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A Q&A with Peter Guralnick 

On writing biographies, Elvis, Charlie Rich and more.

click to enlarge GURALNICK: He had a "front-row seat" with Phillips.
  • GURALNICK: He had a "front-row seat" with Phillips.

In the world of music journalism — a not exactly rarefied community, but one that has managed to produce its share of real artists over the last few decades — there is no figure more widely respected or rightly acclaimed than Peter Guralnick. In his essay collections and biographies, he has chronicled the twisted histories of blues, country, soul and rock 'n' roll, and has done so in prose that has earned him a permanent place among the first rank of American cultural critics.

Greil Marcus called his first essay collection, "Feel Like Going Home," "the most loving book I have ever read about American popular music." Of his two-volume biography of Elvis Presley, the New York Times wrote that it was "not simply the finest rock-and-roll biography ever written. It must be ranked among the most ambitious and crucial biographical undertakings yet devoted to a major American figure of the second half of the 20th century."

His latest book, "Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock 'n' Roll," is a project that has been in the works for decades, and it only further confirms Guralnick's importance as a guide to the ineffable power and strangeness of American popular music. Ahead of his appearance at the Arkansas Literary Festival, we spoke about Phillips, Charlie Rich, the art of biography and more.

I was surprised to learn, in the introduction to the new book, that you'd known Sam Phillips and had been friends for years. That isn't always the case with biographiesyou hadn't been longtime friends with Elvis or Sam Cooke, for instance. How did that relationship make this book different than your previous biographies?

I think in some ways it didn't make it all that different. I would say that all the people I've written about are people whom I've admired. I've never written about anyone or anything on assignment — I'm not saying that as a boast, it's just the truth. They've all been people I've chosen to write about out of admiration. And there have been others — Charlie Rich, Solomon Burke — with whom I've become friendly in much the same way as I became friendly with Sam.

And I knew Sam for almost 25 years, so we went through stages. At the end, he said to me, "My son Knox loved you from the minute he first met you. But I didn't." It was really when I was working on the Elvis books, on which he was so helpful to me, that we became friends.

What I've always aimed to do with whatever I've written is to write from the inside out — not to write an external view or a record of accomplishments but to write about the world as they saw it. For Sam Cooke and Elvis, it was a matter of getting that perspective from the people who were close to them. For Sam Cooke that was his brother L.C., for instance, or Bobby Womack. And with all those people, they were all extremely astute, extremely observant. They weren't on the same page, but when they described Sam Cooke, they spoke in the same voice. But with Sam Phillips I had this front-row seat.

You once quoted Mark Twain in saying a real biography is impossible because "every day would make a whole book." How do you find the story or thematic through-line in a person's life? Is that something you have to know in advance?

I think it has to be by feel. That's why even if you had access to the exact same facts and documentation as I had, your book would be entirely different — the selection would be different. With Sam Phillips, what I chose to do was to see that in the second half of his story, I had to use myself; not to burnish my own self-image but to reflect who Sam was, to reflect that front-row seat I had. Because that gave a kind of window into who he was. Being there at the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame ceremony in Cleveland, say, when Sam was inducting Carl Perkins and just could not help himself, and had to bring up the fact that the Hall of Fame should be in Memphis. And watching the way the room just turned on him. Being a witness to that firsthand gave me a unique perspective.

Your biographies are often considered the definitive portraits of the artists they're aboutwhat are the necessary pre-conditions of writing a good biography. What do you need, or what are the things you couldn't do without?

With Elvis I didn't get access to the archives at Graceland — all of his papers and Col. Tom Parker's papers — until after the first volume was published. And in fact I only later got the access because of that first volume.

I think patience is the main thing. You can't expect people to fall all over themselves because you've shown up to write about them; it's not like they've been waiting for you. In the case of the Graceland papers, I think it was beneficial in some ways to not have all that documentation and papers for the first volume. It was a story that had to play out more simply — almost a dream sequence. The extra stuff would've weighed the story down.

With this kind of writing, you can't take offense if somebody turns you down. With [Elvis' longtime girlfriend] Dixie Locke, I went to her church every week for a really long time. It's a privilege if people talk to you — they don't owe you anything. The other thing is total immersion. Teaching creative writing, they all talk about craft; but I don't believe in craft, really. I believe in passion, commitment, just going all out and the idea of total immersion. Essentially it's what Sister Rosetta Tharpe sang, that "99 1/2 Won't Do."

I'm not going to write any more biographies. I'm not giving up writing in any way, but I've been doing this for 28 years, I guess; I've written three biographies. And I wouldn't do it again without throwing myself into it totally, and it isn't what I want to do anymore.

At the end of your book "Feel Like Going Home," you wrote that it marked a "swan song to my whole brief critical career." It hasn't worked out that way. Have you ever resented writing about music, or wanted to escape itto write about something else?

A friend of mine, Jim Miller, who later edited "The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock 'n' Roll," kept trying to lure me back to music writing after that. Because I did take a break — I wrote a novel during that period. My fifth novel, actually. He got me to write a column and said, "How about Waylon Jennings?" And I think "Honky-Tonk Heroes" had just come out. And I was just completely knocked out. And the second column I did was about Bobby "Blue" Bland.

It was around 1973, I was going down to this soul club called the Sugar Shack every night — a real wonderful den of iniquity — and I'd been teaching classics at the same time, though I thought I had to get another gig to support myself. I knew a guy who was a headmaster at an elite private school, and we met up with the head of the English department. We talked about the kinds of books I was most enthusiastic about teaching — "Tristram Shandy," "V" by Thomas Pynchon, stuff like that — and that night I went down once again to the Sugar Shack. It was supposed to be a horn rehearsal, must have been like 3 in the morning. And I'm hanging around and I had this epiphany: I realized that, really, I would rather stay out until 3 o'clock waiting for a Bobby "Blue" Bland horn rehearsal that never happens than spend the rest of my life teaching English to privileged kids.

Because this is Arkansas, I wanted to ask about your relationship with Charlie Rich. Could you tell me a little about getting to know him and working with him?

I met Charlie out at the Vapors [Club], in Memphis, back in 1970. He was fairly obscure. So I go out there and I met Charlie and his wife, Margaret Ann, and I just never met anybody who I liked more on first acquaintance. I just loved them both — one of those things where you feel like you've really connected. Between sets Charlie would tell me about growing up outside of Forrest City and growing up in the church; the guilt he felt and the depression he suffered, his drinking. Charlie was not an "up" person. He once said, "I don't know what it is, I just don't dig happy songs." And Margaret Ann, during the sets, would tell me the same stories but in a more rounded, expressive way. She was a brilliant woman as well.

Then I wrote it up for that book "Feel Like Going Home," and nobody had done any interviews with Charlie at that point. And as I wrote it, I had the terrible feeling that these two people who I'd really liked so much, that I was never going to see them again. The chapter seems mild by today's standards, but I had to tell the truth, and it was terrible. Shortly after it was published, the secretary of the publisher called me up and said Charlie Rich just called and ordered 35 copies, one for everyone in his family. Not long after, Charlie told me, "The thing about it was, it was the truth. It hurt, it really hurt, but it was the truth."

A couple of years later he invited me to New York. I hadn't seen him in a while and he was playing at Max's Kansas City. "Behind Closed Doors" had just come out and he was on a publicity tour. And he says, "I got a surprise for you, man." And I said, "Great, I love surprises." Which is not at all the case, but what are you gonna say? And so he played the song "Feel Like Going Home" for the first time. And he told me, "I wrote this out of the feeling I got from reading the book."

That's incredible. I always thought the book was named after the song.

No, no. And a few years later, he sent me a 7-inch reel-to-reel of the piano demo. And as far as I know, that's the only copy. That's the sole basis for all the releases of that demo. Roland Janes later told me, "That's such a great song, Peter, is the book anywhere near as good?" And I said, "Nope."  It's no big deal, really, but I mean can you imagine a greater thrill?

Guralnick will speak about his book "Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock 'n' Roll" at 5:30 p.m. Saturday, April 16, at the Oxford American Annex.

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