LATE NIGHT WITH SAM AND DAVE
By Robert Gordon
When David Letterman had Sun Studio founder Sam Phillips as a guest on his show, he expected to do with him what he does with most folks-control him, make fun of him, and come out looking superior and hip.
More than thirty years after Sam Phillips first recorded Elvis Presley, he's tired of telling the tale. But it's 1986, and David Letterman has reinvigorated the talk show format with a rock 'n' roll attitude. Letterman invites Sam Phillips to come on national television, figuring they'll re-spin the same old yarn one more time: Yes, Sam was recording black blues artists when no one else paid them any mind or any money. Yes, he knew a white kid playing a similar sound could be a marketing breakthrough, and, no, he didn't suspect Elvis Aaron Presley would be the guy to rock the world. Yes, the single with "That's All Right, Mama" and "Blue Moon of Kentucky" on it became a beacon for Sam's label and attracted Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and jerry Lee Lewis. And Roy Orbison. And Charlie Feathers. And Billy Lee Riley, who got nada and poured whiskey on the recording console one night, ha ha. But Florence, Alabama-born, Memphis matured, Samuel Cornelius Phillips figured otherwise.
Sam Phillips had done it all by the time he was thirty-one, and when he sold his Sun Records label fifteen years later in 1969, he retired from the recording studio. However loud Led Zeppelin would play or however long Eric Clapton might solo, working with them would not contribute to Sam's life experience: He recorded Howlin' Wolf when the Wolf was still dusty from the fields; he recorded B. B. King with a backing band that included jazz greats Calvin and Phineas Newborn; he recorded Harmonica Frank Floyd who imitated barnyard sounds with his instrument; and he helped along the British Invasion by recording the Yardbirds' primal "Train Kept A Rollin' ." After Sun, Sam devoted himself to buying, building, and selling radio stations. He'd been a radio engineer before his studio ventures; radio was a lifelong interest. Sam did come out of studio retirement once, in 1979, at the suggestion of his sons Knox and Jerry, who were producing John Prine's Pink Cadillac album. Rock gods, note what gets a master's attention: "I said, 'Dad, this guy sings so bad, you'll love him,'" Knox recalls. "So Dad comes down, decides he wants to help us with the album. He doesn't have to prove anything, recording-wise, at this point in time. And he had sparks literally coming out of the amplifiers."
In 1990, musician Ben Vaughn hoped for the same sparks. He was producing former Sun artist Charlie Feathers at Sam's post Sun studio, the Sam Phillips Recording Service. Ben was working with Roland Janes and J. M. Van Eaton and Stan Kesler, and he hoped the force of all these old Sun artists might conjure Sam. It did: New hedges had been planted in front of the studio and Sam showed up to water them. Coaxed inside, Sam and his old friends greeted one another.
Sam listened to a track, then found the ladder he was looking for and returned to the hedges. " This man was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.,.-you were there that night, Paul," says David Letterman to his bandleader sidekick, Paul Shaffer.
"Folks," he continues, "it's a pleasure to have on our program tonight Sam Phillips. Sam, come on our here." The camera shows us the hall through which guests enter, and there are a few good beats where Sam should be-but there is no Sam. A producer's best tricks are always the hardest to see. When he appears, he looks remarkably good. His hair and beard are red and long, he's dressed casually, and, damn, a record label with any sense would sign this man. Sam spots the camera. He claps his hands together. He looks at Paul. He smiles wide, does a little twist, says something that, over the applause, only Paul can hear. Letterman is up and across the set, his hand extended. "Hi, Sam, how are ya?"
"Hello there, Mister David." As Sam has halted, Dave must invite him further onto the set, over where the guests' chairs are, and his desk, and the microphones and the lights and all the equipment that make these interviews happen. "Nice of you to be with us tonight," Dave tells Sam, who is walking with a distinct bounce to his step, a swing, even. Dave asks once again, "How ya doin'?" and then he glances up and suddenly halts. Sam has his back to the camera, his back to the national audience, his arms spread wide. Letterman's head tilts a bit sideways, like a dog that's heard a funny sound.
"This is a beautiful set, David," says Sam's back. Letterman leads his studio audience in some nervous giggling. Sam, while seating himself, continues to unsettle Dave by complimenting Letterman's boss, Grant Tinker. Grant Tinker is not Letterman's favorite person (though he's among his favorite targets), and Dave tries to move things along. "So how're things?" We get our first close-up of Sam. "You know," Sam says, and he sort of licks his lips and cocks his head back, constructing a few seconds of silence that interrupts Letterman's patter, "You know everything is-uhh," he cocks his head the other way, thinks another second, "fihhne." The horses have begun moving. Suddenly, there are four hands grasping for the reins and though this is clearly not a high jacking, there's some confusion about who's in charge. And then Sam launches into a discussion about Robert Morton, the backstage staff person whose job is to pump the guests for stories so that on the show Dave can, like Kreskin, pull questions out of the air which, amazingly, draw fascinating responses. "Why don't you have him as a guest on your show?"
"We could do that. From time to time we have staff members as guests on our show." "You do?!" Sam responds, and the enthusiasm in his answer reveals that either Sam has never seen Letterman's show or that Sam perceives something about that concept as striking, and Letterman might want to pursue that line of discussion. But interesting topics are not allowed. "We want to talk about you tonight, Sam."
"Is that all right?"
This first minute has not been easy, but neither has the bumpiness been all bad. Where a late-night interview usually runs as smooth-and as canned-as Campbell's Soup, Sam has brought a real tension to the meeting. Dave wants him to recite the stories we all know, but Sam has no interest in such rehashing. The host thought he had invited a taxidermied legend and instead found himself with a man-an extraordinary man and he's not prepared to grapple with that.
What is a producer? It is a person who guides the recording process. But what does that mean, guide? Recording, beyond the simple act of documentation, becomes process and manipulation with the studio as a laboratory. The producer may be the person in the studio who knows the most recording tricks. But the producer can know few tricks and still manipulate the process by manipulating the artist's frame of mind. Psychology has as much to do with producing as does musical knowledge. If artists are trying too hard and have lost their natural feel, the producer deflects their attention, loosing their innate artistry. A producer might also set an artist on edge, if that discomfort will create great art.
Dave asks, "Is that all right?" and it may be rhetorical-the host tricking the guest into thinking he's in charge. Bur Sam C. Phillips's hands are on the reins this night. Sam has, naturally if not consciously, designated Dave the artist, and he is extracting from him a nervousness and a deference that is very unlike Dave's usual suave and cool performance.
Sam is now producing Dave.
Sam is slouched in his seat, an extension of the upholstery; Dave is upright and stiff, his movements harp and jerky. "David, answers Sam, and the camera moves in for a close-up as he jiggles his eyebrows up and down, then he sirs up and inhales, unhurried and silent and out of step with "Late Night" banter- the horses buck with the new direction; Sam leans over and, lampooning the Southern peckerwood he knows Dave wants, he drawls like a minstrel, "David, we will try to talk about me just chere fo' a little. .. . "His statement ends with the high notes of a question, and there's silence while Dave awaits the answer. The camera responds to the close-up with a two-shot, revealing that Sam has more than leaned toward Dave, he's actually hypnotized him, and during the dead air that follows, they are nose to nose, eyes locked. Snapping to, Dave says, "Okay," and his hands automatically come up in defense. He turns away and tries to make a crack about his background scenery, but Sam does not retreat and he interrupts him by saying, "Are you going to have your teeth fixed before long?" Letterman is getting a dose of his own; he is, after all, the one who asked boxing promoter Don King, "What's the deal with your hair?" Sam continues, "Now how did you, with buck teeth"-the audience's laughter halts" make a million dollars? You know, not a lot of people can do that." Thunder cracks from the set's fake skyline. The artist is reeling from the producer's direction. He retreats to the emptiness at the core of television with fake talk about the fake weather. Dave gingerly reaches again for the reins and says, "Now, Sam" Sam covers the hint of a smile with his hand and he looks away from the host, who is addressing him" Now, Sam, tell me about the early days at Sun Records." Sam sits stone-faced. Dave says, "Who, who, who-what kind of a sound were you trying to establish there?" Sam Phillips stares at David Letterman. He is not incredulous, not shocked, no hurt. This is the question everyone asks, has asked for decades and will continue to ask as long as Sam lives and, if Elvis is any indication, will ask long after Sam is resting in peace. If Sam Phillips's work at Sun was a question, the answer is the music and the national and international uproar that followed-or follows-in its wake.
"Let's see," says Sam. "Let me think about that." Now Dave is laughing and starting to relax, to settle in and roll with the punches. But only silence follows, and the audience is left to project their favorite rock 'n' roll moment onto Sam's blank face. "What kind of sound ... was there a specific- or would you just record anybody who came through?" "Why certainly, David," says Sam in a solo shot, and from his movement, we know he's moving in to hypnotize Letterman again. But Letterman averts his eyes from those transfixing and beguiling pools in Sam's face. Sam's behavior is erratic enough to suggest that alcohol may be involved, but even your above-average drunk could never pull off such a wonderful coup; attributing Sam's behavior to mere drunkenness is a banal answer to the brilliance of his career. Sam parks his head halfway across Letterman's desk and leaves it there, finally saying, "You gotta work for this one a little while tonight, son." Dave, needing to feel in control again, says to Paul, "Yeah, I believe so, yeah, yeah." "You know I'm not gonna give away my secrets because when this show goes under, you might want to start recording. If I give away all my secrets, what am I going to have to write about in a book and a movie? You could copy me and you're so young, I might drop off dead." "Then," David says, the breakthrough of truth drawing great laughter, "let's just talk about anything you want to talk about, which I have a feeling we're going to do anyway." The new stagecoach driver leans back. ''I'm old and retired-" "Hey, Sam, look at this, we've got some photos." When in doubt, pull out the props. "Take a look at some of these pictures, Sam. You just tell 'em your first impression and we'll talk about those for a bit." We see a shot of a young Sam sharing a guitar with a young Elvis Presley, a sort of student-mentor shot. "Here we have a picture of, that's Elvis Presley and, is that you there in the checked jacket?"
"What year was that, do you suppose?"
Sam will have none of this drivel, and he simply ignores Letterman and says, "Well, I missed my calling. You know, Gregory Peck hadn't got a damn thing on me in that photo, has he?" "No," Dave says, sounding dejected. "And he still doesn't and . . .. " Dave trails off and then tosses that photo aside to reveal another one. Sam's attention is now over the audience's head-on the back wall- and he murmurs,
"Well, thank you David."
"Now let's see who we have here." But Sam sees another captivating mark at the studio's rear and he looks further away from the photos. Dave continues, "Who's next in the gala photo book of. .. that's you and-" Dave verbalizes a blank for Sam to fill in, their conversation as stimulating as a standardized test. "Jerruh," says Sam, entertaining himself with words. "Jerry," translates Dave with the tone teachers use to lead students through hoops. "Jerry Lee Lewis." "The Killuh," says Sam, making it rhyme with "Jerruh." "Now this guy," Dave begins enthusiastically before petering out, "was one of the most talented musicians ever, uh, to, uh, put anything on record, wasn't he?" "No question about that," says Sam. "I think Mr. Paul will tell us all that." Which is Sam's point exactly: You don't need me here to talk about what we already know. "Paul," Dave says, "you want to come over and get in on this?" The audience applauds as the ride loses more control. Sam is gleeful. As Paul leaves his banks of keyboards, Sam brays to the ceiling, "Mr. Paul-a!." Then he says, "This is my baby," and Sam stands and hugs Paul, who looks like a turnip. "Okay now," says Letterman, apparently still unaware of the control Sam has over the show. "We have other photos here. Paul, tell us what you know about these pictures." And Paul reaches across Sam Phillips-as if he weren't there, as Sam wants it-and points to a piece of cardboard that we can't see and says, "This is obviously Jerry Lee Lewis, and that's Carl Perkins- who would that be, Johnny Cash?" "].C." says Sam off-camera, and we wonder if that's an answer or an exclamation. The photo is of the Million Dollar Quartet. "And that would be Elvis at the piano," says Paul.
It's as if a tuxedoed stage manager has strolled out and announced, "The role of the legendary Sam Phillips is being played by Paul Shaffer and David Letterman." Sam the Man is busy producing, making people give their best, their most unsettled performance. It is hilarious to watch him make Paul Shaffer and David Letterman discuss him as if he weren't there. He makes it clear to the national audience that the guests on talk shows don't matter, that their role is to fill time between commercials. Sam's work is about people, while Letterman, and television, and pop culture, and the wretched pop music made in the name of Sam Phillips-they're all our there to sell soap.
"And what were you recording there?"
Dave asks Sam, "Was that an actual recording session?" "Well, Carl Perkins was doing a session," Sam begins with genuine interest, but then he too peters out. "And it just so happened that all of a sudden there at 706 Union .... " Sam pauses, opens his arms and drops his voice, "Our great big studio, it's almost as pretty as this studio. Good God, this studio ... " And while Sam mutters something and makes a funny face with his eyes and eyebrows, Dave abandons the photograph idea and puts them all away. Paul has been listening somewhat intently, but now he begins to fidget and plays his discomfort for laughs. Sam leans back into the hypnotizing position and says, "But they all dropped by, and it just so happened that they all dropped by, and they all dropped by. And we got together. We all got. . . well, you know." Dave drums his desk with his palms, and he says, "Yeah." Then he reaches for some index cards and says, "Well, you're certainly- " "An entertaining guest," interjects Sam. "You're certainly a legend." Despite Sam's best work, he can't make Letterman see that he is more than that: he is alive. "You're responsible for the very formation of rock 'n' roll." Would that be the rock 'n' roll that caused riots or the one that sells sneakers, Dave? "Don't you think you had a hand in helping the sound of rock 'n' roll evolve from bits and pieces of other influences?" Sam's had enough. "David, you're getting awful serious for this show. What're you setting me up for?" And Dave's had enough, too. Five minutes is too long for a pop song anyway. "I'm just trying to think of a real nice way to say goodbye, Sam."
Paul laughs into his hand. Thunder roars over the fake skyline. Sam's work is done. They'll cut to a commercial and when they return, Sam will be gone and Dave will resume his soapy sales. Bur Sam's appearance will be talked about and videotapes will be dubbed and circulated: The master producer's return.