It is no exaggeration or overstatement to label Peter Guralnick "America's finest music biographer," as well as one of the nation's premier writers on any subject. Guralnick's heralded books include a definitive two-volume Elvis Presley set (Last Train To Memphis and Careless Love: The Unmasking of Elvis Presley) and equally celebrated work on Sam Cooke (Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke).
But his essay anthologies of blues, soul and country are just as valuable. Feel Like Going Home: Portraits in Blues, Country and Rock 'n' Roll, Lost Highways: Journeys & Arrivals of American Musicians, Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm & Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom, and Searching for Robert Johnson are all seminal editions.
Guralnick is currently writer-in-residence at Vanderbilt University. He's done collaborations on video projects featuring many of his heroes. On Saturday, Feb. 9, the Country Music Foundation will screen the documentary Solomon Burke: Everybody Needs Somebody to Love at 1:30 p.m.
Guralnick served as a consultant and principal interviewer on the film. He will later discuss Burke's life, impact and his influence, both in general and on his writing (he dedicated Sweet Soul Music to Burke), plus autograph copies of his books at the Museum store.
We spoke with Guralnick earlier via phone, on radio, and through emails about Burke and other subjects.
What were the greatest things you remember about Solomon Burke and why was he such a major influence on your work?
His music was the influence to begin with. I mean, how can you beat "Everybody Needs Somebody to Love," with its message of universal redemption. Then I saw him in the summer of 1964 headlining a Supersonic Shower of Stars that had Otis Redding and Joe Tex down on the bill. He was just such a warm, big-hearted person, and it came across just as much in the way he was in person as in his music. I'm with Jerry Wexler. The greatest soul singer? Jerry said it was Solomon Burke — with a borrowed band. For me he was just the greatest singer I ever saw in person — not to mention one of the most forceful and charismatic personalities. I've never met anyone more brilliant, or funnier, than Solomon Burke.
What songs and/or albums of his would you recommend for those unfamiliar with his music?
Well, "The Price" was probably his masterpiece. You couldn't find a deeper song — and for that reason he wasn't inclined to sing it in person very often. I suppose the best place to start with his music is Home In Your Heart, the Rhino two-CD collection of his greatest hits. But don't miss Soul Alive!, a recording of his live show in the early '80s , which is up there with James Brown: Live At the Apollo and Sam Cooke: Live at the Harlem Square Club.
You've been working a long time on a Sam Phillips bio. As one was also fortunate enough to have interviewed him a couple of times, he once claimed he was misquoted or taken out of context in regards to his statements about finding a white musician with that "Negro feel." What have you determined regarding the accuracy of that quote?
I don't think he was misquoted. He never said that to me. To Sam the pinnacle of all music — well, his favorite music, the deepest-down music as far as depth of emotion and feel — was the blues in its many permutations. Howlin' Wolf was to his mind the greatest artist he ever recorded — along with Charlie Rich. He opened his studio in 1950 to record nothing but African American artists, at the height of segregation, in the face of the most bitter personal criticism. Essentially he had to choose between his job as an engineer and announcer at a Memphis radio station and continuing with what he was doing at his little studio — and he chose the studio.
But he ran up against the commercial limitations of selling the music in a strictly segregated market. And he always believed that once a mainstream white audience heard the music, there would be no limits to the success a great black performer could attain. He was right. Rock 'n' roll made pop stars — superstars — out of such artists as Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Fats Domino, and Bo Diddley, who just a year or two before would have been limited to the "race" market.
But for all his belief in the music, and for all of his faith in artists like B.B. King, Howlin' Wolf, Ike Turner, and Little Junior Parker, whom he recorded at the very beginning of their careers, Sam believed that the first breakthrough would have to come through a white performer who had the same feel for the music that they did. Not an imitator — he was always adamant about that. Someone with an original sound of his own and the kind of feel that would allow him to put the music across in his own way. That was what he heard when Elvis Presley walked in the door.
One charge that has been leveled at Phillips in some circles is that he abandoned the black performers who helped him get his start once people like Roy Orbison and Elvis Presley came along. Do you agree with that charge?
No. I don't — though there's certainly an element of truth in the fact that without ever abandoning the music altogether (he continued to record artists like Roscoe Gordon and later, Mississippi blues singer Frank Frost), he was able to focus on it much less. This was mainly because Sun was a one-man operation, and once the label started having hits, that was what he focused on. Rockabilly artist Billy Lee Riley complained that Sam abandoned him for Jerry Lee Lewis, and to the extent that this was true, it was for exactly the same reason. This was a storefront operation run almost entirely by a single man.
It's hard to say what Sam would have done if he had continued in the music business, but less than five years after selling Elvis' contract, after discovering and recording Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Charlie Rich, among many others, he was pretty much out of it. To the end of his life he said that the two greatest artists he ever recorded were Howlin' Wolf and Charlie Rich — they were the two he wished he could have stayed with till the day he died.
Charlie Rich is someone Phillips greatly admired. What was there about his music he found so dynamic?
Same thing as Wolf's music — though the forms were completely different. Their music was deep, profound — it was based on their total openness and honesty, the nakedness of the feeling that came across in what they sang and played.
Since we're in Black History Month, I know we've talked before about Elvis Presley's supposed interview with Sepia magazine where he disparaged specific black entertainers and blacks in general. What's the story behind that one?
Actually, the rumor has no basis in fact — Elvis never disparaged any entertainer, and the racial comments that were attributed to him were said to have been made in cities he never played. Louis Robinson totally refuted the rumor in Jet magazine in August 1957 when Elvis gave him an exclusive interview (at a time when he was doing virtually no other interviews) and Robinson interviewed African American performers and friends of Elvis (such as Ivory Joe Hunter and the great songwriter and minister Rev. W.H. Brewster) who said, as Elvis did, that this was totally contrary not just to the man they knew but to the nature of the man.
You've also written eloquently about the great Sam Cooke, and were part of a wonderful DVD about him. What are some lesser known things about him?
His intellect, his bookishness (Sam read everything, from The New Yorker to War and Peace), the scope of his ambitions, and where the political and social consciousness that he exhibited in "A Change is Gonna Come" might have taken him."
Feel Like Going Home contained definitive profiles of both country and blues performers. Despite the obvious links between blues, soul and country, there is still far less interaction between their audiences than you would expect. Why do you think many (though not all) listeners of these styles fail to recognize the connections?
I can't answer that. All that I know is that virtually every artist I have ever spoken to (from Howlin' Wolf and Chuck Berry to Merle Haggard and Jerry Lee Lewis) has recognized, and embraced, the commonality. Performers like Rufus Thomas and Bobby "Blue" Bland grew up on country music, while Elvis Presley derived much of his inspiration from the black church. The barriers may exist for audiences, although I'm not sure that they do to the extent they once did — but in terms of the music I don't believe they ever have for musicians.
Are there other artists out there you enjoy and haven't written about that may be the subject of future books?
I'm getting a big kick out of writing about less well-known musicians like the late Duff Dorrough or Jimmy Phillips or soul singer Paul Kelly on my website. Watch for future stories on them or 1920s Memphis blues singer Frank Stokes — or someone like Kevin Gordon or Chris Scruggs or Dave Peterson or Paul Burch that I might go see at The Stone Fox or the Family Wash or the Station Inn!