PAUL SOLMAN: Now for more we talk to Sam Phillips, who discovered Elvis, and as the founder of Sun Records was his first producer. He joins us from Graceland, along with Peter Guralnick, who published volume 1 of his massive biography Fast Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley, in 1994, the second volume is due next year, and Charles Wolfe is a professor at Middle Tennessee State University, who studies cultural history and of course Elvis. Welcome to you all.
Mr. Phillips, let's start with you if we might. What was it about Elvis that made him so popular?
SAM PHILLIPS, Sun Records: Well, you know, I think if I could answer that question, it probably--we wouldn't be talking about it here right now, but at the same time you--what I think is so valuable in this whole situation is it's not necessarily the entertainment portion that we know the man had, but his ability to affect that type of entertainment that was not exposed to the people, the younger people at that time, back in the 50's, that made him become to them someone that was freer for their purposes and their actual ability to say hey, you know, this man came up the way I did, and he is doing some things that I would like to--not necessarily musically--but he's wearin' his hair a little bit different, and he just did so many things, so many things so differently that I think that that had an immediate display of acceptance and then of course later on we know the story.
PAUL SOLMAN: Was that the essence of his appeal, do you think, Mr. Guralnick, his rebelliousness?
PETER GURALNICK, Biographer: I wouldn't say it was rebelliousness. I think that Sam Phillips and Elvis Presley were looking for a fresh row to hoe, as Sam has said many times. There was an element of originality; there was a sound that nobody had ever heard before, and this took a degree of daring, it took a degree of cutting itself free from commercial restraints. It took the courage to go out there and to introduce to the world a sound that they weren't ready for really.
When Sam went around to the different radio stations, the country stations said Elvis sounded too black; the black stations said he sounded too country; and the challenge was to sell it to the extent that people would be able to hear it, and I think the reason the people could hear it was the same reason that people today will respond to something fresh, something original, because they had never heard it before.
PAUL SOLMAN: You've also written about his vulnerability. You've talked about his exposure of his feelings. What did you mean that?
PETER GURALNICK: I think that one of the things that Sam has pointed out is that Elvis came in; he was perhaps the most insecure person that Sam had--one of the most insecure people he'd ever recorded, including blue singers who had never interacted with white people before, including country boys who came in and simply hadn't had the expose to that degree of celebrity or aspiration to fame.
What Elvis--what was astonishing about Elvis is from the very first tape--that he made--the one that he came in the summer of '53 to make--and it's been said he made it for his mother--but I think he made it more as a tryout for himself--from that very first time he was able to expose his vulnerability; he was able to express himself in music in a way that he was not able to express himself in words, and what I think was astonishing about the union of Sam Phillips, Elvis Presley, and Sun Records was that Sam Phillips was able to recognize what lay behind this exterior and that there was something just crying out to be expressed.
PAUL SOLMAN: Mr. Wolfe, you're in Nashville and you're a cultural historian or student of cultural history, sorry. The sexual revolution, integration, these were all happening at--beginning to happen at that time. Does Elvis Presley's popularity fit in with that, or am I just--is that a stretch?
CHARLES WOLFE, Middle Tennessee State University: No, very much. He fits in with that. One of the things that we tend to overlook sometimes are the momentous events that were going on in 1956 and '57. When Elvis signed his contract with RCA, for example, in 1956, there was not a single integrated school in the state of Tennessee. And that was all just about ready to break loose, and many of the people who resented the attempts to do civil rights looked upon Elvis as one of the examples of why civil rights should not take place.
PAUL SOLMAN: But how come he's so popular, if people are afraid of him in that way?
CHARLES WOLFE: Well, not all people were. We're talking about a generation here that really preceded Elvis's generation, younger people, who were Elvis's fans, who were flocking to his concerts didn't feel that way at all. We're talking here about some of the old south that saw many of their cherished values being threatened and challenged by this.
PAUL SOLMAN: And, Mr. Phillips, did you feel that, that part of what you were doing with him was a breakthrough at a time when America was ready for integration?
SAM PHILLIPS: Well, we didn't set out to revolutionize the world. I just always thought and have from childhood, being raised up on a farm with black and white, during the Depression--I'm 74 years old now--I did see some of the things that brought blacks and whites in the South especially closer together than anybody could anticipate.
We were forced one way or the other to kind of keep it separated, segregated schools and all that, but we weren't that segregated in spirit, and what we learned from each other, and the feel and the actual "gospel" that we had, and the things that we did and tried to do one with another was something that was just automatic when it came to music.
Music was some way of saying in the South look man, if there is some fervor that you feel in our soul and you're not a preacher, you're not a politician, maybe you're not a speaker, but if you can sing and you can feel, you're going to convince the people that what you're feeling is something that is worthwhile.
PAUL SOLMAN: Mr. Wolfe, is he more popular today and if so is that part of the reason why, I mean, the kind of spiritual feeling that Mr. Phillips was just talking about, something that transcends race, for example?
CHARLES WOLFE: Well, absolutely. It transcends race, it transcends the immediate social context; it transcends the whole business of Elvis as a southerner. He today has gotten beyond all of those original contexts, and he has in the process I guess could be described as universalizing Elvis.
And the reason that works is because of the passion and the sincerity that Sam talked about, I think, the fact that people recognize today that nobody put as much into a song as Elvis did, regardless of whether you like his rock'n roll, his ballads, even his movie songs, you know, he does them extremely well, and people recognize that he's extremely vulnerable, and he's dealing with it through his music.
So people respond to him that way I think in many ways, and it makes him a universal figure because what we're talking about here are archetypal elements that people in Japan and South Africa, in Germany, in Iceland, can understand, as well as people in the American South.
PAUL SOLMAN: Mr. Guralnick, I'm astonished by his current popularity. Are you not surprised? I mean, how could he be this big a deal this long after his death?
PETER GURALNICK: Well, I think one aspect of it, as--we've seen a proliferation of media in the last 10 or 20 years that would have been unforeseeable in the past, and to the extent that you have something like the trial of the century--you have the girl in the red velvet swing trial at the beginning of the century, you have the O. J. Simpson trial towards the end of the century--look at the difference in the coverage. It's simply--there is no basis for comparison. But the thing is that I would agree with Charles. I think the basis for Elvis's continuing popularity is his music and what continues to appeal to people is the same thing that continued to appeal till the end of his life.
Whether you like the music that he made at the end, for example, or not, what he showed on stage, he revealed himself. What he showed on records, he was nakedly revealing himself, and I think people appreciated the honesty of that presentation even whether that was their favorite music or not, and I think that's what continues to come through. This is not something you can bottle or define, but it's something that came through from the very first record he made, and I think it comes through even at the end.
PAUL SOLMAN: Okay. Well, thank you all three of you very much. I appreciate it.