My Times review of Peter Guralnick’s affectionate but over-extended biography of Sam Phillips, founder of Sun Records and mentor to Elvis Presley:
The author of an acclaimed, two-volume biography of the King, Peter Guralnick ought to be the perfect choice to tell Phillips’s story. Few writers have such an intimate understanding of the roots of modern popular music: Sweet Soul Music, his history of rhythm and blues, remains one of the very best books on America’s cultural melting pot. What is more, Phillips took him under his wing long before his death in 2003, aged 80. Their hours of conversation – during which the older man was capable of wielding a glass of red wine in one hand, a glass of white in the other — have yielded plenty of insights into the character of an impresario who was thoroughly ambivalent about being in the spotlight.
Towards the end of his life, Phillips was given to making grandiose pronouncements about his contribution to the music business, yet he could be oddly evasive and downright ornery with the media. If you go on YouTube you will find a 1986 interview with talk show host David Letterman which is as toe-curlingly embarrassing as any of Oliver Reed’s inebriated romps through chat-show land. Guralnick is reluctant to concede that his friend and hero is drunk on that occasion, but if Phillips wasn’t, then it is an extremely good impersonation of someone who has had one too many. Letterman, a mixture of embarrassment and irritation, can clearly not wait to get rid of him.
The episode crystallises some of the problems with a biography which has so far received near-unanimous praise in the US. Guralnick is so close to his subject that he loses his sense of perspective, awkwardly weaving himself into the narrative as if he were writing a Bildungsroman. The result is that a book that could easily tell its story in 300 pages meanders to well over twice that length. Phillips’s voice, visionary at the outset, risks becoming that of a slightly maudlin huckster.