By JOHN DeMERS
I met Barbara Barnes Sims when we were both laborers in the fields of the Lord – or, at least, when we were both lecturers on cruise ships sailing the Mediterranean. And I remember her telling me once she was writing some kind of book about Sun Records.
The idea sounded interesting enough. Sun, founded in Memphis by a rock and roll visionary named Sam Phillips, was an essential chapter in the history of all modern American music. As much as anybody could be said to have, Phillips “discovered” Elvis Presley. And what he did in the process – looking mostly for white artists who captured the raw emotion of black music – would give the world virtually every musical style and every hit song that’s happened since. Maybe she mentioned it or maybe she didn’t, probably at dinner as our ship headed out to sea, but I missed that Barbara had actually worked at Sun, that the book she was writing was no mere history but a personal memoir.
The Next Elvis: Searching for Stardom at Sun Records (LSU Press, $26) is a remarkable personal memoir indeed. As Barbara signed on “after Elvis” – Phillips famously sold his contract to RCA, insisting for the rest of his life the sale kept the lights on – she missed that crazy-famous chapter but caught every bit of the next one. Her life at Sun, and therefore this book, was and is about what everyone understood to be the search for “the next Elvis.” If you’ve seen the live-concert Broadway musical The Million-Dollar Quartet, you know the basic history already. The musical, ostensibly recreating the single night that Elvis played a few songs in the Sun studio with Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and a typically unmoored Jerry Lee Lewis, only sketches in some of the before and after. The Next Elvis tells us the rest of the story while weaving in the rest of the people.
Unlike the musical, this book is about a young, shy, small-town Southern woman’s journey into, through and eventually away from what was an almost entirely man’s world. Barbara did the publicity for Phillips, which at that label meant she did pretty much everything. She called distributors and DJs to pitch new records, she called music writers to interest them in new artists and, among her most fascinating duties, she met with each entertainer to decide what to say on the album covers of each new LP. The very technologies and terms of these creations, these retail products, are the stuff of sheer nostalgia now. Yet we also get an almost-secret thrill watching Barbara figure out what’s special about each artist, thus helping supply the vocabulary we use about him to this day.
There’s lots of interesting back-of-the-house gossip in these pages about Phillips (whom Barbara clearly adored, yet with mixed feelings, not least because he was her boss) and the rest of the Sun business operation. Even better, there are vignettes that tell us things we might not know about Elvis (she saw him only once), Cash, Perkins and Lewis, plus other musicians whose stars flickered briefly, at length or even more than once over many years, like Roy Orbison and Charlie Rich. In retrospect, none of these became Sam Phillips’ “next Elvis,” artistically or financially, and eventually Sun faded away. Yet in so many cases, if the talent didn’t flame out too briefly, these voices first heard in a tumbledown studio in Memphis became the soundtracks of our lives.