One thing Barbara Barnes Sims doesn’t do in “The Next Elvis” (LSU Press), the memoir of her time working at Sun Records in the late 1950s, is dish — at least not in the way we’ve come to expect from music-business tell-alls that leave no lurid stone unturned.
But oddly enough, Sims’ politeness and vaguely formal style — right down to Dickens-esque section headers like “A Nickname and an Amusing Proposal” — don’t at all detract from the octogenarian’s stories about her tenure doing marketing and publicity for the famed record label in her early 20s. Just the opposite, in fact: It makes her recollections of the legendary Sam Phillips and those in his orbit, including her almost Gump-like encounters with rock and country royalty, all the more endearing.
As a 24-year-old woman in a profession dominated by men, as most were at that time, Sims had to feel her way, and made no small number of mistakes — she reports managing to offend Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and Wink Martindale (of all people) almost immediately upon meeting them. It’s these brushes with Sun stardom that keep “The Next Elvis” rolling along, but they’re far from all the memoir brings to the table.
Though she came aboard after Elvis’ tenure at Sun — the book’s title refers to the company’s perpetual and never-realized struggle to find a hitmaker who could follow in his footsteps — Sims still saw her share of record-business drama. One of the most compelling segments tells of the company’s efforts to weather the storm after Jerry Lee Lewis married his 13-year-old cousin: “I was wondering what mixture of arrogance and ignorance caused Jerry Lee’s downfall,” Sims writes. “Some of both, I decided.”
Sims provides her thoughts and observations on dozens of artists to come through door at Sun, from stars like Cash and Orbison to those whose records never took off, despite her best efforts to promote them. One artist she championed was eventual country music superstar Charlie Rich, whose “Lonely Weekends” became a Sun hit after Sims urged him to “stop giving (musical director Bill Justis) and Sam what he thought they wanted, instead of asserting his own talent and what he was good at.”
And though it takes a while, eventually Sims gets into some of the challenges of being a young woman trying to take on a prominent business role in the 1950s, in what was a tough and sometimes bizarre field to start with. She writes at one point of being alone at an industry convention and feeling “creeped out,” if not outright threatened, by the music business executives: “It wasn’t just the language of these record-industry men; they were just so crude I began to wonder what they thought of me. Maybe they’d never seen a woman in a professional role at these meetings. Surely they didn’t think I was a hooker!”
If there’s one aspect of “The Next Elvis” that Sims struggles with, it’s painting a whole picture of Sam Phillips, although she’s far from the only one who wasn’t able to pin down the mercurial record maven. If nothing else, she does a fine job of illustrating his many contradictions: the loving family man with a decades-long extramarital companion; the penny pincher prone to buying people Cadillacs; the bare-bones manager who famously didn’t have a desk, but eventually moved the operation to a state-of-art facility that Sims felt robbed it of its down-home charm.
When Sims finally leaves Sun for what would be a successful 36-year career as a college professor, we can feel her anxiety at having to tell her mentor at Sun she’d be going. But Phillips “couldn’t have been more gracious,” she reports, telling her, “You can always have a job with me. Even if this record business doesn’t pick up.”
It never did quite pick up, at least not for Phillips, who sold the company in 1968. There was undoubtedly more to the story of Sun’s rise and fall than Sims ever knew, and she seems too polite to tell it all anyway: There are probably plenty of dish-worthy stories that remain sealed in her memory banks rather than on the printed page.
But no matter — “The Next Elvis” puts you squarely inside the cramped studio at 706 Union Ave. in Memphis, where you can all but feel all the shakin’ that must have gone on.
Read more Pete at Pete’s Pop Culture, Parenting & Pets Blog.