Sam's Town 

The godfather of rock-and-roll hasn't really left the building.

Right up to the end he had that leonine look that led his friends to jest about a "pact with the devil." He was 80 years old but didn't look it. The red-haired mane, the rack of ivories bracketed by a pair of gleaming eyeteeth. He was one part Doctor Faustus and one part Dorian Gray, and that wasn't the half of it. He was the man who, as they said, "invented rock-and-roll."

It is hard to remember now in the age of orotund, over-the-hill Elvis imitators, but there was a time -- even very close to the end -- when the King himself was presumed to be forever young. No one is, of course, but it is one of the missions of the music to make you believe in the possibility. Sam Phillips, who always understood that that's what Elvis and Jerry and Wolf and the myriad others were all about, was the Prime Mover in this belief. And the first believer himself.

One of the most fascinating dialogues ever recorded is that between Sun Records producer Phillips and youthful charge Jerry Lee Lewis on the day in the mid-1950s that the normally intrepid Louisiana piano man balked at recording a number called "Great Balls of Fire," seeing nothing less than sacrilege in the lyrics.

The debate reduced to this: Jesus wouldn't want me to do this, pleaded Lewis. On the contrary, argued Phillips: He wants you to do it in imitation of Him. Goodness gracious! The argument prevailed, and the song, to everybody's satisfaction, got done.

That was one side of Sam Phillips: the preacher. The other side flared up one August day at the University of Memphis back in the 1980s, when the late Mae Axton, a representative of the other end of Tennessee's Music Highway in Nashville and the composer of Elvis' 1956 national breakout hit, "Heartbreak Hotel," had lingered overlong to extol the importance of her song and her city with an Elvis-seminar audience.

"Goddamn!" Phillips, who had literally incubated Elvis at Sun, kept saying when it was his time to address the faithful. "Goddamn!" He needed neither to elaborate on his sentiment nor to apologize for it. The audience knew what he meant. Else they would not have come to Memphis, Sam's town, that year as they had come before and they keep on coming, year after year.

People know who got what started and where. And they'll be here this week and next to commemorate the lives and deaths of Sam Phillips and Elvis Presley, and the sense of the city as a shrine will be compounded now. You watch.

By interfering with various principals' travel arrangements, the Great Storm of 2003 delayed by a week the Washington ceremony that formally hallowed the old Sun Studio on Union Avenue as a National Historical Landmark. Would it have been nice if the prophet himself, who had died just the day before, could have attended? Of course. But he was there.

Like any other self-respecting rock-and-roller, the Original never stopped looking to do new things. Phillips always wanted to produce a session with his close friend Bob Dylan (who once almost missed his own local concert by staying overlong at Phillips' house on a visit), but somehow the two aging pioneers never got together on it. So much the worse.

Anwar Sadat, who tried to make the peace in the Middle East that is still elusive today and was assassinated for it in 1982, was another figure who loomed large in Phillips' thinking. "Not a day goes by that I don't think about him," Phillips observed some years back.

It was the sadness of a man who had made his revolution for one who never got to. And those of us here, in the world capital he brought into being, can say the same about him: A day won't go by that we don't think about Sam Phillips.

Senior editor Jackson Baker wrote a profile of Sam Phillips which appeared in the Flyer on June 14, 2000.

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