On Thursday night at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles, Conan O’Brien sat down with Peter Guralnick, author of Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll, to discuss the legendary music figure.
O’Brien and Guralnick discussed Phillips’ career (he’s most famous for his work with Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash) and his life (Phillips was very open about his affair, struggles with mental illness and views on the era’s racism). Phillips died in 2003 at age 80. He was survived by a musical legacy that has inspired many current and former rockers.
Here are five things we learned at the talk:
Elvis wasn’t Sam’s favorite hound dog.
Phillips’ discovery of Elvis was a game-changer for music, but while Phillips saw a beauty in the musician’s skill, Elvis wasn’t his favorite. “He was much more passionate, in some ways, about some of the other artists he found,” O’Brien said. “He thought that Jerry Lee Lewis was maybe the best all-around musical talent.”
?He was a civil-rights believer.
Sam Phillips was heavily sympathetic to the plight of African-Americans and respected black musicians. “He couldn’t break through the color line with the artists he had,” Guralnick said. “The only way he would do that would be to find a white man with a Negro sound and, much more important, the Negro feel who could break through the wall of prejudice.”
Although the song has now become known for it’s distinctive slapback sound, “That’s All Right” has a surprising truth. “There’s no slapback on ‘That’s All Right,’ and I think that’s because he saw the purity and the beauty of that record,” clarified Guralnick.
Go, Cat, Go!
The now-famous line from “Blue Suede Shoes” almost wasn’t — and Sam Phillips is the man to thank for the “go, cat, go!” catchphrase. “Carl Perkins on ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ didn’t intend to say ‘go cat, go.’ I think it was supposed to be ‘go, man, go,'” O’Brien explained. “[Perkins] said, ‘Well, we got to redo that and also I don’t like my guitar part, I kind of screwed that up.’ And Sam knew that ‘go cat, go’ is the essence of that song.”
Call ‘Em Up, Sam.
When you want to talk out your political outrage, the average person writes a letter to their congress member. For Phillips, it was a matter of calling up Fidel Castro. “One of my favorite moments is after the Bay of Pigs invasion, Sam decides to call Fidel Castro on the phone and tell him to cheer up and actually gets on the line and has had a few drinks and it’s 1961…he doesn’t get Fidel Castro but he does get Raul Castro,” O’Brien said.
Guralnick is currently on a book tour through January.