“99 and a half just won’t do.”
Originally penned by Sister Rosetta Tharpe and recorded by the likes of Wilson Pickett and Creedence Clearwater Revival among others, this song and lyric is also how music historian and author Peter Guralnick lives his life.
For decades, Guralnick has immersed himself first-hand into the world of Elvis Presley, Sam Cooke, Sam Phillips, and others in the early rock and roll sphere, having published a host of books revolving around these subjects. He has written a two-volume biography on Elvis that exceeds 1,300 pages, along with a 700+ page biography of Phillips, and numerous other impressive feats to his name.
After attending the Memphis Blues Festival in the late sixties, Guralnick decided then he would dedicate his life to the kinds of music he heard, which would open up doors to experiences he would remain ever grateful for. He thrusted himself into the Memphis scene, meeting and befriending an array of pioneers like Phillips and Jerry Lee Lewis among countless others, helping secure their stories in history.
Most recently, Guralnick – along with Colin Escott – published an exceptionally immersive and engaging new book, The Birth Of Rock ‘N’ Roll: The Illustrated Story Of Sun Records. And let me tell you, it makes for the perfect coffee table book. (the holidays are approaching…)
What’s so great about this book aside from the unique storytelling of Sun Records, is the homage paid to the largely forgotten artists of that era that most are not familiar with: Johnny London, Willie Nix, D.A. Hunt, Jimmy DeBerry- and the list goes on. Mind you these are all largely Black artists.
Sure it’s fun to see and read about Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and others, but this book delves into the timeline of Sun Records in an easy to follow way, showcasing the spectrum of artists and happenings. It is done in a most digestible and vivid manner. It’s fascinating to see the old photos of these young pioneers who likely had no idea just how much of an impact they would have on American culture.
Another note of interest, is given the racial inequalities that were at a fever pitch at that time, the unity created through music was one of the few consoling things regarding the matter. Under the Sun Records roof, music was the only thing that mattered.
I had the privilege of being the first to interview Guralnick about the new book, which was both exciting and nerve-racking. “[Being the first interview] means that I’ll either be fresh or just totally fuck up thinking about what to talk about.”
Guralnick was full of captivating information on these influential artists and time period, and it was a pleasure chatting with him about the new book, his other projects, and much more.
So how long did this immersive book take to bring to life from inception to publication?
It was thanks to Karyn Gerhard, the editor, that it came together quite quickly. For me and Colin, you could say we put about 100 years into it. And it was a tremendous pleasure working with Colin after knowing him all these years and after getting so much from his work. To me it was a great privilege.
My first inclination since I was a small child was to say no to everything. I was a no boy. But [Karyn] was so persuasive, and it was so fun. It wasn’t like writing the biography for Sam Phillips or Sam Cooke or Elvis. It was a completely different thing. It was a lot of fun. You sort of have something in mind, and the result is the realization of everything you might imagine it might be, and that’s where Karyn’s never say die attitude towards getting it done right came in. I’m a walking advertisement for Karyn. Without her dedication it just wouldn’t have been what it is. And when I got the first PDF of it, I was just knocked out because it was so entertaining. It would’ve made Sam Phillips feel so good about it.
Can you talk about your process when it came to research for this book? Did you recently spend time in Memphis, or was it more through previous and remote research?
It didn’t involve much research. For me, it was trying to pick out 70 records that came in roughly a decade of recording. What I wanted to do was tell the story of Sun and of Sam Phillips in a slightly different way. It wasn’t a matter of picking out the 70 best records. I was trying to figure out a way of telling the evolution of the label and Sam’s thinking through the records. That’s how I was trying to present the story. The history and the evolution of Sun through the records.
So the timing with this book happens to coincide with the recent passing of Jerry Lee Lewis. Can you tell me about getting the foreword for the book from him? And did you have a personal relationship with him?
The last time I saw Jerry Lee was at a gospel session he did in Nashville in February 2020 just before Covid was breaking. I remember talking to him at that session, but many of the things he talked about were what he talked about in the introduction.
I first met Jerry Lee in 1970 when he was living in Coro Lake in Memphis, and he was talking then about his admiration and sometimes vexation with Sam and his brother Judd. But he echoed the same thing then that he did when I saw him in 2020. His admiration for Sam and Judd were the driving force in his life. He was a brilliant, perceptive, and very funny man when he told a story. But he seldom lavished as much admiration as he did on anybody as he did on Judd and Sam. Judd sold the records and managed Jerry for a while.
Who do you think is the most underrated Sun artist?
Well, I don’t know. I think most have gotten their due. I think in some ways Jerry Lee may be the most underrated. He’s been portrayed in almost comic book fashion over the years. He’s been treated in almost a dismissive way as someone with great natural talent. I mean Sam Phillips said “Jerry Lee is the most talented man I ever worked with, black or white.” Sam compared him to Beethoven and Bach, and he was serious.
What many people don’t recognize is the depth of his talent and extent to which he expressed came from a dedication to the music, the spontaneity, which is like Kerouac’s spontaneous bop prosody. Letting go in a way that can only happen with a practiced ear and confidence that lets you feel free in expressing yourself.
It’s like Elvis too- you could say he was among the most underestimated in some ways. At least for a very long time, where he was perceived as someone with talent that somehow or another he acted upon. But these people were so dedicated to the creation of music and created something that was not just accidental, it was something they deeply felt. Anybody who dedicates themselves to anything knows how difficult it is to achieve the realization of what you hear or see in your head, and they set out to do it, and they did it. It wasn’t accidental. They were creative forces. They were conscious creative artists.
I know it’s silly to talk about them being under-appreciated, but to some extent they’ve tended to be under-appreciated as conscious creative artists who set out to establish a body of work and did so.
Do you think Sun would be as legendary and renowned as it is if Elvis never stepped foot in it?
I do, yeah. I think the range of talent Sam Phillips discovered and produced is one of the most astonishing displays of both recognition of talent and discovery of a new sound. From Sam’s point of view, he often said the most profound artists he worked with were Howlin’ Wolf and Charlie Rich, and you couldn’t find two people who were more stylistically diverse. Yet each of them from Sam’s point of view sang from the bottom of their soul.
While Sam saw Jerry Lee as the most talented, he saw Elvis as the most charismatic. But Elvis drew so many of the artists, from Johnny Cash to Billy Riley and virtually all of the rockabilly artists. They all came to Sun because of Elvis, because he made such an impact on their lives. In that sense, it’s hard to separate Elvis from the story of Sun. But the range and depth of talent that Sam discovered and developed is as extraordinary as any treasure trove of music you could find anywhere.
You’ve been doing this for a while now. What led you to make a career out of writing about these pioneers of rock ‘n’ roll/blues/R&B and Memphis music culture?
The first book that I published was Feel Like Going Home in 1971 and Jerry Lee Lewis, Sam Phillips, Howlin’ Wolf, Charlie Rich, and more were all in it.
Really what led me to the music and what introduced me was the blues when I was 15 or 16. It led me everywhere else and to Sun Records. At the end of my first book, it starts out with Muddy Waters, Skip James, and more, and ends up with Jerry Lee Lewis and Charlie Rich. I saw Sun as an extension of the blues tradition. Little did I know this was totally Sam Phillips’ aim, ambition, aspiration, and desire.
I went to Memphis for the first time in 1969 for the Memphis Blues Festival when I was 24, and it was the biggest thrill in the world. Hearing all these singers in Memphis with a hometown audience, it was just great. So I never stopped going to Memphis, and I continue to be an aspiring Memphian. I’ll never make it, but I’ll continue to aspire.
You’ve amassed an incredible career. When reflecting back on your work, what might you say are some of your proudest, crowning achievements or lasting memories from your work?
Bad thing to do, reflecting back. (Laughs) Sam Phillips always said, “I’m looking ahead, I’m not looking back.”
I’m fully committed to whatever comes next. I mean I’m proud of what I’ve done, but more than that, I’m grateful for having had the opportunity to do it and know these people. These are people who took the time to teach me and welcome me into their worlds, and worlds I wouldn’t have had any exposure to. I don’t take any of that for granted. This was the greatest opportunity anybody could be given. I have the greatest amount of gratitude.
The idea I should have a chance to experience these places, these people, these events, to the extent I did is entirely due to the graciousness of all these people I met along the way. You never want to take anything for granted. You never want to say, “Oh I really belong here,” because you really don’t. (Laughs) You’re only there at the sufferance of the people who’ve welcomed you in.
In the spirit of looking ahead then, what might you have planned or aspire to achieve in 2023?
I’ve been working on a few things in particular. One is a book on Elvis’ manager Colonel Tom Parker. But the centerpiece of it are his letters, which I uncovered in the Graceland archives in the late 90s. They’re so revelatory and so different from anything anybody who thinks they know Colonel Parker would imagine. They’re funny, they’re smart, they show vulnerability, and they show an incredible attention to detail. It’s just a totally different picture, so I started working on it maybe two years ago, and now I’m in the middle of writing a long biographical portrait of him.
The majority of the book are these letters which are just revelatory. That’s something I am hoping to get out in the next couple of years. I also finished a collection of short stories, which I’ve been working on, and I found a publisher for it, but I can’t publish it until after the Colonel book. Those are the two things I’ve been most focused on.
Did you see the new Elvis movie?
Do you plan on it?
It’s kind of equally if not more so about Colonel Tom Parker, and he’s portrayed less than admirably, so I thought I’d get your two cents on it if you’d seen it.
Well, the Colonel Parker which I understand him [Baz Luhrmann] to have created, is probably at the opposite end of the universe from the Colonel that will portray himself in my book. I think it’ll open up a lot of people’s minds. It may change their minds, it may not, but it’ll give the Colonel a forum to speak for himself in a way he hasn’t before.
So would you say you are kind of a Colonel Tom apologist or perhaps advocate of sorts?
No, definitely not an apologist. In my last book, Looking to Get Lost, I’ve got a chapter in there called “Me and the Colonel” about the ten years or so that I knew him. It’s not intended as a history of him, but you get much more of a sense of what I see as the complexity and intellectual playfulness of him. I never expected to meet him, but I did. I had a correspondence with him.
It was sort of like playing Chess with a Grandmaster if you just begun to play the game. I would try to think of ways to engage him, and he would write back and put me in my place. It was a wonderful experience and it gave me a metaphorical window into the way that he had done business. It was a great opportunity to get to know someone by happenstance. Anybody who dealt with him would say a handshake cemented the deal, and you knew that he would stick it.
When you brace yourself for something like a 1,100 or 700-page book, how do you prepare and work your way through such a mammoth undertaking, especially given the subjects?
When I was a kid, about the same time I fell into the blues, I read an interview with Ernest Hemingway in the Paris Review. It just hit me so forcibly, and in it he talked about how he wrote everyday. No matter what he did the previous day, how late he was out, how hammered he got, he wrote every single day. And he tried to write as many good words as he could. Sometimes it came harder than others. I thought to myself, “Okay, if Hemingway can do it everyday – and I might not be as good as him – but I can sit down and do it too.” So I started when I was 15, and continued to this day.
Some days are a total dud. But the thing is, it comes from setting one foot in front of another. I immersed myself into the world of these artists to the degree that I couldn’t stop thinking about it, feeling it, analyzing it, and then setting out to write it, day by day. Some days were terrible, some were heartbreaking. (laughs) I’m saying that ironically. You just can’t ever give up.
One motto that I know to live by, and my parents and grandparents lived by too, is “99 and a half won’t do.” Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s great song. And so I believe that to this day. Tryin’ to make 100.