Sam Phillips, the man who first worked with Elvis Presley in the studio and the one who helped guide him into becoming the rock and roll legend he was, reminisced Wednesday about his relationship with Presley as a man and an artist. Part of the problem with Presley's life, Phillips feels, was that he became trapped in a life-style that kept him on a pedestal with the public but also kept him out of touch.
'I really wish more people could've known him as a person. I got to know what he was coming from, and the guy was a much, much deeper and much more of a spiritual man than a lot of us may have thought'.
Presley, Phillips said, seemed uncomfortable with the way he was closed off from the pleasures of everyday life.
'I talked to his doctor a few years back. Elvis then was having trouble sleeping, and I said, 'This man, bless his heart, needs more than anybody I've ever seen in my life to, at least in his own hometown, throw away the whole damn book and do what he damn well pleases. Let him be seen on the streets.
It may take awhile and a few guards at first.' But I feel as fervently as I feel anything that he would be alive today if that had happened...You know, I think it's entirely possible to die of a broken heart...and I think that was a contributing factor'. Life, of course, wasn't always so reclusive for Elvis. In the mid-1950s when he first walked into the Phillips studio, Presley was a shy young truck driver who just loved to sing. He walked in, supposedly to cut a record for his mother's birthday present, and Phillips' secretary made a note of his name. A few months later, Phillips called him in and began to work with him.
'There was no question in my mind - my business was to hear talent, no matter what stage of polish it was in. Of course, none of us knew he was going to be that big, but the minute I heard the guy sing - it was an Ink Spots thing - he had a unique voice. Now there's very few things I'm gonna say are unique, that there's nothing else like them'. 'I called (guitarist) Scotty Moore and told him to get hold of (bass player) Bill Black. And I said, 'Now, I've got a young man and he's different.' I told him and Bill to go by and work with Elvis a little. I said, 'Now, he's really nervous and timid and extremely polite'. 'And it took us awhile; we worked off and on for about five to six months. I knew there were a lot of things we could've cut, but they weren't different. It was up to me to see the uniqueness of his talent and to go, hopefully, in the right direction with it'.
Elvis, at that time, obviously knew he had talent, Phillips said, but his modesty was overwhelmingly genuine.
'You remember Clyde McPhatter? Elvis thought Clyde McPhatter had one of the greatest voices in the world. We were going somewhere one time - down to the Louisiana Hayride or to Nashville - and we were singing in the car. Well, Bill Black couldn't carry a tune in a bucket, and Scotty was worse.
So Elvis and I were the only good singers in the car. But we were talking about Clyde McPhatter, and he said, 'You know, if I had a voice like that man, I'd never want for another thing.' 'But Elvis knew he had talent. I think he just had a little trouble gaining confidence'.
It was while working with Phillips, Black and Moore that Presley evolved his style of rock and roll, but he also picked up something else at the Sun Record Co. studio - a love for piano.
'He loved to sing and always wanted to play guitar real good - of course, he never did learn to play guitar that good - and he wanted to play piano like Jerry Lee's playing, thought it was unbelieveable'.
'He didn't envy Jerry Lee or anything, but he did sit down and learn piano. And I think it was because he loved to hear Jerry Lee play so much. Man, he loved to play the old spiritual licks'.
In his early career years, even after he left Sun for RCA-Victor Records and became the phenomenon of the 1950s, Presley still liked to go back to the Sun studio or Phillips' house to sit and talk, one on one.
'He'd come by to see me, totally informally, on every occasion unannounced, and we'd go off together and sit and talk philosophy. He called in '68 from Vegas (when Elvis was preparing to make his long-awaited return to live appearances) and he says, 'Mr. Phillips, I just got to have you come out. I'm scared to death. I got to have somebody I know, some friends, in the audience'.
'I think Elvis was truly scared of being hurt, probably more than any person I know'.
Why then would a person of such sensitivity allow himself to be wrapped in a social cocoon, cut off from all but his closest friends? 'It's a vicious cycle. You start out and you're so proud of your success and you say, 'God, I'll do anything to stay on top.' And then you find yourself saying, 'Well, gosh, I know it's got to be over before too long and I've got to keep up this image. I'm very mortal, but I can't let the people know I'm mortal'.
'But there's just no such thing as being an island unto yourself'.
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For a more (very) detailed history of Elvis Presley see our pages; starting at Elvis Presley 1935-1953