Saturday, February 25, 2017

Sun Records: Episode 1

Episode 1 of Sun Records, CMT’s new series about the rise of the Memphis music scene in the 1950s, opens in 1950 with a fifteen-year-old Elvis Presley sitting in a stairwell of a housing project and quietly strumming a guitar. He is listening to a radio that is playing “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” The door to his family’s apartment is open. Inside, Elvis’s father (whose name was Vernon) is grousing about his son making Cs and Ds in school and wasting time fooling around with music. Vernon has been drinking, and he is bitter about everything under the sun. “You get that boy off your teat, Gladys,” he mutters to his wife, Elvis’s mother, as he opens another beer. “He’s too old to be coddled.” Gladys is warm and supportive and tries to smooth things over. She calls Elvis “pumpkin,” kisses him on the cheek, and runs her fingers through his hair. “For God is the King of all the earth,” she tells him. “Sing praises with a song.”

Angry, unfeeling, alcoholic fathers offset by saintly, supportive, loving mothers are not the only clichés in the episode. Sam Phillips, the founder of Memphis Recording Service and the man behind Sun Records (the label), cannot get through the episode without having an affair with his secretary—and this after he dreamily tells his wife, as they sit in the car in front of the building that will become his recording studio, “This is what I was put on this earth to do. And I know you came here to help me do it.” Elvis, bored with the staid Sunday morning service in his white church, up and leaves and removes himself to a service in a black church, where the music is of course rollicking and full of spirit. How will the congregation react to the late-arriving white boy? Without skipping a beat. A lady sitting in front of him encourages him to join in on the clapping and the singing. After the service, as he cheerfully mingles with the congregation on the front steps of the church, his girlfriend’s parents drive by—Lord only knows why their route took them through that part of town—and see “that Presley boy” fraternizing with the wrong race. Affronted and scandalized, they forbid their daughter from ever seeing Elvis again.

Chad Michael Murray plays Sam Phillips; he’s superb and looks the part. In my reconceptualization of Sun Records, the show would revolve around his character only, letting other characters such as Elvis and J. R. (later known as Johnny) Cash come and go as needed—sort of like a Union Avenue–based Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. I would give Sam Phillips a troublesome uncle—maybe an uncle who takes over his brother’s, Sam’s father’s, studio in Memphis after his brother mysteriously dies. Sam, determined to carry on his father’s work, opens his own studio. The uncle, along with his studio, would be a pawn in Boss Crump’s political machine. Sam Phillips would smell something rotten but get caught up in machinations beyond his ken—all the while producing some of the most important popular music in the world.

By the way, despite what CMT’s website says, the story of the birth of rock and roll is anything but “untold.” Colin Escott, one of the producers of the show, published an excellent book on the subject in 1991 titled Good Rockin’ Tonight: Sun Records and the Birth of Rock ’n’ Roll. And of course Peter Guralnick, who wrote a biography of Elvis, published in 2015 Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ’n’ Roll. Sun Records is also the subject of a 2001 episode of the PBS series American Masters.

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