficult. Guralnick and Escott however are both esteemed music journalists and do a fine job, being careful not just to focus on the grandstand artists on the Sun roster. Phillip’s label was a great supporter of black artists and music ( in fact it could be argued that Sun records was a black music label whose biggest stars just happened to be white ), from blues talisman like Howlin Wolf and B B King to those whose talent was bright but never quite soared to the levels they deserved. Billy ‘the kid’ Emerson’s ‘Red Hot’ is a welcome addition here as is perhaps the greatest doo-wop band of all time The Prisonaires. This underlines the great thing about modern music books like this chronicling a bygone era, that you can open their forgotten world via the internet. In terms of the Sun records library this collection is basically a treasure trove for the uninitiated. You could literally lose weeks in tracing both the discography and musical impact of those both revered and sadly lost to the spectral, vinyl netherworld.
As an attested document of a changing American landscape it’s also pretty impressive too. Unlike most music books, whose photographs are often superfluous or at the very best culturally neutral, these photos are pivotal, showing a post war America and a youth explosion waiting to happen. What Sun records represented above the rumblings of teenage rebellion was the confirmation of the American dream, that blue collar guys could rule the world without adhering to staid musical tastes of society’s rules. To see Carl Perkins or wild Sonny Burgess frozen in these stills is to see an old fashioned America fading away – its barnyard blandness replaced by danger and flick knives. True modernists converging in the classic sense. The new guard brutally replacing the old guard. Exactly as it should be.
For anyone even slightly interested in musical alchemy you should buy this wonderful book immediately. As an historical piece alone it’s basically rock and roll’s Magna Carta.
Words by Craig Campbell, you can read more book reviews at his author profile.
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