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…
(5) The Jacksonian, written by Beth Henley, directed by Robert Falls, the New Group, Acorn Theatre, New York (November 5–December 22, 2013). A hotel drama set in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1964, with Ed Harris as a disgraced dentist, Amy Madigan as his disgusted wife, and Juliet Brett as their miserable teenage daughter, and featuring Bill Pullman as what Elvis would have ended up as if “That’s All Right” had never gotten out of Memphis: an alcoholic bartender with a thing for jailbait who has no problem shooting a woman for a ring he doesn’t even want and letting a black man go to the electric chair for it. “I was a performer for a while,” he says under a huge pompadour, sideburns snaking down the sides of his face, but now his whole life is stage fright.
(Greil Marcus, Real Life Top Ten, The Believer, March/April 2014)
I’m trying to imagine:
Bob Dylan if he never made it out of Minnesota. John Lennon if he never made it out of Liverpool. Mick Jagger if he never made it out of London. Bruce Springsteen if he never made it out of New Jersey.
Now, with all that fixed in my head, I permit myself to wonder if Marcus–or any other member of the crit-illuminati–would ever dream up some other life where any of them just naturally become a vicious, racist murderer and then try to pass if off as a compliment?
I mean, Jerry Lee Lewis maybe. Or Johnny Burnette. Or Billy Lee Riley.
After all, we all know what those working class hillbillies from the mean streets of somewhere or other are down at the bottom.
Especially the ones who never bother to respond to any potential crushes that might develop among the pundit class (as Dylan has to Marcus himself, Lennon and Jagger to Jann Wenner, Springsteen to Dave Marsh, etc., etc., etc.)
Bear in mind that, among the taste-mongers, Marcus counts as one of Elvis’ principle defenders (and interpreters). A lot more than once I’ve seen him described, by folks who are very comfortable with the idea of Elvis-as-racist-murderer, as an Elvis “apologist.” (If you want another fun exercise, try and imagine Bob Dylan or John Lennon needing any such thing.) Such are necessary with Elvis, of course, because we all know that he–unlike so many of those others whose careers he made possible–needs apology.
The 2014 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees have been announced:
Congratulations to Nirvana, KISS, Hall and Oates, Peter Gabriel, Cat Stevens and Linda Ronstadt.
I’ve been stumping for Ronstadt on this blog for pretty much the entire twenty-two months of its existence (and in the occasional letter-writing campaign for many a long year before that) so I’m only sorry that it took the announcement of a debilitating disease for the Hall to do the right thing by her.
Hall and Oates were the only others I voted for myself on the fan ballots that were available at Rolling Stone and Future Rock Hall, but there were strong cases for all the others and part of what’s fun (and very rock and roll) about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is that it covers a lot of ground and makes for a lot of good arguments.
A lot of folks are naming Cat Stevens as the margin call this time around, and some are even insisting that the Hall must be cooking the books to keep including so many crit-fave singer-songwriters year after year (Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Laura Nyro and Randy Newman have gone in previously).
Sorry, but my guess is that if the Hall’s voting gurus do fix the process–and I’ve never seen anyone produce any real evidence that this is the case–it’s more likely to throw a bone to truly vocal fan bases like the KISS army.
And I don’t find it difficult to believe that there is a bloc of voters who consistently rally around a genre of performers they happen to like and think are worthy. (And I’ll add, once again, that with Cat Stevens now stacked up with all the others on one side, their combined weight still doesn’t tip the scale against Jackie DeShannon all by herself on the other. I’ll be saying the same thing after John Prine and Warren Zevon are doubtless added in the near future.)
In any case, my own margin call is Peter Gabriel (already voted in as a member of Genesis). Excepting truly no-brainer exceptions like the solo Michael Jackson, I don’t think anyone should be inducted twice while so many of the deserving haven’t been inducted once. And, if there are going to be two-time inductees, then Smokey Robinson (in as a performer, but should be in as a non-performer as well), Jerry Butler (in as a member of the Impressions, with whom he made only one record, but not in as a solo performer, though he was/is a far greater and far more influential artist than Gabriel or many others already inducted) and Carole King (ditto), would all be considerably more worthy than Peter Gabriel.
But the real disappointment for me (though not a surprise) was in Link Wray not getting in.
It is passing strange that Wray and Johnny Burnette’s Rock N’ Roll trio, the two acts who rest at the very heart of the Hard Rock genre which brings out the loudest complaints year-after-year from fans who feel it is “under-represented”–complaints that will likely only shift emphasis (rather than subside) now that the Rush and KISS armies have been appeased–receive so little public support from either the artists who later made gazillions off their basic ideas, or the fans who stump for those artists.
I like the idea that bands like Rush and KISS have passionate fan bases who have kept pressure on the Hall all these years. And I like the idea that they were rewarded for their faith….better than I like the bands in question as it happens (even though I like the bands just fine and love a few of their records).
But we shouldn’t forget where all that Sturm und Drang really came from (you might need to double click this one):
And I’ll take it as a hopeful sign that Mr. Page does have a vote!
(NOTE: Just FYI: If I had a “real” ballot, I would have cast one of my votes for Nirvana. I figure the fan’s ballot, in which the total fan vote gets counted as one, is for the fan in me, not the responsible citizen.)
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a great museum and a necessary institution. I’m all for its existence (which a lot of people oppose on principle) and all I can say about the museum itself is that I’ve been there three times (the last in 2000) and was basically overwhelmed each time.
The nominating and selection process for actual inductees still leaves something to be desired, however–a fact a lot of pundits point out every year.
Just last year, for the first time, I saw a small raft of media complaints about the Hall’s long-dubious habit of ignoring blacks and women for the sake of continuing to define “rock and roll” as principally consisting of white boys with guitars (and who still comprise the vast majority of the “why aren’t they in there?” complaints, of course).
I’m not going to dig up the actual columns because, like all campaigns undertaken by the crit-illuminati–especially those mounted in the name of worthy causes–this one was rife with factual errors and general ignorance concerning the very points that were supposedly being made.
So, instead of complaining about what the usual suspects didn’t do, I’ll offer my own two cents.
Over the next few months, as this year’s nominating/electing process unwinds, I’ll weigh in occasionally with a few thoughts on who’s really been shafted by the process and why….beginning with the chips that are still left in the foundation stone.
Incidentally, my criterion is pretty simple: I ask myself what sort of hole there would be in the world if these acts never existed.
If I can see China…and China can see me….I advocate plugging the hole.
The “5″ Royales: Hearing their guitar player, Loman Pauling, permanently changed the lives of Steve Cropper, Eric Clapton and James Brown amongst many, many others. Next to that, saying they were one of the greatest vocal groups in rock and roll history and that Pauling was writing songs like “The Slummer, The Slum” before anybody heard of Bob Dylan is actually superfluous. Nominated several times but never approved by the voters. Put them in already. (Tried It Can’t Deny It: “Something Moves Within My Heart”)
Richard Berry: Let’s put it this way. He would deserve to be in the Hall even if he wasn’t the auteur of “Louie, Louie.” And he would deserve to be in the Hall even if that’s all he was. Yes, Gram Parsons, who fulfilled a similarly undefinable role in the rock and roll cosmos later on, should be in. But Berry should be in first. (Tried It Can’t Deny It: “Take The Key”)
The Rock and Roll Trio (a.k.a. Johnny Burnette’s Rock and Roll Trio): Take the basic modern forms of crit- or fan-boy approved extremism (punk, metal, grunge and every other idea of rock and roll as a fistfight in the alley) and these, er, gentleman, pretty much invented all of them. If you think this was merely a question of happy accident (like, something getting knocked loose in Paul Burlison’s amplifier at the “Train Kept A Rollin’” session maybe) I suggest a close listen to the way Johnny Burnette sings “Don’t make me nervous, I’m holding a baseball bat,” in their version of “Honey Hush,” That’s the one where they made Joe Turner–the song’s originator who had been around the world seven thousand times and seen everything but a nuclear war–sound like a librarian from Hoboken. (Tried It Can’t Deny It: “Lonesome Train (On a Lonesome Track)”)
The Chantels: The alpha of the ethos which eventually came (however clumsily and falsely) to be called “girl group”–an ethos which, by any name, did not exist before them and has turned out to have no omega. (Tried It Can’t Deny It: “If You Try”)
(NOTE: There are certainly other artists and behind-the-scenes folks who still deserve consideration. This being my first crack at this, however, I’m only going to focus on what I think are the most obvious misunderstandings.)
[NOTE: I’m snowed under this week so I’m posting an unpublished piece I wrote on the occasion of Alex Chilton’s passing in March of 2010.]
“Hanging out, down the street, the same old thing we did last week”
Big Star: “In The Street”
In 1975 my family was living in rural northern Florida when my sister’s oldest boy moved down from Memphis. I was in high school, he was just out, and over the next year and a half he introduced me to two significant experiences:
The first experience was a running, detailed, part-scary, part-hilarious, part matter-of-fact informal history of life on the mean streets of Memphis circa the early-seventies–what, in other words, exactly was going on when kids hung out down the street and did the same old things they did last week.
The second experience was my introduction to the radio–still vital then, no matter what you may have heard.
My nephew moved out to get on with his life in less than two years. I’m still chasing the music.
Somewhere fairly early in the chase (maybe a decade or so) I came across Big Star.
Imagine my surprise at hearing the world my nephew had so vividly described dragged out of the air and put on wax. Imagine my further surprise at finding this had been done with little–albeit telling–reference to specific detail. (Even today, when I listen to #1 Record or Radio City, I keep searching for the lines about knocking down mailboxes with baseball bats and deciding whether to toss the day’s supply of rotten eggs at houses or hookers which I know must be there right next to “bust the streetlight, out past midnight!”).
Like most great artists, though, Alex Chilton was defined as much by what he left out as by what he put in. I have no idea just how closely his (or Big Star founder Chris Bell’s) actual experiences tracked with my street-tough nephew’s (though I can say that what they did describe tracks very closely indeed). But I know it’s no accident that the feel of listening to those straight-from-the-lower-middle-class-’hood stories and to Big Star’s music were so indelibly linked.
Which is to say you didn’t have to be a survivor of a knife-fight in front of your own house (saved from four crazed white boy assailants–and on a day when you weren’t even running with Bill Black’s nephew**–when a jacket yanked at the collar came miraculously off your back and a yell from your sister came just in time for you to dodge a bowie knife thrown at the back of your head)–or on the public high school record as the fastest white boy in Memphis (which is maybe at least part of how you live to tell about these things) to catch the strange, compelling combination of alienation, fear and intimacy in Big Star’s best music.
The record of this accessibility is well-catalogued now. Among the five great American bands who built the bridge from the “garage” ethos of the sixties to seventies’ punk and eighties-to-today alternative (the Velvet Underground, MC5, Stooges and New York Dolls being their compadres) Big Star were unique in several significant ways.
They were urban but southern (which in the seventies still meant somewhat closer to a rural than industrial sensibility). They were relatively apolitical (which translated into deeply personal stances I would argue ended up being the politics that mattered most–even before taking into account how much, “I’m starting to understand, what’s going on and how it’s planned,” might mean to those of us who grew up in the shadows of Viet Nam and Watergate). They were (perhaps as a result) less openly aggressive–even the assaults were seductive. And, finally, in what was seen then as a quirky aside but spoke more and more powerfully down the years as alienation has become the national monomania, their eventual leader was the only member of those great bands who turned his back on actual–as opposed to theoretical–commercial success.
For all of those reasons, Big Star’s music stayed off the radio–and got around. And, when it had finally gotten around enough, it found–or made–relevance everywhere: in the Los Angeles of Jane Wiedlin and Vicki Peterson, in the the San Pedro of D. Boon and Mike Watt, in the Minneapolis of Paul Westerberg, in the Athens of Mike Mills and Michael Stipe, in the Seattle of Kurt Cobain and, yes, in small North Florida towns, too.
Some of those artists paid direct tribute to Chilton, others may not have cared for him at all. But they and thousands like them were each shaped by environments he and his band made possible. All were children, in a sense, of a man who was famous for being cantankerous and dismissive of his own music (and of Big Star in particular).
That, too, is not unusual for artists of every stripe but it is, in a way, disheartening to contemplate in those with real, not to say monumental, accomplishments. It would be nice to believe there was some internal space to which a man who had been (as leader of the Box Tops) one of the half-dozen greatest white soul voices in rock history, a seminal producer and song-writer and a solo artist who could be great or terrible but could never, ever be accused of standing still, could repair to let his defenses down and accept how much he had meant to so many.
But he was surely right to be wary of too much adulation or self-congratulations–or any unearned idea that the past is merely a warm place to visit. One way and another, “don’t push me ’round,”–an attitude that defines a lot more about Memphis than just its music–has both created a great deal of what is most worthwhile in this world and exacted a terrible price. One way and another, the hard fight to break away from those streets which Big Star illuminated so memorably caught up with everyone from Elvis Presley to Johnny Burnette to Al Jackson, Jr. to Bill Black (not the mention his nephew, see below) to Chris Bell himself.
Whether it finally caught Alex Chilton–in another time and place (i.e., some years down the road in New Orleans)–is harder to say.
What can be said is that in the city where the three great cultural movements of mid-twentieth century America–blues, rockabilly and soul–found their surest footing on the way to changing the world for the better, Chilton and his Big Star brothers made a sound that was unlike anything before it and forged a way ahead that provided a framework for most of what has remained vital in white rock for nearly forty years.
Perhaps more importantly, they made–and inspired–music that has never stopped being a place where those who prefer to be not quite so alienated as the national monomania demands can still find a home.
(**Later beaten to death in Memphis. My nephew wasn’t sure of the details. Sometimes it’s safer that way.)