Tuesday, 26 June 2018

Chips Moman, the Memphis Boys and the American Sound Studio hit factory - ten magical recordings

I'm not a popular music expert, so I could have this all wrong, but the history of influential Memphis recording studios seems to go something like this: Between 1954 and 1958, Sam Phillips's Sun Studio changed popular music forever by giving the world Elvis Presley and rockabilly. In the early '60s, after Sun had pretty much set, the minor Hi Records label, operating at Royal Studios,  produced...

...a number of big instrumental hits, mainly featuring Elvis's former bass player, Bill Black and his combo. Between 1962 and 1967, Stax Records ruled the roost, with a stream of tough, authentic, rural-rootsy Southern soul hits which acted as a counterweight to the lighter, poppier urban soul coming out of Detroit. In 1967, a disgruntled former Stax employee, the song-writer, session guitar player, recording engineer and producer Chips Moman, set up American Sound Studio, with the aim of knocking Stax off its perch - and, between then and 1972, Moman and his brilliant house band, known as the Memphis Boys, arguably succeeded. At one point, over a quarter of the records on the Billboard Hot 100 had been produced at Moman's studio. Here's one of them - James and Bobby Purify's "Shake a Tail Feather":
The studio's first No. 1 hit was "The Letter" by The Box Tops, in 1967 (see above). By the start of 1969, the studio's reputation was such that local boy Elvis Presley deigned to record there (the story goes that a rat dropped from the rafters and landed at his feet as he entered the somewhat squalid premises - he described the place as "funky"). Those sessions resulted in four chart hits, including Elvis's last No. 1, "Suspicious Minds", and arguably his two best albums of the '60s and '70s, From Elvis in Memphis and the snappily titled From Memphis to Vegas/From Vegas to Memphis, thereby adding impetus to The King's musical renaissance signalled by the '68 "Comeback Special" TV show. The sessions also acted as a springboard for his return to performing on stage later that year. Here's one of my favourite tracks from those momentous sessions - "Long Black Limousine":
Not too dusty, really. And (stand by for a link Alan Partidge would have been proud of) neither was Dusty Springfield's utterly sublime "Son of a Preacher Man":
The chaps producing that divine, spine-tingling sound, were all members of Moman's house band, which provided the backing for around 120 hit singles. The core team included lead guitarist Reggie Young, bass guitarists Tommy Cogbill (who would also become a major producer at the studio) and Mike Leech, keyboardists Bobby Emmons and Bobby Wood, and drummer Gene Chrisman. Here they are, funking up saxophonist King Curtis's "Memphis Soul Stew":
Most of the musicians had honed their skills at other studios before ending up working for Moman. Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham, for instance, were familiar figures from their days at Rick Hall's FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama - Oldham played organ on Percy Sledge's "When a Man Loves a Woman", no less. Penn could have had a great career as a gifted white soul singer, but, being a self-effacing fellow,  preferred producing and songwriting - he and Chips Moman co-wrote Aretha Franklin's "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man" and  James Carr's "Dark End of the Street", and, working with Oldham, Penn penned (geddit?) James and Bobby Purify's "I'm Your Puppet", The Box Tops' "Cry Like a Baby"... and "Sweet Inspiration" for the Sweet Inspirations, thus providing the ubiquitous backing singers (who can be heard on "Long Black Limousine" above, and a zillion other hits of the '60s and '70s) with their own biggest hit single:
One of the keys to American's success was the versatility of those session players: if anything separated them and the legendary Stax house band, it's probably that American's team could more easily turn their hand to lighter pop fare. For instance, they provided everything but the horns for Neil Diamond's monster hit, "Sweet Caroline" (despite evidently finding him a trifle obnoxious), and, more to my taste, they produced a trio of hits for the wistful-sounding - and painfully shy - Sandy Posey. Here's her lovely "Single Girl":

The versatile Memphis Boys thought they'd bitten off more than they could chew on at least two occasions. The first was recording the album Memphis Underground with jazz flautist Herbie Mann - only bassist Tommy Cogbill was a jazz fan, while most of his colleagues positively loathed the stuff - but it proved to be a successful collaboration. In 1971, Atlantic sent down their latest signing, the folk/country/whatever troubador John Prine to record his first album. As Prine later reported, "I was terrified. I went straight from playing by myself, still learning how to sing, to playing with Elvis Presley's rhythm section." According to percussionist Hayward Bishop, the lads' were bemused: "This guy was really nasally, he didn’t have any tone to his voice, and all his songs were in the same key! I thought, ‘This is gonna be like milking a dag-blasted dog!’” Nevertheless, the John Prine album just somehow works: here, the singer-songwriter nasals his way through "Angel From Montgomery",  which is my own - and most people's - favourite Prine track:  
American Sound Studio closed in 1972 after Atlantic Records - which had been sending it a steady stream of artists - chose not to renew its contract. Atlantic had done to the same to Stax in 1968, which eventually went bust in 1975. Meanwhile, little Hi Records, recording at Royal Studios, was positively thriving, thanks to the popularity of soul singer, Al Green. Many of The Memphis Boys, along with Chips Moman and (eventually) Dan Penn, decamped to Nashville, and ended up working with leading lights of the Outlaw Country movement such as Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson. Spooner Oldham headed for Los Angeles, to play keyboards for everyone from Bob Dylan and Bob Seger to J.J. Cale and Neil Young. 

I'm currently reading Roben Jones's huge and hugely-detailed 2010 work, Memphis Boys: The Story of American Studios. While I'm thoroughly enjoying what is evidently a labour of love, and the amount of information she presents is truly impressive, I'm finding it hard to follow every quotidian twist and turn in the complex American Sound story, and I would have greatly appreciated a chronological list of all the recordings done at American Sound and the personnel involved. Still, it represents a truly solid piece of popular music scholarship - so thank you, Ms Jones!

I'll end with two of the "deep soul" ballads Moman particularly loved. The first is Joe Simon's "Nine Pound Steel", written by Dan Penn and Wayne Carson in a nine-day amphetamine-fuelled session, and produced by the studio boss himself. Roben Jones tells us:
"Nine-Pound Steel" sums up all that is best in the art of American Studios - excellent songwriting, innovative playing, quality production, and a consistent theme emphasizing reflection, loneliness, sorrow, and anguish. It is stark, going directly back to the old ballads for its theme: the narrator is in prison for theft, having stolen to buy things for his woman. He now repents of his crime and agonizes over his regrets; although he speaks of hope and of his eventual release, the implication is that only death will free him. So ancient is it in its sorrow that contemporary Nashville, anxious to live down the "hillbilly" tag, would not have gone near it. 
I was going to leave James Carr's classic cheating song "Dark End of the Street" off the list on a technicality - the American recording board was down that day, so it had to be recorded at Royal Studios across town. But, hell, the Memphis Boys are playing on it, it was co-written and co-produced by Penn and Moman...and it's an absolute masterpiece:

The best photo of the Memphis Boys is the one on the cover of Roben Jones's book:
Left to right (standing): Don Crews (co-founder of the studio), Reggie Young (lead guitarist), Tommy Cogbill (bass), Gene Chrisman (drums), Oscar Toney Jr. (independent singer - not a member of the band), Papa Don Schroeder (independent producer), Chips Moman, and (seated) Bobby Emmons (keyboards). The studio's regular backing singers were collectively known as The Moman Tabernacle Choir - witty, I thought.


  1. Good job pulling all these byzantine threads together.
    Takes me back to an evening in a labyrinthine flat in sarf London. Fire crackling in the grate, the JB's on the turntable, only one white collar job to contend with instead of two blue collar ones - in the same bleedin' day! And the place awash in Special Brew. Bliss.

    James Carr's version is good, Clarence Carter's cover is sublime.

  2. The Clarence Carter version contains too much chat for my liking, and he doesn't actually sound all that upset or guilty - but each to his own. It was recorded at Muscle Shoals, so the backing is terrific.

    As for Special Brew, did you ever reach that point where the cloying sweetness - which made it so appealing to start with - suddenly made you feel queasy? I reached that stage after a few years of quite enjoying it, and found I couldn't bear the thought of drinking it again. In any case, it tended to make me need a wee every ten minutes, which got a bit tedious.

  3. It was Carter's rich deep voice when he finally broke into song that did it for me. As for SB it was never about the taste.

  4. For about five years my sense of taste and smell went AWOL most likely
    due to a head injury. It eventually returned probably due to another head injury!
    Sorry to use your excellent post to highlight the travails of us poor sods.