The blues according to Peter Guralnick

For decades his writing has celebrated traditional blues music, but it's his brilliant Elvis biography that has made him almost a household name.

Published June 16, 2000 1:36PM (EDT)

"My aim in everything I write is to disappear into the world I'm writing about," says Peter Guralnick. More often than not, that world has been one of rural juke joints and dance halls, "brush arbor" revivals, fish fries and old primitive recording studios -- the sites of the music that is often reverently and sometimes condescendingly referred to as "vernacular." As an undergraduate in the early '60s, Guralnick turned in a paper about Roman poet Catullus and bluesman Robert Johnson, and ever since he has written about blues, country, rockabilly and soul with the sweep and depth of a cultural historian and the boundless enthusiasm of a longtime fan.

His "Feel Like Going Home" (1971), "Lost Highway" (1979) and "Sweet Soul Music" (1986) -- a trilogy of books that have acquired something of a cult following since they were originally released -- are collections of revealing, remarkably affectionate portraits of musicians that, taken together, read like an atlas of Guralnick's own musical journeys and discoveries.

Invariably, they offer a trenchant look at the Faustian bargains of commercial success, seen through the eyes of both established stars such as James Brown and Ernest Tubb and relatively overlooked musicians such as Stoney Edwards and Johnny Shines. Surprisingly, their perspectives on their vocation are often equally ambivalent. Reading these books today, one also cannot help marveling at the evocation of a long-lost regional culture that appeared to be slipping away even as Guralnick chronicled it; years later it can seem like a mirage.

In 1994, Gurlanick's "Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley" was released to nearly universal acclaim, and became the definitive Presley biography virtually overnight. The novelistic account of Presley's early years almost single-handedly reclaimed one of the culture's prodigal heroes: The book renewed interest in Presley and replaced the accumulated clichis and speculation with a portrait of a conscious, deliberate artist with a uniquely democratic vision of popular music.

His book "Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley," released in 1999, completed the increasingly sorrowful story with characteristic empathy and detail.

Throughout his career, Guralnick has retained the missionary ardor that characterized his early writing on the blues; he has worked as an executive producer on recordings by, among others, Charlie Rich and Sleepy LaBeef, has written two documentaries about Elvis and has produced an ocean of liner notes. On June 18 -- Father's Day, appropriately -- A&E will premiere "Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock 'n' Roll," a documentary about the legendary producer and Sun Records founder directed by Morgan Neville, a project that Guralnick calls "my first real film collaboration."

As we speak during a rare break between research trips for his upcoming biography of soul singer Sam Cooke, I ask him about the origins of "Last Train to Memphis" -- in the midst of a mini-industry of Elvis books and the kitsch that had engulfed Presley's reputation, the book must have seemed like an unlikely contender for the success it ultimately achieved.

"I didn't believe there was an audience for it," admits Guralnick. "I thought that the interest in Elvis was saturated and that the bias against him was too pronounced. His fans turned out to be a true silent majority."

I ask him about the inspiration for the book.

"I was driving down McLemore Avenue in Memphis with my friend Rose Clayton, a native Memphian," Guralnick recalls. "She pointed at this boarded-up drugstore, where she said Elvis' cousin used to work, and talked about how Elvis would sit at the counter and just drum his fingers on the countertop, and then she said, 'Poor baby.' And I just had this revelation of a real kid, with acne, with enthusiasm, with this omnivorous interest in music.

"Right around that time Gregg Geller, who started the Elvis reissue program at RCA, asked me to do the liner notes for the Sun Sessions," Guralnick continues, "and I interviewed Sam Phillips and [songwriter] Stan Kessler again. All of a sudden we were talking about a real person working in the studio, not the grand theory behind it all but what actually happened. Finally, I became involved with a documentary about Elvis, and in working on it gathered the interviews that Elvis had given in 1955 and 1956. Again, I came to realize that this was not the mythic Elvis, there's a real Elvis here -- this is Elvis speaking for himself. In writing about him, I always tried very hard to strip away the layers."

One of the frequently cited dead-ends in Presley research has been Elvis' manager of 22 years, the late Col. Tom Parker, who maintained a long-standing silence on the subject of his most famous client.

"I never thought I'd get a chance to meet him," says Guralnick. So when it was announced that the Colonel would speak at Presley's birthday celebration in January 1988, he flew to Memphis "solely to be in the same room with the Colonel, to absorb his aura." When Phillips, who sat with Guralnick at the event, decided to take the opportunity to speak with the Colonel for the first time in more than 30 years, Guralnick tagged along and obtained an introduction that led to a cryptic encounter with Elvis' notorious manager.

"Colonel Parker and I had begun a correspondence, and his letters always opened with 'Friend Peter,' which was his customary form of address. About a year and a half after we met, I received an invitation to his 80th birthday party in Las Vegas. Of course I attended, and when it was time to leave I thanked the Colonel and said goodbye. He was sitting in a high-backed chair with a giant stuffed elephant behind him and was wearing a Stetson hat. He looked straight at me, took my hand and said, 'Peter, I put you on the list.' I wasn't sure whether he was saying what I thought he was saying, so I thanked him again for inviting me. He held onto my arm and repeated: 'Peter, I put you on the list.' And he was right. He did put me on the list. Without having spoken to anyone at the party about the book I was writing, I met many people that evening whom I subsequently wrote to, for whom I was validated by the Colonel's invitation. I still don't know why he did it."

In his earliest writing, Guralnick approached Elvis as primarily a blues singer and was somewhat dismissive of much of his work from the '60s and '70s. "My tendency was to write off everything that I wasn't already sold on," he admits when I ask about how his conception of Elvis had changed during the time he spent on Presley's two-volume biography.

"I went into the project with many prejudices. I originally came to Elvis in the reverse way -- through the blues and not the other way around, and I had a vested interest in Elvis being the pure blues singer that I thought I had discovered in songs like 'Mystery Train' and 'Good Rocking Tonight.'

"In writing the biography, however, I started to listen more to Elvis' ballads -- especially the Don Robertson and Doc Pomus-Mort Shuman 'late night' ballads from the early '60s. Songs like 'That's Someone You Never Forget' or 'I Need Somebody to Lean On' from 'Viva Las Vegas,' which I didn't even know existed, astonished me. They were so moving.

"I also discovered a multiplicity of influences that I never suspected -- whether it was the gospel quartet music of the Statesmen and the Blackwood Brothers, which was at the heart of everything Elvis did, or something like Teresa Brewer or Frankie Lane, which was music that I had never listened to. I came to see the songs he recorded after his return from the Army as an expansion of his ambition, a very conscious attempt to broaden his musical talent. To a lesser extent, I came to see the Las Vegas years in the same way."

In the final chapters of "Careless Love," which chronicle Presley's decline, a strange matter-of-factness creeps into the writing, almost as if Guralnick couldn't maintain his usual enthusiasm for his subject. "It required a considerable level of discipline to stay out of the picture," he says. "I rewrote the last 150 pages of the book more often than anything I've ever written. I tried to cut away everything that was extraneous. I felt that at a certain point, you just had a sense of this inexorable fall, and I didn't want to repeat 'and then he did this destructive thing again.' I wanted to evoke the pathos of what was happening."

Guralnick points to the Leadbelly, Big Bill Broonzy and Howling Wolf LPs he first heard as a teenager as the genesis for his lifelong obsession with the blues. In the late 1950s, black music was an unpopular preoccupation for a Jewish kid growing up in Boston. Guralnick remembers seeing blues legend Bukka White, attired in a tuxedo, perform to an audience of fewer than 15 at Boston's Huntington Avenue YMCA. Later, as his tastes expanded to encompass soul, Guralnick worked as "the worst usher in the world" at concerts at the old Donnely Theater: "I tried to absolutely avoid showing anybody to their seat. You could end up in disputes which I felt I lacked the expertise to adjudicate."

In the mid-'60s, the appearance of small magazines and tabloids that catered to younger readers and published the first serious writing about rock -- Crawdaddy, the Boston Phoenix, Rolling Stone -- provided Guralnick with his first opportunity to share his musical discoveries with others.

"Getting paid was a big surprise," he laughs, and for years his profiles of blues, soul and country musicians appeared in pages dedicated almost exclusively to rock articles and reviews. "I felt sometimes I stuck out like a sore thumb," Guralnick says. "I would be in Crawdaddy writing about Robert Pete Williams and here [alongside it] would be an article about Jefferson Airplane and Moby Grape."

The differences between Guralnick and his colleagues were often more than thematic. Celebrated contemporaries like Lester Bangs, Nick Tosches and Richard Meltzer wrote about music in a self-referential, often expletive-riddled style that was a corollary to the new journalism of Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe, and varied almost diametrically from Guralnick's self-effacing approach.

"I was looking for a clean, colloquial style that treated the subject with dignity and respect," he says, "but that wasn't condescending. Sometimes I used myself as a foil to bring out the atmosphere around a musician, but it never occurred to me that I was or that I should be the subject."

Guralnick has become close friends with some of the musicians he has written about, and I ask whether the role of the interviewer came naturally to him. "I don't think you could have found anyone less outgoing or more consumed with self-consciousness," he says.

"When I first met Jerry Lee Lewis I was so intimidated I took my Jerry Lee Lewis Fan Club membership card out of my wallet and showed it to him. On another level, what made these relationships difficult is that I've always wanted to understand and empathize, but I also felt a responsibility to report the truth as I saw it.

"When I first spoke to Charlie Rich at the Vapors in Memphis, I had never met anyone I liked more on first acquaintance. What he told me that night, however, was a story of guilt and alcoholism and crippling self-consciousness and feeling unsuited to the life he led. When it came to writing the piece, I wanted to be empathetic but felt obligated to portray him honestly.

"As I wrote it I thought, 'This is terrible: Here's a guy I really like and he'll never want to talk to me again.' As it turned out, when the book with the essay about Charlie finally came out, I got a call from the secretary at [my publisher] Outerbridge and Dienstfrey, who told me that Charlie had called and ordered around 30 copies of the book to give to everyone in his family. He told her he liked the book because it was the truth; it wasn't flattering but it was the truth.

"I have never written on assignment," says Guralnick, and there can be no doubt that the impetus for his close-up portraits of musicians stems from a deep affinity for their work. But the very quality that gives his writing its intensity is also what separates it from most consumer-oriented music journalism.

In reviewing "Careless Love," a critic praised Guralnick's reluctance to judge his characters while castigating him for "being too easy on the Colonel." I mention this to Guralnick, wondering whether a work motivated by affection can also be critical.

"When I started there was no such thing as a rock critic, and I never would have chosen that path," he replies. "I consider what I do writing, not music writing or criticism per se. But I think of Edmund Wilson or George Orwell celebrating writers who they admired and trying to point the reader towards a similar admiration -- that's the kind of criticism that I value most.

"I don't think you have to get up on a soapbox and shout out your opinions to announce them. They are implicit in your writing. What you put in and what you leave out are tantamount to a critical point of view. I think there are a good many critical perspectives on the music expressed in the Elvis biography, for example, but they may be passed over by people who are only going to recognize A plus or D as the grades of criticism."

As we speak, Guralnick is getting ready for a 4 a.m. flight to Florida, where he will conduct another round of interviews for the Sam Cooke book, a project he says he has wanted to do for years. "I love doing it; I've loved doing it from the beginning," he says of his work, and one is inclined to believe him. He continues to write fiction and is the author of "10 or 12" novels. When I ask about new music he remains sanguine, advising me "not to cling to the old forms" and professing enthusiasm for the records of Alvin Youngblood Hart, Steve Earle and Nick Lowe.

"I only had two ambitions in my life," Guralnick says. "One was to be a writer and the other was to play baseball. One of my biggest regrets is that I never played on the baseball team at Columbia. In my fantasy life, I would watch every pitcher on TV and say, 'I could hit that guy.'"

I suggest that had things gone differently in 1968, he could have faced the St. Louis Cardinals' Bob Gibson in the World Series.

"He was a personal hero of mine," Guralnick says a little sadly. "But I never thought I could hit Bob Gibson."

By Alex Halberstadt

Alex Halberstadt has written for The New York Times, Grand Street, the Paris Review and other publications.

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