The Story of American Studios
Publication Year: 2010
Published by: University Press of Mississippi
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They were a band without a name for a long time. In the late sixties, when they began an unprecedented streak of hit records, no one called the band anything at first. In 1968 they released a few instrumental recordings as the American Group. After that they were occasionally billed as the 827 Thomas Street Band, after the address of the Memphis studio where they worked. By 1972 they began the second phase of their careers, as freelance session players in Nashville, and established musicians in town would say of them, “Oh, you know . . . that’s some of those Memphis boys.” With the release of a 1991 album produced by Allen Reynolds, they made that phrase the title, and the Memphis Boys they...
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1. Sun Days and Hi Times
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In 1960 the Memphis music scene, for all intents and purposes, looked dead. By decade’s end, with the Stax and Hi record labels, independent studios including Ardent, the Pepper- Tanner jingle company, and the remarkable comeback of Elvis Presley, the recording scene had come roaring back—only to finally and spectacularly fall in the middle seventies. “Memphis was primarily a pop market,” observed Bobby Wood, one of the young musicians playing clubs in town. Many of the artists who had made Memphis that way in the first place—Elvis, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, and even lesser-known Sun discoveries like Conway Twitty and Ed Bruce—were no longer recording in town by 1960. Charlie Rich...
2. Chips, Goldwax, Sandy, and the Garage-Band Sound
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The studio that became almost a literal home to the group was a one-story, flat-roofed, redbrick, boxlike building that was part of a fivestore strip mall located on the corner of Danny Thomas Street and Chelsea Avenue in North Memphis. In its previous life it had been a grocery store; it had been owned at that time by a Memphis policeman who lived just back of the building. Also out back was a parking lot. There were no signs on the building to mark its purpose; it was low-profile and everyone liked it that way. Most people, musicians and visitors alike, did not even use the front...
3. The Road, the Tree, and Its Branches
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The success of the Hi label and Stan Kesler’s work with Sam the Sham were blips on the radar screen. They could easily be dismissed as novelties—Hi for its instrumentals and comic songs of the “Haunted House” variety, Sam’s records for their nonsense verses and the occasionally bizarre subject matter that reflected the interests of the singer. Chips Moman’s work with Sandy Posey and the Gentrys had drawn some notice, but he had not attained national significance. This changed when Jim Vienneau introduced him to a sound engineer/aspiring singer/recently successful songwriter who was on staff at Fame Studios at Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Directly and indirectly he would introduce...
4. Walking Through an Open Doorway
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When Tommy Cogbill returned from Muscle Shoals and resumed work at Hi in the early summer of 1966, it was increasingly more of the same old thing. Ray Harris and Joe Cuoghi had hit upon a successful formula for the label, with lots of help from Willie Mitchell. “I always liked his horn lines and ideas,” Mike Leech said of Mitchell in those pre–Al Green days. “He was a funny, interesting man to work with in the studio. Plus, he had a regular gig at the Manhattan Club where Reggie and I would haunt quite often, and usually sit in.” “Willie was a very nice man. He was always together,” said Reggie Young admiringly, speaking of those days when he, newly married and starting his family, worked extensively on records with Mitchell. “I had an apartment over in East Memphis, and he helped me move my furniture...
5. Grabbing the Pie and Biting the Apple
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Politically and socially, early 1967 was not an experimental time. The country was still basically in support of the Vietnam war; mainstream public opinion did not tip in the opposite direction until the Tet offensive one year later. Integration in the Deep South was progressing slowly due to white resistance, while up north the issue was evolving from a matter of basic civil rights to Congressman Adam Clayton Powell’s cynical but accurate term, “the gut issue of who gets the money.” In San Francisco, college students, local musicians, and disaffected dreamers had begun to cobble together an alternative society, but the hippie movement and what it represented had not yet gone national. But the music business is a world unto itself, and in this world it was a time for experiments. In Los Angeles and San Francisco, the Byrds, the Doors, the Jefferson Airplane, and Big Brother, and the songwriters John Phillips, Brian Wilson, and James Hendricks (Mama Cass’s husband, who wrote many of the middle- period Johnny Rivers hits) were creating a new kind of rock music. In Detroit, Norman Whitfield and Holland-Dozier-Holland guided the output at Motown, placing strings, synthesizers, oscillators, and anything else unusual they could find over the jazz-based Motown backbeat. In London, the Beatles were still on...
6. Soul Dance Number Three: Keeping It Real
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The importance of the New York Aretha session to Chips Moman and his friends cannot be overstated. It had proven that their backup work could be as effective behind a new star as it was with an established performer; it solidified their professional relationship with Atlantic; and, most significantly of all to Chips—who still kept the perspective of the Georgia farm boy he would at heart remain—he had proven that he and Tommy Cogbill and Dan Penn could take on New York and meet its challenges on their terms. In addition, the success of “Do Right Woman” showed that his and Dan’s collaboration on “Dark End” was no fluke. From...
7. New Voices, New Visions, Wayne’s World, and a Letter
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The summer of 1967 depended on your perspective. If you were a soldier in Vietnam, particularly a grunt, you were just praying you would get home alive. If you were a hippie, especially in San Francisco, you would have felt validated; 1967 was the Summer of Love, the pinnacle of the movement. Monterey Pop, the music festival of that spring, had focused worldwide attention on the psychedelic sound and had pioneered a new style of rock concert. Hippie music was all over the airwaves that summer; the Jefferson Airplane had scored a huge success with “Somebody to Love” and the album Surrealistic Pillow, and beginning...
8. A Place in the Sun
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American became a success before the musicians fully had time to realize it. One minute they were a struggling studio with only a few outside accounts, most of whom, like Quinton Claunch and Papa Don Schroeder, were themselves in the aspirant category; the next, seemingly overnight, they were the Southern recording base for two New York labels (Atlantic and Bell) and were welcoming artists of worldwide renown. Once everyone became aware of what was happening, there was a tremendous sense of accomplishment, a feeling that they were all part of something creative, vital, and growing. “I just remember the early days of American being a fun time,” Bobby Wood reminisced happily. They were learning about each other...
9. Chill of an Early Fall
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The American group had been recording steadily throughout the summer of 1967, but the pop music world, consumed as they were by the Beatles’ long-awaited Sgt. Pepper, paid their records little critical heed (despite the fact that many of them had been commercially successful). But by the early fall of 1967, when the chill had set in and the Summer of Love already seemed like a distant illusion, it was time to search for something new—something tougher, more realistic, more in keeping with the times. And here was Memphis, quietly...
10. It Looked Like a Family
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The American group were only dimly aware of it, but they were developing a reputation beyond the city limits. Musicians were learning from their records, with Reggie Young and Tommy Cogbill especially being widely copied; the jazz bassist Jaco Pastorius and the Muscle Shoals bass player David Hood, both of whom were just starting out, openly acknowledged Cogbill’s influence. The studio was filling up with hangers-on, as more and more people...
11. Standing on the Verge of Getting It On
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This famous George Clinton phrase accurately describes where the American group stood at the beginning of 1968. In a year and a half they had become one of the most versatile recording teams in the music industry (even though they still flew under the radar, getting less worldwide attention and press scrutiny than their contemporaries at Stax and Motown, or even in Nashville). Chips Moman, in his understated way, had established himself as a...
12. Songs for Young Weepers: Crying Like a Baby and the Death of a Dream
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As the American group laid plans for their empire, Chips Moman, Dan Penn, and Tommy Cogbill were all scheduling sessions regularly and accounts such as Atlantic and Goldwax filled in the remainder of studio time...
13. Memphis Goes On
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Memphis was never the same after the King assassination. The American group found it easy to get back to work, but some unpleasant overtones remained. The Masqueraders went home to Texas during the troubles, and stayed away for a month or so until it was time for another session. When they came back, there was still some edginess. Mike Leech remembered a certain attitude on the part of Lee Jones, the lead singer (who later became a Muslim, as would Joe Tex). “He resented the white boys a little,” said Mike dispassionately. Once Gene said, ‘Lee, sing that part again.’ Lee responded, ‘Yassuh, massa!’ But we still got along. . . . I think he...
14. Early Departures and Late Arrivals
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There was an atmosphere about the studio that everyone could feel, a sense that the pace was quickening. For one thing, there was the already considerable respect the studio had from its peers. “We were in awe of the rhythm section at American,” said Jimmy Johnson, who was still at Fame but making plans to break away and establish a studio with Roger Hawkins as partner. “Man per man, it was just invincible.” “We all looked up to the guys at American,” said Jimmy’s colleague David Hood. “Those guys seemed so accomplished; they played so well.” The client roster was becoming...
15. People Sure Act Funny
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The studio was established, the group was acquiring a reputation, and they were even beginning their own label, for which they all had high expectations. Dusty in Memphis had just come out and was being praised as a masterwork; several other albums, most notably the Herbie Mann jazz experiment, were either in the can or in some stage of recording. For Chips Moman, it was amazing. “We...
16. The Present Is Prelude
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The first act recorded at American in January of 1969 was not Elvis Presley, as legend seems to say, but the star of the previous year, Merrilee Rush. Her records had moved from Bell to the AGP label, and this single was her final one with Chips and Tommy Cogbill together due to a personality conflict with Chips. After this Tommy alone would record her. The collaborators had two beautiful songs with which to work this time, both partly the work of Wayne Carson. His and Dan Penn’s song “Everyday Living Days” served as the B-side: “Every...
17. From a Jack to a King [Includes Photo Insert]
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Marty Lacker told the story over and over again: in a book of his own; in a set of reminiscences done with Lamar Fike and Elvis’s cousin Billy Smith for the reporter and Elvis historian Alanna Nash; in a 1994 oral history compiled by Chips’s then-secretary Rose Clayton; and in countless print and television interviews from those of Peter Guralnick to this account. Throughout the innumerable retellings, Marty’s memory never wavered. He was sitting in the Jungle Room at Graceland...
18. Good-Time Merry-Go-Round: Life after Elvis
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Post-Elvis, sessions were booked more steadily than ever, and if Atlantic’s patronage was slightly falling off due to their involvement with Jimmy Johnson’s new studio in the Shoals, there were more than enough outside accounts and old friends coming in to make up for it. Nor had the attitude of the group changed, at least on the surface, even though “they had made a little new history there,” Ima Roberts noted fondly. “We knew [the sessions] were special, but so were many before Elvis,” added Glen Spreen. “We were patting ourselves on the back...
19. Tommy Cogbill’s Year
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By the time of the Goldwax dissolution, many of the records the group had made the previous fall were either on the charts or about to be released, so that to the listening public American was entering a golden commercial period, although in actuality the musicians had left that phase behind in favor of experimental recordings. Memphis Underground was now on the jazz charts, and American continued that style with the Hubert Laws album Crying Game, engineered by Tommy Cogbill, who was also credited with the musical direction—to no one’s surprise, since he remained the group’s...
20. Eyes of a New York Woman
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If the music business outside of Memphis was taking little notice of Tommy Cogbill, they were beginning to recognize American Studios. In late 1969 Chips Moman was given his first important award when he was named the Producer of the Year by industry tipsheet the Gavin Report. “That was the biggest award in the business, the Gavin Report, because it was given by radio people,” Chips said in soft tones of gratitude. “I cherish it.” It was such an honor to the producer that when he went to Atlanta for their dinner, he took Marty Lacker and most of the musicians with him (although Bobby Wood did not go). “It was just an opportunity to get away from the studio together and, if I remember correctly, Chips paid for everyone,” said Marty. “I was there because I was the one who always corresponded with Bill Gavin as I did with other industry publications, to...
21. Just Can’t Help Believing
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B.J. Thomas had come to American during a lull in his career, but was now one of the top singers in the country due to his hit recording of the Burt Bacharach movie theme, “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.” According to Glen Spreen, Chips Moman was more than a little miffed that the man he considered to be his singer had gotten his biggest hit with someone else. The pairing of Scepter’s best-known male singer with the label’s staff arranger/composer made sense from the viewpoint of the suits, however. “Scepter also ran the management company that managed B.J., it was win-winwin,” observed Glen Spreen amusedly. “Chips was very possessive, and he was also very insecure.” B.J. Thomas was also insecure, and his work with Bacharach in New York ceased...
22. Going in Circles
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Even the late arrivals were settling in now, and the players had grudgingly gotten used to them—Johnny Christopher, in particular, was a fixture. Hayward Bishop, the most recent arrival, still seemed to be an unknown quantity, but the group was becoming familiar with his abilities as percussionist, and they even liked his work as engineer—Mike Leech remembered Hayward’s mixes as being thoroughly arrived at and “very, very clean.” The distribution deal with Capitol Records was a particular prestige note for the company—they were now on the same label as the Beach Boys and the...
23. Right Can Be So Wrong
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The setup at American seemed to be coming apart despite the continuing deal with Capitol, which guaranteed the studio a certain number of accounts, and the annexation of the Ranch House restaurant next door to expand the facilities. The lawsuit with Don Crews had yet to be resolved, and it created a numbing atmosphere, Ima Roberts remembered, because “nobody wanted to take sides.” “I hated it when that court thing came up, we were caught in the middle,” said Bobby Wood. “Nobody knew who was on Chips’s side or who was on Don’s, and everybody thought I was on Don’s side—I really didn’t care,” said Mike Cauley, who had returned in the interim. “Everything was up in the air over there,” said Stan Kesler, looking on...
24. Wasted Doing Nothing
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The wasted opportunity with Cymarron was another demoralizing experience for the American musicians, all of whom were rooting for the trio and felt that their own creativity was highlighted by the fact that these singer-songwriters had been found and nurtured by their studio. At about this time, in the summer of 1971, three other singer-songwriters came in to record. One of them became a generational icon; one was a writer and vocalist of strong promise who was held back by the resegregation of the music charts; and one had been a singer-writer before the term was fashionable...
25. Broken-Hearted Rock and Roll Band
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By late 1971 the lawsuit with Don Crews was finally settled out of court; Chips Moman kept American while Crews now had ownership of Onyx. The first John Prine album, released on Atlantic, was an enormous prestige success. The hiring of Stan Kesler to engineer sessions and to produce already looked to be one of the best decisions Chips ever made. In a remarkable turn of events, Chips proved that, had he been so inclined, he could have been the leader of the entire Memphis music industry. For although Chips and the American musicians...
26. From Atlanta to Good-Bye
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The second set of sessions with Jackie DeShannon were the last completely coherent work the American group recorded in Memphis. Though Atlantic had another several days of sessions booked in February, reserved for another singer-writer in the John Prine mold named Danny O’ Keefe, Jackie’s were the final ones in Memphis for Johnny Christopher and Bobby Wood. “I wouldn’t have left that situation if it was still happening. I basically left because of work,” said Bobby Wood. “By this time I was getting a little frustrated, me and Johnny both.” By the middle of the O’Keefe sessions, they were gone. They traveled to Nashville for one day in the interim between the Jackie and O’Keefe...
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Page Count: 430
Publication Year: 2010