Chapter 16
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby

Front-Row Seat to the Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll

A new illustrated history covers 70 years of Sun Records

The stories and photos are almost as good as the music they document in the handsome new book The Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll: The Illustrated Story of Sun Records and the 70 Recordings That Changed the World, written by Peter Guralnick and Colin Escott. Jerry Lee Lewis, who died shortly before the book’s release in November, provided a foreword.

Photo: Mike Leahy

“The template was to create a music that reached anybody and everybody across race and class lines,” Guralnick said in a recent interview with Chapter 16, describing the intentions of Sun Records founder Sam Phillips, whose Memphis label introduced the world to Lewis, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and many lesser known but important early heroes of rock ‘n’ roll.

Guralnick, who published a biography of Phillips in 2016 and two highly regarded volumes on Presley in the 1990s, rates Phillips as a genuine visionary. “[Phillips] believed once that wall had been breached, once he had created a sound that reached all those people, the walls would come tumbling down,” he said. “And that’s in essence what happened.”

The book provides striking photos of Phillips, Presley, and the other artists who made musical magic at Sun. But unlike some books headed to coffee tables, the writers’ contributions are just as important.

“The books that are just pictures and don’t give you rich text just don’t do it for me,” said Karyn Gerhard, who edited the book. “I like having the deeper text to go into, and then the pictures enrich that.”

Gerhard specializes in books about the arts and history. Large-format books about Broadway shows, silent movies, and Frank Sinatra are among her credits. The idea for a book marking Sun’s 70th birthday this year originated with Primary Wave Entertainment, which bought Sun for $30 million in 2021. It was Gerhard’s first assignment when she went to work for Weldon Owen Publishing.

“I’ve been a fan of Sun since I was a child,” she said. “I am so incredibly proud to be able to put this history out there. … It is truly one of my absolute proudest pieces that I’ve ever done, and I think it’s going to have a long shelf life.”

Escott wrote a new two-part history of Sun for The Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll, the first chronicling 1952 to 1969, when Phillips sold the label, and the second covering 1969 to 2022. Guralnick took on the task of naming and providing the stories behind 70 pivotal Sun Records releases, in a nod to the label’s 70 years. 

A playlist of the more obscure releases among Guralnick’s selections could easily stand alongside classics like “That’s All Right” and “Great Balls of Fire.” A short list would include recordings by Billy Riley, Rosco Gordon, Billy “The Kid” Emerson, Ray Harris, and a group of convicts dubbed The Prisonaires.

The story of “Just Walkin’ in the Rain” by The Prisonaires describes Phillips convincing Tennessee Governor Frank Clement to let the members of the group be transported from the Tennessee State Prison in Nashville to Memphis to record. Guralnick believes media coverage of The Prisonaires may be what first alerted Presley to the existence of Sun.

“In the end Sam got just what he wanted,” Guralnick writes about the song, “with lead singer Johnny Bragg’s ethereal falsetto reminiscent of the Ink Spots’ Bill Kenny, but better in a way, Sam thought, both because of the deeply emotional message embedded in the lyrics and the slight flaw in what Sam called Bragg’s ‘tongue-tied’ delivery, the imperfection that set off the perfection of the whole.”

Befitting a book about the beginning of rock ‘n’ roll, Guralnick names his choice of the first record in the genre, “Rocket 88,” which came out in 1951 on Chess Records but was recorded at Phillips’ storefront Memphis Recording Studio. Although Jackie Brenston got credit on the label, Ike Turner was the driving force behind it.

“Rocket 88” sold over 100,000 copies,” Guralnick said. “(Phillips) truly believed that he was creating something which didn’t have a name at the time, but which was essentially what rock ‘n’ roll eventually came to stand for.”

Referring to Escott’s 1992 book, Good Rockin’ Tonight: Sun Records and the Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Guralnick said, “It’s a wonderful history of Sun, but I think [the new book] gave him an opportunity to tell a story that he was very familiar with in a different way. You think you are familiar with things; you think you know them. … If I were to listen to “I Can’t Be Myself When I’m with You” by Merle Haggard, I have a strong memory of the song from having listened to it so often. But it always offers not so much fresh interpretations as fresh reactions. … That’s what I think great music does, and it’s what great writing does, and it’s what great art does.”

Front-Row Seat to the Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll

Jim Patterson is a freelance writer in Nashville. His work appears regularly on the United Methodist News website, UM News. He formerly covered country music for the Associated Press and was a public affairs officer and senior writer at Vanderbilt University.