Sam Phillips and his place in Socialist R&B

The entrepreneur is not a figure Thee Faction instinctively sympathise with. In fact, it’s a figure we instinctively add to the ‘come the great day, they’ll be first up against the wall’ list. But sometimes instincts can be wrong, and there are exceptions to every rule. Samuel Cornelius Phillips is without doubt a clear exception to that rule.

Socialist R&B would almost certainly not exist were it not for Sam. From putting everything in hock to keep Sun Studios alive, to selling Elvis’s contract to RCA so that he could carry on producing the less commercial stuff that really counted, Sam was an example to us all. He was a man who understood R&B and its redemptive qualities:

“The blues, it got people- black and white- to think about life, how difficult, yet also how good it can be. They would sing about it; they would pray about it; they would preach about it. This is how they relieved the burden of what existed day in and day out.”

That’s Socialist R&B, brothers and sisters. Right there. In the words of Sam Phillips. As our Muscle Shoals comrades the Drive By Truckers tell us, Mr Phillips was the only man who Jerry Lee would still call “sir”. Why? Because the man commanded absolute respect. And in terms of engineering counter-hegemonic activity, Phillips had no rival. He busied himself creating big ol’ cultural bombs that he hurled indiscriminately into the American establishment, the fall-out from which could be seen in the oppositional movements in the 60s, and more violent, nihilistic movements of the 70s. Sam Phillips gave the dispossessed a voice, and the space to express that voice with none of the rough edges being smoothed off. How could Jerry Lee Lewis not respect that?

So when you’re listening to Thee Faction’s unpleasant Socialist R&B, don’t forget where it all started. With Sam Phillips, Sun Studios, and the Memphis Recording Service.

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