I was going to link to this anyway, after I discovered it a few days ago. It’s a side of Linda Ronstadt I never knew existed, a raw voice she rarely approached, let alone gave full throat to, on record.
Anybody who follows along here knows I’m a Ronstadt fan, but I really wish she had done more of this with both her voice and her persona.
In addition to all that, it serves as an extra tribute to the recent passing of J.D. Loudermilk. “Break My Mind” was one of his great songs and I’ve heard a dozen or more good versions over the years without ever feeling anyone (including Linda’s studio take, or my previous favorite by the Box Tops) had ever quite defined it.
Turned out it had been defined back at the very beginning.
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…
…There used to be a certain type of professional songwriter who wasn’t easy, or even possible, to categorize. They only existed for a relatively brief time, between say the fifties and, at the outside, the eighties. Before that, songs and songwriters fit into fairly neat slots, like pretty much everything else in the music industry. Since then, songs have principally become vehicles of “personal expression,” usually unearned angst, and songwriters have largely become corporate entities with interests that hie closer to spread sheet balances than memorable melodies. None of which is new, of course, but the concepts have metastasized to the point where the kind of songwriters who pumped a good deal of popular music’s life blood in the only era when music was at the center of American culture have been made virtually obsolete.
Nobody exemplified that noble concept better than Wayne Carson, who passed away from congestive heart failure this week at 72. He doesn’t need me to say much. A lot of folks already said it for me. In a lot of different ways:
I’m currently reading Holly George-Warren’s biography of Alex Chilton, he of Box Tops/Big Star/Indie Rock Godfather fame (hoping to review the book in the next week or two). I’m a big fan of Chilton’s music….well, his best music anyway. Divested of his great bands, he could certainly be, shall we say, eccentric. But that eccentricity was finally what (even in the context of his great bands) made him–a certain willingness to risk looking/sounding foolish, combined with that lacerating absence of esteem that is so often masked and/or bolstered by a show of arrogance and/or indifference.
Concurrent with my reading, I picked up his “lost” solo album 1970 (which was finally released a few years back). There’s a lot of good stuff on it–certainly much that looks forward to Big Star a year or two hence. But the main attraction when I saw the track listing on Amazon was the choice of covers.
One was “Jumping Jack Flash,” which turned out to be a disappointment. Sounding less professional than he was–spending hours chasing spontaneity–was a Chilton trademark. But, covering the Stones, he just sounds enervated.
Covering the Archies on the other hand…well, he sounds like the Stones. And not just any Stones–certainly not the crap-fest Stones of lo, these past three decades (at least)–but the Stones who were in the air in 1970, making some of the greatest music in the history of man.
In other words, he not only crushes it, but he’s loose and funny and irreverent in a way that I suppose taking on “Jumping Jack Flash” directly didn’t allow for.
I think the normal mantra in a case like this, is to chant on about how surprised one is to find “Sugar, Sugar” had this in it:
But really, it shouldn’t be suprising at all. It almost always had this in it:
And, truth to tell, neither of these amounts to expansion, so much as recognition…Of what it always was: