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VOL. 129 | NO. 159 | Friday, August 15, 2014

Hit Factory

Moman, American Studios recognized for impact on music

By Bill Dries

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The massive trees and the shade they make are the only thing left on the northwest corner of Danny Thomas Boulevard and Chelsea Avenue from the days when American Studios turned out 120 hit records from 1965 to 1972.

Chips Moman, center, greets fans Tom Nagy, left, and Mack Farley at the unveiling of the American Studios historical marker this week. American produced 120 hit records from 1965 to 1972. 

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

The studio itself has been gone for more than 20 years. But Wednesday, Aug. 13, a new historical marker honoring the Memphis music landmark was added to the corner where a Family Dollar store now stands.

And American’s legendary producer, Chips Moman, made a rare appearance, sitting in the shade in what was the back parking lot of the studio where almost everyone entered in its heyday.

“I finally got it,” he said of the marker and the recognition for hits from Elvis Presley’s “Suspicious Minds” to Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” to the Box Tops’ “The Letter.”

Moman was the engineer and scout for Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton who found the South Memphis movie theater that became the home for Stax Records. He parted company with them and settled in at American Studios and then left for Nashville in the 1970s before a return to Memphis in the late 1980s.

The city leased Moman a refurbished fire station at Linden Avenue and Third Street that became Three Alarm Studios, where it was hoped Moman would resume turning out hit records made in Memphis.

It didn’t happen the second time around despite a “Class of ’55” reunion among Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison, some Bobby Womack sessions and an aborted Ringo Starr album that the ex-Beatle went to court to stop.

Moman left town only to be brought back briefly in handcuffs on a contempt of court matter in Chancery Court involving the studio’s equipment.

Moman has expressed mixed feelings in the past about the musical legacy he created in Memphis.

With most of his studio band from American Studios sitting with him in the shade Wednesday, Moman, in a wheelchair, posed for pictures with fans and strained to hear some of the names and memories from the 1960s and ’70s.

Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. and Chips Moman unveil the historical marker for American Studios at the corner of Danny Thomas Boulevard and Chelsea Avenue.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

“I’m overwhelmed. I had thought, 'Well, it was a good time, but it’s over,'” said organ player Bobby Emmons, one of the studio musicians known later as the Memphis Boys. “But for everybody to come back and recognize what happened here – it’s just heartwarming, overwhelming.”

Eddie Hankins, a radio show host at WEVL, began the formal move for a marker to put the studio’s place in the city’s long musical heritage into 800 characters.

“The easy answer is the groove,” Hankins said. “There was blues and jazz on Beale Street in the ’20s and ’30s. In the ’50s you had blues and rock ‘n’ roll over at Sun Studios. In the ’60s and ’70s you had soul and R&B at Stax and at Hi. At American Studios, you had all of the above. These guys could play anything.”

Unlike Sun, Stax and Hi, American was a recording studio that did not have its own record label. It recorded artists on different labels.

But like Sun, Stax and Hi, it was a collaborative environment, said John Bass, program manager for the Mike Curb Institute for Music at Rhodes College.

“This is a story that repeats over and over and manifests in different ways from neighborhood kids at Stax to high schoolers at Manassas High School going on and changing the jazz world to the collection of musicians that came over here to American Studios,” he said. “This seems to be one of the threads of Memphis music is people from the community coming together just to do great things.”

Creativity is the common element.

“If you look at different genres like hip hop in Memphis, if you look at the whole jooking community – these are people from the community who come together and this almost unbridled creativity that comes out of Memphis is something that continues today,” he added.

For piano player Bobby Wood, it was a feel.

“I think it’s soul and feel and groove. We were having a good time doing it and I think soul just leaks through anything,” he said. “We didn’t know until we moved to Nashville how many hits we had done.”

Emmons may not have been aware of the hits either. But he said the sessions were rarely just a day on the clock to him.

“It was honest,” he said. “Every song meant something.”

Moman has always talked sparingly about the creative process that he drove at the studio and that remained the case as he talked privately with the band members.

When asked what was in the songs that has people still listening to them 40 and almost 50 years later, he paused for a second or two before saying, “I don’t know, really.”

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