Saturday, 6 April 2013

What Sun Records taught me about surrounding myself with good people

I've been an Elvis fan for a long, long time. I recently watched the 2005 Elvis miniseries and loved it. It brought back memories of my "Intro to Popular Music" class, which was the first time I learned about Sun Records and the role Sam Phillips played in the evolution of rock n' roll music. Phillips was responsible for recording some of the biggest names in music--Elvis, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbisson, and Jerry Lee Lewis, to name a few, and is credited with marrying the rhythm and blues sound of the African-American community with mainstream country/hillbilly music to create some of the first rock 'n roll records. 

Watching the miniseries, it becomes pretty clear that without Sam Phillips, we might never have had Elvis Presley. Music as we know it today could be completely different. I started thinking about it, and doing a little research, and before I knew it, I had a whole diagram drawn up about all of the ways Sun Records influenced music of the 50's and 60's, and how in return, all of his artists influenced each other (yes, it's possible that I have too much time on my hands).*

I also realized that Sun Records is a perfect example of the importance of surrounding yourself with good people. And by good people, I'm not just talking about talent. I'm talking about people who build you up instead of tearing you down, who recognize your talents and know how to bring out the best in you. People who have strengths that are compatible with yours, and weaknesses that don't exacerbate yours. And it's just as important for you to nourish those people in your life as it is for them to support you.

Sam Phillips knew this. He had an inate talent for getting the best out of his artists. He wasn't interested in having technically perfect sound; he was interested in having a song that felt right. He could get that sound out of his artists. His unique production methods included the now famous "slapback" method, which involved using tape delay--running tape through a second recorder head to create an echo effect. (Even after spending loads of money, RCA could never get the same effect on "Heartbreak Hotel"). He paired Elvis up with musicians Scotty Moore and Bill Black because he knew they would compliment his sound. He knew how to push his artists, and could bring them to a point where they surprised even themselves with the music they created. That talent undoubtably benefited Phillips financially, but more importantly, it launched some of the greatest musicians of the 20th century. 

"I think a great part — if not the major part — of my success was working with my artists, and I have always considered that God gave me one thing if he didn't give me anything else, and that was a good ear. I would do anything in the studio to alleviate as much tension as I could, yet I wanted them to really have that feel, that spark, like they're ready to come out of the gate at the Kentucky Derby, while at the same time not injuring themselves in the process. All of these things are so important, and I owe all of my success to that psychological bent. I knew that I had to do my very dead level best to go in the right direction, and that's why it took so many months before we finally came up with the very thing that we should have, which was 'That's All Right (Mama)' and 'Blue Moon Of Kentucky'." - Sam Phillips

When Phillips first brought Elvis, Moore, and Black into the studio, Elvis was fooling around with a version of Arthur Crudups "That's Alright Mama" between takes of ballads. It wasn't meant to be serious, but it was the moment when Phillips recognized that Elvis could be more than just a ballad singer. Elvis could help him achieve his principle goal of bringing traditionally black rhythm and blues to a white audience. 

Phillips figured out how to build his artists up, how to push them and combine them to make the most of their collective talents. I like to think that I surround myself with people who see the best in me, and help to develop my talents. For example, when I was freaking out about my last job interview, it was my friend Marissa who pointed out just how much I've accomplished, and showed me that I was actually capable of doing the job. My father was the first person who ever told me I might have a talent for writing, and that regardless of my English grades, writing was something that I should keep working at. My best friend Christine has delivered some mind-blowing perspective when I most needed it, most recently reminding me that feeling guilty is neither productive nor indicative of actual wrongdoing in personal relationships. My other friend Nahmi even proofread this very post, telling me it could be better than it was. The people I surround myself with are the people who have helped make me who I am because they can see my strengths and they don't accept my excuses. Like Sam Phillips, they know how to get the best out of me, and more importantly, how to use their own talents to make mine shine brighter

Just like Elvis, however, I also have people in my life who try to bring me down more than they build me up. When Elvis left Sun Records to sign with RCA, he was managed by Colonel Tom Parker. Under the Colonel, Elvis became the larger-than-life force we recognize today--but it was also the start of his struggle with drugs, depression, and isolation from the real world. By most accounts, the Colonel controlled most aspects of Elvis's life, from his friends to his band and the tours and movies he did, all in the name of protecting the singer from people trying to take advantage of him---while ensuring a hefty commission for himself. Conflicting views of the Colonel's motivations aside, the bottom line is that for most of his career, Elvis allowed the Colonel to make almost every decision for him. 

I know I definitely have people who push me in negative ways. Some of these people are inescapable, but most of them are there, and have an affect on me, because I let them. 
Because, deep down, I think that I'm the one who has the problem, and if I just do one thing differently, everything will be fine. 

The truth, I'm starting to realize, is that sometimes people just suck. (Colonel Tom Parker, in my opinion, just plain sucks**) While I want to treat everyone with kindness and respect, people who suck don't deserve an assigned place in my life, and more importantly, they don't deserve a place in my thoughts. I don't want to change who people are--everyone has the right to their own personality (to their own suckiness, if you will), but that doesn't mean that I have to accomodate it in my life. The following quote from Phillips demonstrates that while Sun artists presented their own challenges, there was a big difference between having a disagreement and trying to control someone:

"I didn't have any difficult people. And that's not dodging the question. I really did not. I had people... Hell, Jerry Lee and I got in the damnedest religious argument in the middle of a session. A lot of things like that came up. Hey, everybody's got their own damn personality, and they should have their individuality. Any time anyone tries to destroy that in you, you better watch out." -Sam Phillips

Phillips was content to let his artists have their personalities, while still bringing out the best in them. I know that I can be a little better at accepting people's personalities for what they are, and a LOT better at recognizing when those personalities don't have a place in my life. 

Sam Phillips pushed his artists, but they also pushed each other. Rivalries weren't unheard of, but at the end of the day, rock n roll wasn't the work of one individual. Sun artists covered each other's songs and they toured together, pushing the boundaries of popular music. Blue Suede Shoes was originally written by Carl Perkins  but it was Johnny Cash who suggested the song and Elvis who is most frequently credited with it. The song "Ring of Fire" was originally written by June Carter for her sister Anita, and later became the biggest hit of Johnny Cash's career. (June wasn't a Sun artist, but you get my point…). The artists may have had their personal disagreements, but they could recognize talent in each other, and build upon that.

I consider myself lucky to have friends that are massively talented. I don't spend nearly enough time acknowledging that fact, and even less time helping my friends to develop their talents. If I spent half as much time trying to collaborate with people as I do pursing my own personal projects, I bet we would all create some amazing things. Maybe not "Blue Suede Shoes" amazing, but amazing nonetheless.

Sun Records is credited for laying the foundation for rock n' roll music, through a combination of innovation, collaboration, and a great deal of good timing. Without Sam Phillips, we may have had rock n' roll, but we may not have had Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, or any of the thousands of artists that have been inspired by them.  You may be born with talent, but the people you surround yourself play a big part in determining what you do with that talent, for better or for worse.

'He was stooped down on one knee and grasping a guitar trying to tune it to somewhere near the correct pitch to make a correct cord ring - 'Everybody knows where you go when the sun goes down, Ah-ummm - A - ummm', and he'd strike the guitar again. Plink: plunk: 'A-ummm ...' 'What are you trying to do?' I asked. 'I'm trying to tune this blame guitar, honey, and I'm trying to sing like Johnny Cash.' 'Who is Johnny Cash?' I asked Elvis Presley, and I grabbed the guitar away from him. Mother Maybelle would never let me or Elvis go on the stage with a guitar that was that far out of tune! 'What's the a-um-a-um for?' 'That's what drives the girls crazy,' Elvis said. 'Cash don't have to move a muscle, he just sings and stands there.' 'I don't know this Johnny Cash' I said, and Elvis said: 'Oh you'll know Cash. The whole world will know Johnny Cash. He's a friend of mine.' -June Carter on Elvis introducing her to Johnny Cash. 

*It wasn't just Phillips, either. Marion Keisker, Phillip's secretary, is often credited with convincing Phillips to give Elvis a shot. It really does take a village...

** There's tons of room for debate about whether Colonel Tom Parker was the best or worst thing for Elvis's career. Elvis became a superstar under the Colonel; but he also became a slicker, more produced version of himself. This is evidenced in both his physical appearance and his songs. The Colonel pushed Elvis to make trashy but commercially successful films, and refused to let Elvis take on a world tour. Both of these decisions seriously hampered the singer's credibility moving into the mid-60's, and were in direct opposition to Elvis's desire to be taken more seriously. In fact, the enormously successful 1968 Comeback Special was completely against the Colonel's original plan for a traditional Christmas special. Personally, I think Elvis would have been a lot better off without the Colonel--maybe not from a musical, but definitely a mental health, perspective.

1 comment:

  1. I did not know much about Elvis before but found this really interesting!

    On a random tangent, when I was around 10 my best friend's dad was an Elvis impersonator and I thought it was the coolest thing in the world haha.