PETER GURALNICK is the author of Sweet Soul Music, Lost Highway, and Feel Like Going Home, about the great artists at the heart of American Roots Music; the two-part biography of Elvis Presley, Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love; as well as Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke, and Searching for Robert Johnson. He has written the scripts for documentaries about Sam Phillips, Sam Cooke, and Martin Scorsese’s blues documentary Feel Like Going Home. He was in Los Angeles recently to speak about his recently published biography, Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ’n’ Roll (Little Brown).
TOM TEICHOLZ: You grew up in Massachusetts; spent summers at camp on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire; and your first love was writing fiction.
PETER GURALNICK: It was writing. I wanted to be a writer from the time I was six or seven and I wanted to be a baseball player too. Those were my only two ambitions in life.
One out of two isn’t bad.
I played baseball until I was 48. I carried it as far as I could.
How did this lead to an interest in writing about the blues?
When I was 15 or 16, I fell into the blues. A friend of mine, his brother went to the Newport Folk Festival and came back with [folk music by] Burl Ives and Buell Kazee but also some blues records. This friend of mine and I started listening and that just turned me on, eventually, to every other kind of music.
What were those first records you listened to?
I got my first Lightnin’ Hopkins record, Best of Muddy Waters, Howling in the Moonlight, Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry, Big Bill Broonzy. As a 15- or 16-year-old, this was the puzzle effect. It wasn’t on the radio. Those shows didn’t come to town. This was a music that was so thrilling to me for reasons I can’t explain. It just turned me around. It was something that I thought didn’t exist anymore. Then I went out, I saw Lightnin’ Hopkins performing at Adams House at Harvard. It was a thrill.
Then the soul shows started coming to town. WILD was the first black AM radio station in Boston and I started going to the soul shows and ushering right away. I was sitting in my room thinking that poring over these old records is the way to discover the blues, but once I started going out, I realized I was an idiot and that this music was happening all over. I said, “This is where it’s at.” It’s about the living experience.
The first show I went to was with Solomon Burke, Otis Redding, Joe Tex, Rufus Thomas, Sugar Pie DeSanto, Garnet Mimms.
The first half of your writing career was right there in front of you.
I think it was in 1964 that I started ushering the shows. I was the worst usher in the world. I’d just go backstage and see Jackie Wilson slumping over as he came offstage or Little Richard playing the piano.
But why did I start writing? Well, when Crawdaddy started [Crawdaddy was one of the first American music magazines started in 1966 by Paul Williams, who was a Swarthmore college student at the time], Paul Williams had been three or four years behind me in school, and I met him and Paul said, “How would you like to write for Crawdaddy?” It was mimeographed at the time and I said, “Sure, but I want to write about blues.” I wrote about Robert Pete Williams, about Buddy Guy in the middle of Moby Grape, Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, Psychedelic whatever. The same when the Boston Phoenix started in 1967: I knew a guy who’s a drama critic, he said, “Would you like to write about music?” and I said, “I’d like to write about the blues.” Everything that I wrote, the entire purpose of it, the only reason for it — was to tell people about this music I thought was so great.
The first story I wrote was about James Brown and it was a preview of his performance saying, “This is the greatest live theater you’ll ever see in your life.” At the time, happenings were a big thing, which invited audience participation. I said, “Forget it. This is the greatest happening you’ll ever see in your life.” This was his first time in Boston. I described it to induce people to come see him. I wrote about Muddy. I wrote about Wolf. I wrote about Bo Diddley. I wrote about Jerry Lee Lewis. All for that purpose. There was no pay. There was no thought of pay. I was writing my novels. I never thought that this would be any more than just my attempt to sell people on something they couldn’t read about in the mainstream press.
Writing the names on paper was so exciting. To write “Howlin’ Wolf,” to write “Big Joe Turner.” It was incredible because you never saw that in the mainstream press.
You wrote extensive features about these great artists …
Having the opportunity to write these [articles] was almost as thrilling as seeing their performances. I would give away my entire record collection to see Howlin’ Wolf live one more time. Who wouldn’t? For instance, right around that time, I saw the Staple Singers with The Mighty Clouds of Joy at the Boston Arena. These were not integrated events. They weren’t by definition not, but they weren’t. To watch Mavis [Staples] steal the show from Mighty Clouds of Joy and for Joe Ligon. It was unbelievable. To be there in that audience … It’s no less thrilling to me now than it was then.
Did you see yourself as a journalist, as a historian, as a storyteller?
I saw myself as a writer trying to capture what I saw with a non-specific vocabulary that didn’t reflect the times. For instance, when I was writing for Crawdaddy, most of the other stories, everything was “groovy.” I wanted to use language not that elevated the subject, but that was worthy of the subject and that could be read in 10 years or 20 years without being stamped as being of this particular moment. It was really about seeing Robert Johnson as being as significant as John Donne and Gerard Manley Hopkins. A lot of people think this is very pretentious but I honestly believe that the vernacular tradition [in the United States] — the voice of Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing” — I think of this as significant as any other art.
I realized the best way to represent the music is to write about the people, about their aspirations, about how they saw themselves musically. Not being a musician, and not aspiring to be an ethno-musicologist in any way. I wanted to bring the world alive and bring the people alive. In many ways, there was no question that I was approaching it the same way I approached fiction. It was just the idea of bringing the character to life, treating him or her with dignity, with respect. As Sam Phillips said, “Tell the damn truth. Tell the damn truth.” That was what I tried to do.
Do you ever feel that you’re seeing a truth about them that they may not be able to see themselves?
To a degree. I think that everybody I’ve spoken to has their own story to tell. One of the things that’s given me the greatest satisfaction is when people I’ve written about have come to me and said, “You know, I really learned something.”
In choosing subjects, what was it you saw in Solomon Burke for example?
Probably the greatest performer I’ve ever seen on stage and the warmest and the funniest. I’ve never written about anybody that I don’t admire. […]
The first time I saw him he was singing, “Goodbye Baby (Baby Goodbye),” which was his big hit at the moment and he’s wearing this gold tuxedo jacket and cummerbund and he goes out on the stage and ends the show holding out the mic to these kids who leap across this kind of moat that exists there. The generosity of his performance and the warmth and the personality. When I first started writing Sweet Soul Music, I had been looking for him and looking for him and looking for him. Finally, I get this call. I was out in the driveway.
My wife Alexandra comes out and says, “Peter, there’s somebody who says he’s Solomon Burke, or represents Solomon Burke. I think you should come in and talk to him.” I get on the phone, and I’m talking to this person with this very chirpy little insurance salesman’s voice. Not at all the voice that I thought would come out of the singer. I’m talking about a white insurance salesman’s voice. I explained to him that I’m writing this book and that I want to get in touch with Solomon Burke and then this more familiar voice comes on and says, “Well, of course. How could you write this book without speaking to the king.” Which was indicative of, not his boastfulness, but his sense of humor.
I went to see him almost immediately. He was playing at Tramps in New York. We stayed out all night together. I mean, I would never have turned back. I wish I could spend the rest of my life with Solomon. If you want to know about regrets, I have two regrets in life that I can think of. One is not being able to play baseball, because I suffered a trifocal [eyesight] crisis and the other is not having written a book about Solomon. When I sent Solomon the Sam Cooke biography, the next time I saw him he said, “Pete, it’s great. It’s a great book, but when are we going to write The Book?” We talked about it off and on for many years and I tried to get him to start it. I felt like I needed some evidence of [his] commitment. […] It just never happened. […] It’s the only book I ever would have done in somebody else’s voice because he was so brilliant. He was so inventive. He was just an astonishing personality.
If you speak to Solomon’s producers, they say the same thing.
Yeah. I’m sure. I introduced Solomon and Sam, thinking that they would just absolutely fall in love with each other. This was at the publication party for Sweet Soul Music in Memphis, which is the greatest party I’ve ever been to. Didn’t have a single member of the public there. Didn’t sell a single book, but Solomon drove in from LA, Sam [Phillips] was there, [legendary session player and producer] Jim Dickinson was there, David Porter was there, Roosevelt Jamison [who wrote “That’s How Strong My Love Is”] was there …
I introduced Solomon to Sam and rather than falling all over each other, the two of them just locked gazes and it seemed to be a question of when it was going to break. I have no idea why. I’m a phenomenologist. I don’t need to know why and I’m not going to psychoanalyze this but it astonished me and to this day, I don’t know why. Neither one of them was like that. Both of them were very warm and polite. Whatever it was, that’s what happened.
In another interview you also said, “What I’m interested in is exploring a phenomenon.”
Without judgment or psychodrama. I don’t mean phenomenon in the sense of writing about a star, or superstar. I only mean that I’m not interested in either making judgments or having stories that just fit some theory neatly. I want to be the fly on the wall. In the Elvis or Sam Phillips books, I rigorously tried to avoid any first person. Everything was in the past.
It’s not that I don’t reveal myself. It’s not that any author could write anything without revealing him or herself. It’s just that I’m not interested in making judgments. I’m not interested in approving or disapproving what anyone does.
In bringing these stories to life, particularly a musician’s, have you had to create your own descriptive vocabulary to convey the sound of their music?
It’s finding the vocabulary to suit the subject and that evokes some of the excitement of the music, some of the excitement of, for example, Johnny Shines, his originality. Some of the excitement that Sam Cooke brought to the music and the degree to which he modified it for different audiences. Most of all, I want to find a language that reflects the subject appropriately. In a sense, it’s creating an artifice to indicate a reality that is deeper than the mosaic reality.
In the case of artists who either you didn’t know, or you didn’t know personally and not being a musician yourself, how does one describe how the music felt to them or how they thought about their own music? Like Robert Johnson, we don’t know him and we won’t know why he wrote those songs …
Everything I’ve written I’ve tried to write from the inside out. I’m not interested in the external persona. I mean, Bobby “Blue” Bland, there’s nobody whose music I could appreciate more than his, but the man behind the music was an all together different person and the person that he was was what gave the music its power.
You and I could be at the same place at the same time. We could have the same material, we could have the same interviews, we could know the same facts, but everything comes down to perspective and your account would be entirely different from mine. If I was to write the Elvis biography today, it would be very different from the book I wrote 20 years ago.
I’m looking at it from a different vantage point. The reader might never notice that, but I would know it. Just as Sam did not believe in perfection and said, “I hate the word perfection. It should be banned from the English language.” I don’t recognize objectivity in any way. I think people are fooling themselves when they talk about objectivity. Basically, I think that everything is necessarily interpretive. I’m not interested in putting my interpretation out front but I can’t hide the respect that I’m writing from.
Which brings me to Sam Phillips — you’ve written a good deal about him before. You did a documentary about him in ’99. So why a book about him now?
Because to me, he’s as original and individually as creative an artist as anybody else I’ve ever written about. He had a vision of not just what music could do, but how it could sound, of how he could present it in a manner that truly reflected the beauty and the power of the music. Why now? There’s no “now” here. From the time I met him, I never wanted to let go of that subject … It took me six years to persuade him to do the documentary. Everything takes six years.
You have made a career writing books you’re passionate about that would not necessarily be considered commercial by the publishing houses.
The Elvis book [Last Train to Memphis] was the only commercial thing I’ve ever done, per se, although oddly enough, the Robert Johnson book came out just before the Robert Johnson box set was complete. Although the publisher never even knew about the connection, Tower Records started putting the book out front with the album, which went platinum. That was a big help.
Just to go back a second about what you were asking about Sam, while we were making the documentary, it became clear to me that Sam, while I didn’t think he’d ever write his own book, was essentially laying the groundwork for his own book, because I would ask him a question about Joe Hill Lewis and he would start talking about when his sixth grade teacher spanked him on the hand because he had a lot of the devil in him. That set him straight. He would tell me the sixth grade teacher’s name and none of this was anything we could use in the documentary.
I went to Seattle with him in 2002 and we did this thing where I was handing him an award and he invited Alexandra and me to have breakfast. In a very elaborate way, he presented this idea which he had researched involving digital recorders. [Phillips wanted them to work together using separate recorders and transferring tapes back and forth.] How it was going to work, I don’t know, but he revived the idea of us working together on his book. I said, “Yes.” I would not say no to him.
It turned out he was very sick at the time. The last time I saw him was August 14 or 16 of 2002. He just looked awful. He wouldn’t even give Alexandra a hug, because he didn’t want to give her whatever he had, but he had emphysema, basically. He went into the hospital a week later and never came out. That just fires me, so I don’t think there was any question I was going to do the book.
Sam Phillips saw himself as having the task of sort of finding a way to bring black music to a wider public.
To give voice to those who had no voice. To bring out a talent and inspiration that sometimes the artist himself didn’t realize that he possessed.