W henever I get a new book, the first thing I do is turn to the Acknowledgments page in the back. I don’t know why I do this. I know a number of writers personally, so maybe I want to see if anyone I know and the author knows overlap. Or maybe I want to see if my name is there (it never is). Most likely I’m just curious as to who else might have had a hand in an endeavor as solitary as writing a book. At any rate, this was the case when I first received the new Elvis Costello memoir Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink (Blue Rider Press) last month. My name wasn’t listed, but there among his wife — the jazz chanteuse Diana Krall — his manager, and his family was the music biographer Peter Guralnick. As chance would have it, I already had an appointment to interview Guralnick by phone the next morning. I love this interface between books and the entertainment arts. Guralnick’s latest, Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ’n’ Roll (Little, Brown and Company), is an in-depth look at the visionary who acted as midwife to an entire new genre with what is considered the seminal rock-and-roll song, “Rocket 88.” He also famously recorded Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Elvis Presley at his little shop, Memphis Recording Services, on Union Avenue, later the home of Sun Records.
Guralnick grew up in Boston and first became schooled on music in the 1960s with the live shows of Ray Charles, Solomon Burke, James Brown, and Otis Redding, among others. Many of those shows were experienced as he walked the venues’ aisles. “I had ushered all these soul shows in Boston which was an experience both enthralling and intimidating,” he said that morning on the phone. “I just did it because it was a way of getting in early and free, and getting next to the music, being there when Little Richard was rehearsing beforehand or getting backstage with Jackie Wilson.”
And that’s just the way his career has gone as he’s ushered readers through the careers of Elvis Presley and Sam Cooke, through the birth and rise of Southern music, as well as the turbulent climate of the civil rights movement that was, itself, ushered in with soul, gospel, and a backbeat.
Since his earliest work in the 1960s and 1970s, Guralnick said that “everything I have ever done has stemmed from personal passion, everything I’ve ever written about has been written out of belief and out of a desire to tell people.” On a rainy night last month, the day after the book’s release, Guralnick took the stage in the Dorothy K. Hohenberg Auditorium at Memphis Brooks Museum of Art to answer questions lobbed by longtime friend and author Robert Gordon. A standing-room-only-audience of more than 200, which included some of Phillips’ kin, looked on as Guralnick recounted the writing of the book and his relationship with the storied producer. “I wanted to break it up,” he said, “make it into a living, breathing thing.” To that end, the book is not merely a timeline of Phillips’ life from birth to his death in 2003, but is resplendent with personal stories and anecdotes that the author “hopes will reverberate.”
Reverberate it does as the man comes to life on every one of the 661 pages. Guralnick is masterful at the craft of research and interviewing, but it is his storytelling that is unparalleled. “My ambition from when I first started writing,” he told the crowd, “was to write from the inside out, not to do an external list.” He added to the sentiment by quoting Phillips himself: “Anybody can keep a diary.”
Guralnick has been teaching creative writing at Vanderbilt University for 10 years and tells his students to “prize a digression.” In discussing his interview process with Gordon at the Brooks, Guralnick said that Phillips was, to put it mildly, “a bit digressive.” He would give an hour-long preamble to any interview and that preamble would establish the terms of what would be discussed. “Sam was going to talk about whatever he wanted to talk about,” Guralnick said. “He was nothing but digression; he never gets to the point.”
But then, maybe digression is how we get to the good stuff, the world-changing sounds and styles. Presley’s “That’s All Right, Mama” was first played during a rehearsal break while recording ballads, and Phillips latched onto it. (“The rest of the session went as if suddenly they had all been caught up in the same fever dream,” Gurlanick writes.) That night at the Brooks, Guralnick digressed from Phillips into lovely tales and personal anecdotes of Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King, and Rufus Thomas.
Regarding his being listed in the Acknowledgements pages of Costello’s book, and allowing for the fact that Costello’s music is “contemporary” when compared with that of Sam Cooke and Presley, or Phillips himself, I digressed and asked Guralnick if he enjoys new music, if we might expect a future volume on, say, Justin Timberlake. He neither confirmed nor denied a Timberlake book, but he did say he’s been listening to songwriters such as Kevin Gordon, Paul Burch, Lucinda Williams, and Colin Linden.
Guralnick has his thumb on the pulse of music, whether it’s half a century or half a week old.
In the end, the drive for Guralnick to tell the stories behind the music may be the same drive for us to buy and read such a book. “The thrill for me is being welcomed into worlds I could never have access to,” he said. Though we will enjoy the music by the likes of Howlin’ Wolf, Elvis Presley, and Johnny Cash for years to come, none of us were in the room when these men first hit the note that lit the bulb in Phillips’ head. Guralnick’s prose puts us in that room.
W ho says the holidays have to be bright and cheery with colorful lights, candles, and trees? There’s plenty going on in the shadows, the dark recesses of smoky bars, train cars, and abandoned homes. After all, why should Halloween have all the mysterious fun? The new anthology Memphis Noir (Akashic Books) is replete with murders, ghosts, gangsters, a sharp-toothed baby, Boss Crump, and high water on the bluff. The selection of writers coralled by editors Laureen P. Cantwell and Leonard Gill, who used to pen this very space as book editor for Memphis (in the spirit of full disclosure, I have a story included in this collection), are as diverse as Memphis itself. Even the publisher had difficulty winnowing down the submissions as there are 15 stories where they’d only requested 14. Included as well is a graphic novella, the first of its kind in any of Akashic’s 72 offerings in the Noir series, by husband-and-wife team Adam Shaw and Penny Register-Shaw.
There are many recognizable names here, too: Cary Holladay, who has also published in Pittsburgh Noir; David Wesley Williams, a two-time winner of the Memphis magazine short fiction contest; Lee Martin, finalist for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction; and Arthur Flowers, novelist, performance poet, and past-executive director of the Harlem Writers Guild.
Many of these writers showed up at Story Booth at Crosstown Arts last month for a discussion and signing. The crowd was eager to hear how the stories came to fruition, what dark minds might be inspired by a murder in North Memphis, a secret torture chamber in Midtown, or a setting known as PV (you’ll have to read the book for more on those initials). This holiday season, be sure to stuff your loved one’s (or your own) stocking with a copy of Memphis Noir.