Here's what I would like to have discussed. He knew Elvis before he was Elvis, before he was a star and then a parody. He knew Elvis when he was an eighteen-year-old who parked his Ford pick-up outside the studio on Union Avenue and said he wanted to record a song for his momma's birthday: "My Happiness," a big hit for the Ink Spots. The teenage Elvis liked the Ink Spots and Eddie Fisher. He wanted to sing like Dean Martin.
Elvis's career after Phillips is regarded by rock critics as a ghastly sellout to commercialism and conformity, though there's nothing obviously commercial or conformist about a ragbag like "Old Shep," "Rock-a-Hula Baby," "Peace in the Valley," or "No Room to Rhumba in a Sports Car," or adaptations of "O Sole Mio" and "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." Justin Timberlake's minders would be unlikely to recommend any of 'em. Elvis had an extraordinary range—two octaves and a third—but not a consistent voice. He was a chameleon but unfocused, and when he wasn't doing Dino he could sound like Al Jolson, Mahalia Jackson, or an Irish tenor. The wacky eclecticism is the real Elvis. The "raw," "authentic" Sun Sessions Elvis is the manufactured product. "I encouraged him to be real raw," said Phillips, "because if he was artificial he wouldn't be able to keep it up." Au contraire: it was being raw he couldn't keep up.
Go back to that summer's day in 1953, when Phillips first heard that voice. He wanted Elvis, but he didn't want him singing "My Happiness." Nobody needed a one-man Ink Spots, or a hillbilly Eddie Fisher. "I always said," Phillips told everybody, "that if I could find a white boy who could sing like a black man I'd make a million dollars." So he steered Mister Eclectic away from everything but one particular corner, and Elvis, as always, said, "Yes, sir." Imagine if Phillips had said, Sure, kid, how about a couple more Ink Spots covers, and that "Stranger in Paradise" from Kismet's pretty nice, and you've got the pipes for it, and how about we round things out with a little Eddie Fisher. There would have been no rock-and-roll Elvis, and nothing for RCA to buy up. It would never have occurred either to them or him.
Phillips started in the forties, recording dance bands from the roof garden of the Peabody Hotel. But that was just a job. What he really wanted to do was "race records." When he first heard Howlin' Wolf he howled, too: "This is where the soul of man never dies." To Phillips, black music was a passion. To Elvis, it was an option. And so the producer lent the singer his authenticity.
Phillips never made his million bucks, not from Elvis. RCA bought out the Sun contract for $35,000. He owned some radio stations, and he was one of the original investors in Holiday Inn. He was a businessman, and half a century ago he made a commercial decision. Would other white boys have come along at other studios? Sure. But none ever did who sang rockabilly-country-blues like Elvis. Sam Phillips invented Elvis, and thereby mainstream rock-and-roll, and rock. Not a revolution, just a smart move. Like the tiepin says, Taking Care of Business.