One of Rock and Roll America’s receding ironies, once well-known, these days increasingly reduced to a secret, is the multi-racial nature of its blackest music: The southern soul and funk of the 1960s. The number of white people who signify their righteousness by preferring the “real” black music of Memphis and Muscle Shoals to Detroit’s Motown is…amusing. (For the record, actual black people have always preferred Motown.)
Amusing because the key Memphis band, Booker T and the MGs was split down the middle and the key Muscle Shoals band, the Swampers, was almost entirely white.
Except on record, it hardly made for Utopia. Aretha Franklin found her sound at Muscle Shoals, but left after a few days because her then-husband was accusing every white boy in the place of chasing her (with what credibility no one ever seems to have figured out).
She brought the musicians to New York to finish her first Atlantic album anyway.
They were the sound, not the place.
Two of the most prominent Swampers, keyboardist Donnie Fritts and ace guitarist Jimmy Johnson, passed away within a few days of each other in the past two weeks. They eventually wore many hats, including writing and producing. Listing their major accomplishments would take days.
Maybe all you really need to know is that Donnie Fritts wrote this (Elvis took a shot at it in 1973 and, by consensus of those present, was too overcome with emotion to finish it):
And Jimmy Johnson, doubling with Chips Moman (who also did a few other things), played guitar on this, ensuring it would be a massive hit and the era’s most enduring shout of freedom before the singer sang a note:
Their music is the closest we ever came to finding the real American Dream…and the only way back.
Chips Moman was born in Georgia (LaGrange) a few years before Otis Redding (Dawson) and a couple of years after Elvis Presley was born in Mississippi (Tupelo).
Like them, and many, many others, he made his way to Memphis (his family moved there when he was a teenager, or he hitchhiked at seventeen….like a lot of Memphis stories, it varies).
And after that?
Well he hooked up with Johnny Burnette’s road band, then Gene Vinent’s. Then (like Johnny, like Elvis) he made his way to California. After a while, like Elvis and oh so many others who didn’t die (like Johnny), he came home.
Maybe it was something in the water. In those days, a lot sure did happen in Memphis.
But, of course, it’s wasn’t really the water. The water’s still there. But there ain’t much happening these days.
In Memphis, as elsewhere, It was always the people. And of all the people who made things happen in Memphis it was damned few who made as much happen as Chips Moman.
Go ahead and starting counting on your fingers.
Don’t worry if you only have one hand. You won’t need the second one.
Because here’s what happened when Chips Moman came back to Memphis:
He hooked up with a man named Jim Stewart, who was in the process of founding a record label (Satellite) that would eventually be called Stax. It was Moman who found the grocery store that became Stax’s legendary studio; Moman who pushed the label towards R&B; Moman who produced the label’s first three hits, which were only this…
Promising as all that was, there wasn’t much chance of the relationship lasting. Chips Moman wasn’t really cut out to be a hired hand. Soon enough he had his own studio. Soon enough after that he had his first big hit, which was only this…
The royalties from that one allowed him to hire a secretary, who soon enough brought him a demo she had recorded, which he soon cut on her when he couldn’t lure a bigger name all the way to Memphis (in those days, big names came from Memphis, not to it, an equation Chips Moman would reverse for good). It only turned to be this…
By then, Moman had a flourishing studio and a budding reputation. Pretty soon people started calling him, wanting to record in his studio.
Big names even.
Pretty soon after that he had a bigger reputation.
What he didn’t really have, what he never really had, was much of a “label.” He tended to lease his studio’s recordings Which may be why Moman’s “studio” could produce 120 hits in a decade without being legendary, in the way of Stax or Motown, anywhere except inside the music business. Meaning he could write/record/produce or just auteurize records like these into being…
…and literally a hundred more.
You will notice there are no boundaries: pop, soul, country, garage rock, country-pop, soul-pop, country-soul, country-soul-pop-a-top (okay I made the last one up). Those are just a few of the terms thrown around in the various obits today, every one of which mentioned that Moman’s famous studio was called American and not one of which emphasized that it was freaking called “American.”
To go one better and get really specific, it was called “American Sound.”
As in, “You want the American sound, you come to my little hole-in-the-wall studio.”
You can think about the amount of chutzpah it took to call your studio that and you can maybe laugh and shake your head or maybe lift your nose in the air and say the nerve.
But you shouldn’t forget that it ain’t braggin’ if you back it up. A brag is hardly without risk. These days, the band America, is a punchline. They’re that even if you like their music. The nerve!
Chips Moman? American Sound Studio?
In the course of Moman backing up the biggest and truest brag in the history of the music business, or maybe just the history of the whole American idea, there were, inevitably, monster moments…
and I’ll just say that it was not entirely an accident that the greatest vocal sessions of the American century–mind-blowing even by Elvis’s unmatched standards–were recorded in a studio called American run by Chips Moman, or that, just as inevitably and non-accidentally, there were private treasures along the way…
And of course, later on, in a world that was rapidly forgetting both American Studios itself, and the rock and roll vision Chips Moman forged there, and had, almost alone, sustained through the turbulent sixties to such a degree that when Elvis (and oh so many others) were looking for a place to hang on against the rising tide and even fight back, it was all but guaranteed they would make their way to his studio, whether they had to walk across the street or, like Dusty Springfield and Petula Clark, fly half way around the world, he could still do this…
…for public consumption. And still provide those private treasures…
Not bad for a country boy getting back to the country, as they say.
But for all his specific genius as a songwriter, a producer, a businessman (always an underrated gift), Chips Moman was more than the sum of his monumental parts. There were things recorded in his little Memphis studio which had nothing to do with his specific talents. He didn’t write them or produce them or do anything at all for them….except create the physical and psychic space they needed to breathe.
Those records could be as great and iconic as this…
or even this…
But if I had to pick only one that summed up the ethos, one record to say goodbye on, it would be this one…
Other people could have written it (others did). Somebody else could have produced it (somebody did).
As with a few hundred other records, though, many famous, just as many obscure, only one man could have envisioned the space where so much American happiness and so American pain could fight it out on a daily basis and somehow manage to co-exist within a sound that excluded nothing and no one.
One man did.
That was America. If we ever manage to amount to anything again, the memory of the music made in that one man’s little studio, which never looked like more than this…
This year’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductions will take place this weekend. There’s been some predictable kerfluffle about Ringo Starr’s second induction (this time in the “Musical Excellence” category, this in addition, of course, to his induction with the Beatles). You can look it up on the net if you’re interested but it’s basically just politics as usual (something about the deal finally going down when Paul McCartney agreed to do the induction if it happened and then making cheeky comments about the simplicity of it all after it did happen…meaning who knows what really happened.)
This is not actually about that. Ringo’s not the first insider to benefit from his connections at the Hall nor will be be the last (or, I suspect, least deserving). It’s a human institution after all.
But we shouldn’t forget that plenty of others are more deserving. Plenty who haven’t been inducted once…which really ought to finally, at long last, become a major criteria in the Hall’s very human future.
So, in the spirit of improvement and striving ever upward and onward, I’ll post my top ten (of many) picks for future recognition in the Musical Excellence category with a list of their basic credentials and an understood “Visionary Spirit” implied next to each name (I didn’t include Glen Campbell since I already got into that recently and holding it to ten is strain enough as it is):
Thom Bell (Producer, Writer, Arranger):
The greatest record man of the 1970s. Would be extra nice if he were inducted with his frequent songwriting partner Linda Creed, if only because there’s no way she’ll get in otherwise.
Pick to Click:
Leslie Kong (Producer, Entrepreneur, Talent Scout, Trailblazer):
There are other great and deserving Jamaican producers. But, whenever the local music broke off the island in the age of its transcendence, it was Kong’s beautiful records–“The Israelites,” “Long Shot Kick The Bucket,” “Vietnam,” significant portions of The Harder They Come soundtrack–forever leading the way.
Pick to Click:
Jackie DeShannon (Singer, Songwriter, Scenester):
With Sharon Sheeley, half of the first successful all-female songwriting team in the history of American music. On her own, the spiritual godmother of “folk rock” and “singer-songwriter” and relentless behind-the-scenes promoter of both Bob Dylan and the Byrds long before it was cool…even behind the scenes. A member of the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame who was, against all odds and all sense, an even greater singer.
Pick to Click:
Joe South (Singer, Songwriter, Producer, Sideman par excellence):
Worthy for his studio session work alone and writer of as many standards as say, the already inducted Laura Nyro (more than the already inducted Leonard Cohen…I could go on). Beyond that, he made records on his own that embodied the best spirit of a great, turbulent age like little else.
Pick to Click:
Jack Nitzsche (Writer, Arranger, Producer, Sideman, Cynosure of Cool):
One way or another he was in the marrow of career-making and/or groundbreaking records made by practically everybody: Phil Spector, the Wrecking Crew, Rolling Stones, Beach Boys, Monkees, Neil Young. Oh yeah, he was also the musical supervisor for The T.A.M.I. Show, which ought to be enough to punch his ticket if he had spent the rest of his life at the beach.
Pick to Click:
Al Kooper (Writer, Producer, Sideman, Raconteur):
This category could have basically been invented for Kooper and frankly, I don’t know what they’re waiting for…Oh, that’s right…McCartney was gabbing with Springsteen and they got to talking about Ringo and one thing led to another and…Oh well, Kooper should be in if he never did anything but play the organ on this little number…
In the 1950s alone, he produced “Tutti Frutti” for Little Richard and “You Send Me” for Sam Cooke (pictured with Blackwell above). He did more–lot’s more. But, really isn’t that enough?
Pick to Click:
Jerry “Swamp Dogg” Williams (Writer, Producer, Singer, Mastermind, Keeper of the Cosmos’ Most Closely Guarded Secrets):
I mean, Lou Reed is being inducted (for the second time) this year for being…interesting. Well, that and being dead. But believe me, alive or dead, he ain’t nearly as interesting as the man who, in his own inimitable words, sang about “sex, niggers, love, rednecks, war, peace, dead flies, home wreckers, Sly Stone, my daughters, politics, revolution and blood transfusions (just to name a few).” Then again, neither was anybody else.
Pick to Click:
Chips Moman (Writer, Producer, Entrepreneur):
He ran the studio with the best name: American. Where Wilson Pickett came to do a ballad. Where Dusty Springfield came when she came to Memphis. Where Elvis came when he came back to Memphis. Where, for a few years, the world came. Believe me, whatever that little studio’s faults, if the world still had such a place, we’d all be a lot better off.
Pick to Click:
Willie Mitchell (Writer, Producer, Band Leader, Sideman, Entrepreneur, Hit-Maker):
The spirit of Hi Records (home of Al Green, O.V. Wright and Ann Peebles in the last truly powerful moment of southern soul’s grip on the national spirit) during its reign of glory.
Pick to Click:
There’s a nice, appropriate way to end a list could be a lot longer.
Suffice it to say there’s a lot of work left to do before the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is everything it should be. Hope they get started soon, I’d like to live to see it.
This actually came in the mail in time to accompany me to Memphis last week and it made such a strong impression that even a new level of appreciation for Otis Redding (via Rhino’s old box set, which I’ve had for a while…and, yes, I’ve always liked Otis Redding, but I’m starting to connect with him more and more) didn’t lessen the impact of Ace’s superb selection and sequencing.
Although, Chips Moman’s studio’s output cries out for a box set, this sampler does give a real taste of his vision, which was something like: Come one, come all.
Which might mean he had the most appropriately named studio of all.
Where else would you find garage band classics next to deep soul singers (including the blue-eyed version), next to country rock next to straight Top 40 pop next to late period girl group hits next to, you know, the greatest sessions of Elvis Presley’s career?
In all of that, nothing struck me–either in the twilight gloaming of South Alabama or (upon my return), the late night comfort of my den, quite like the genius segue of this…
I know, I know. Music and Things are just as good now…