The most important figure in the second half of the twentieth century, the architect of rock and roll, Sam Phillips, died last night at the age of 80.
Pick up any of the Sun Records compilations to hear his unbelievable influence on r&b, rockabilly, and rock and roll. It is impossible to overrate the impact he had.
My favorite Sam Phillips story is the one right before the recording of “Great Balls of Fire” where Jerry Lee Lewis—influenced by his cousin Jimmy Swaggart, no doubt, who referred to rock and roll as “the new pornography”—was feeling bad about playing “the Devil’s music.” Here’s the conversation, as transcribed by Robert Gordon in It Came from Memphis:
Phillips: “Jerry. Jerry. If you think that you can’t, can’t do good if you’re a rock and roll exponent—”
Lewis: “You can do good, Mr. Phillips, don’t get me wrong—”
Phillips: “Now wait, wait, listen. When I say do good—”
Lewis: “You can have a kind heart!”
Phillips: “I don’t just mean, I don’t mean just—”
Lewis: “You can help people!”
Phillips: “You can save souls!”
Lewis: “No! No! No! No!”
Lewis: “How can the Devil save souls? What are you talking about?”
It might have taken a few years to feel its effects, but I’ll be goddamned if Mr. Lewis was not 100% correct. Rock and roll can save your soul.