The Home Front
A little studio leaves a big mark on local music, plus the latest from Hampton Sides.
"I never met him," Roben Jones said over the phone from her home in Ohio. "I wish I had, to tell him what a journey this has been."
Jones was referring to the late Alex Chilton, frontman for the bands the Box Tops and then Big Star. And when we spoke, in mid-March, it was the day after news arrived that Chilton had died, suddenly, in New Orleans. But he was a Memphian, and Jones had been listening to him on the radio and on record since she was a 14-year-old in rural West Virginia. It was, in her description of those times, a "dark, uncertain future" for her and her family, and Chilton's recording of Bob Dylan's "I Shall Be Released" was on Jones' turntable, because the lyrics were very much on her mind, just as the song was very much the inspiration for Jones' book, Memphis Boys: The Story of American Studios (University Press of Mississippi).
It was, as she writes, more than a matter of Dylan's lyrics and Chilton's vocals. What got to her was the music — music that was produced by a man named Lincoln Wayne "Chips" Moman, recorded at the studio he owned on North Thomas Street in Memphis, and backed by a set of session musicians who played, from the late 1960s to early '70s, on an astounding number of hit songs. More than 120 made it to the national charts by pop, soul, jazz, and country singers and musicians. Singers (and this is a very abbreviated list) such as Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin, Dusty Springfield, Petulia Clark, Wilson Pickett, Merrilee Rush, Neil Diamond, and B.J. Thomas. Bob Dylan and the Beatles? They looked into recording at American, but there wasn't room in the schedule — American's schedule.
But that studio backing band had no name. They were informally known simply as the Memphis Boys. And if there's a chapter in Memphis history that needs telling in encyclopedic detail, album by album, track by track — in addition to the scene inside and outside the studio — it's this one: not only Chips Moman's story but the story of core musicians Tommy Cogbill, Reggie Young, Bobby Emmons, Gene Chrisman, Mike Leech, and Bobby Wood; additional players Dan Penn, "Spooner" Oldham, and Bobby Womack; "late" arrivals Glen Spreen, Johnny Christopher, Hayward Bishop, and Shane Keister; and songwriters Wayne Carson, "Red" West, Billy Burnette, and Toni Wine (who married Moman, but you may know her as the woman who co-wrote "Groovy Kind of Love" and sang on the Archies' "Sugar, Sugar"); plus the engineers and sound guys who were responsible for so much Memphis-made musical greatness. That greatness, Jones said in summary, was based on the fact "that no one has ever described hard luck, hard times, and the strength of character it took to face those ordeals" as Moman and the Memphis Boys.
"A privilege" is how Jones described researching and writing this story. Mike Leech, bass player, arranger, occasional producer, and occasional percussionist, put it another way, to Jones herself: "You know as much about American Studios as I do. And I was there!"
City Reporter: You saw it here first: an excerpt, in the April 2010 issue of Memphis magazine, from Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin (Doubleday), the latest book from native Memphian and former Memphis staff member Hampton Sides (author of the best-seller Ghost Soldiers and Blood and Thunder).
Hellhound brings Sides back to town — back to March and April 1968 and the events leading up to the moment King was shot. Sides also takes an extraordinarily detailed look at the life led — during the year before King's assassination and the weeks afterward — of one Eric S. Galt, an alias (one of many) adopted by King's killer, James Earl Ray. The police and FBI manhunt for Ray — from Memphis to Birmingham to Atlanta to Los Angeles to Toronto to London — is Sides doing his reporting best: always on the lookout for the telling detail; always with a novelistic attention to narrative.
On top of the mountain of research and writing devoted to King's last days and to Ray's movements and motives, Sides has added in Hellhound on His Trail a native son's understanding of a city he not only knows but, as he writes in his opening note to readers, loves.