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VOL. 131 | NO. 118 | Tuesday, June 14, 2016


Bill Dries

Last Word: Chips Moman, ServiceMaster Incentives and Crosstown High

By Bill Dries

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Chips Moman has died. Word of his death Monday at a hospice in Georgia came two years after Moman was honored for his contributions to Memphis music and the city's history.

Those contributions were substantial and for quite a while they were overlooked – even while he was running the definition of a hit factory at American Sound Studios, a non-descript recording studio on Danny Thomas Boulevard at Chelsea Avenue in North Memphis.

Unlike the better known Stax and Sun, American wasn’t a record label. It was a recording studio where record labels sent musicians and singers to make hit records with Moman as the undisputed arbiter of what was a hit.

The hits he and his studio band made at American in the decade starting in 1962 include Sweet Caroline by Neil Diamond, The Letter by The Box Tops, Suspicious Minds by Elvis Presley, Son of a Preacher Man by Dusty Springfield, Angel of the Morning by Merilee Rush and Hooked on a Feeling by B.J. Thomas.

Even with Elvis Presley and his entourage and a music selection process that at times before the American sessions was more about who knew who in Presley’s circle, Moman let everyone know that he was in charge.

Before setting up shop at American, Moman had been an early employee of Stax Records, helping to scout the second location for the Stax studios in the old Capitol movie theater in South Memphis before a parting of the ways with Stax founders Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton.

Moman didn’t talk much about Stax but he was around long enough that he and Stax songwriter singer David Porter wrote a song or two together before Porter teamed with Isaac Hayes to write the Sam & Dave catalog of hits.

Years later, Porter and Moman would joke about the short-lived partnership and the song it produced that never got released.

By the early 1970s, Moman was off to Atlanta and then greater success in Nashville during the outlaw era of country music, producing Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings.

Moman moved back to Memphis in the mid-1980s as Mayor Dick Hackett offered a Downtown firehouse converted to a recording studio for Moman as part of the incentives.

As the studio was being outfitted, Moman’s first project on his return to Memphis was a highly touted group effort by Sun legends Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis called the “Class of ’55.”

The quartet recorded at the old Sun studios and a sound truck was plugged into the old American location for the sessions.

The album wasn’t a hit despite an all-star recording session at American that included John Fogerty, The Judds, Ricky Nelson, Marty Stuart, Ace Cannon and Dave Edmunds among others.

American was demolished several years later after Moman brought Ringo Starr to town to record an album that never saw the light of day.

During recording, Moman and Starr hosted a memorable party on a riverboat to mark the occasion.

Moman also warred with The Commercial Appeal at about that time over a column in which Rheta Grimsley Johnson poked a bit of fun at Starr that Starr didn’t take seriously.

Moman did and he and his studio musicians as well as others picketed the newspaper’s offices.

Starr was more concerned with the quality or lack of it that he heard once he listened to what the sessions had produced. He went to court to stop the album’s release and won.

Moman left but not before a dispute over the studio equipment that saw him brought into Chancery Court in handcuffs.

It was a rapid and undignified fall for a legendary figure in the city’s music history who was recruited by the city to return the city to its glory days.

The effort was also a cautionary tale about what happens when you try to mix the way politicians do things with the way music industry people do things. What is accepted in one is often verboten by the other.

Two years ago, Moman returned to the city for the unveiling of a historical marker at Chelsea and Danny Thomas where American once stood. Most of his studio band was present and so were a lot of Elvis fans with the event coming during Elvis week.

More importantly, Mayor A C Wharton was there to personally thank Moman for all he had contributed to the city’s rich musical history.

Moman was every bit as contrary, obsessed and convinced of the rightness of his methods and their results as any of the city’s musical mavericks. And in Memphis music, being a maverick is an essential part of the job description for making the city’s brand of music.

He didn’t have a whole lot to say on the hot day outside the dollar store that now stands where American once was with the hit records he made there playing one after another for quite some time without any of the songs repeating.

But he did notice Wharton’s thanks nearly 30 years after he left Memphis under a cloud.

I can’t know for sure, but I think he felt some small measure of the recognition he deserved and that he felt he had been denied.

A follow-up to our ServiceMaster reporting. This is the week a lot of the incentives for the headquarters move to Peabody Place are moving including the EDGE board on Wednesday.

The incentives calendar kicks off Tuesday morning with the Center City Revenue Finance Corp.

The EDGE agenda on Wednesday also includes incentives for an expansion of the Prairie Farms Dairy on Madison in Overton Square which is owned by Turner Holdings Inc.

There are a lot of tours of Crosstown Concourse underway now that the work has reached a certain level. That will probably change again as the walls and other features begin to take shape.

But Monday, we got a look around the space for the high school that has been a part of the plans since before the first hard hat and safety vest were handed out.

The charter school company that signed on as a partner isn’t involved any more.

But Crosstown High has a board of directors and an application for a charter school that goes to Shelby County Schools officials this month.

Christian Brothers University President John Smarrelli also indicates there are some talks between the Crosstown group and SCS officials specifically about Central High School and a way to mitigate any impact the new school may have on Central.

Gov. Bill Haslam in east Tennessee Monday for another of the ceremonial bill signings marking the historic change in Tennessee higher education.

Haslam was in town last week to do the honors at the University of Memphis where an independent board for the U of M has been a talking point for quite a while – so long, that Haslam says those pushing the idea deserve some credit for the move to independent boards for the other five state universities and colleges as well.

Notes from former county commissioner Sidney Chism’s annual political picnic this past weekend including a generous helping of the dysfunction that is the local Democratic party these days. There will likely be more on that front as the week goes on.


Microsoft buys LinkedIn.

Goldman Sachs and consumer banking.

McDonald’s moves to Chicago.

Speculation about Wednesday’s Fed policy meeting and what it might mean for interest rates.

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