Suspicious Minds: The 1969 Memphis Anthology
Dusty in Memphis
In April, RCA’s stream of Elvis Presley reissues brought forth Suspicious Minds, a two-CD set chronicling the King’s revered comeback sessions in Memphis. It came hot on the heels of Rhino’s expanded reissue of Dusty in Memphis, the 1969 album British pop star Dusty Springfield recorded for Atlantic just a few months before Elvis took the mike. Both RCA and Atlantic had been banking on the city’s growing reputation as a laboratory for soulful pop hits: Stax, the west Memphis label and recording studio, had scored with Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Rufus & Carla Thomas, and the interracial Booker T. & the MG’s. But Presley and Springfield cut their records at American Sound Studio, a run-down little place at the corner of Chelsea and Thomas, on the city’s black northwest side.
American owner Lincoln “Chips” Moman was a blond, blue-eyed session guitarist and songwriter with the letters R-O-C-K and R-O-L-L tattooed across his fingers, and his house band was a bunch of white boys from Memphis, Mississippi, and Arkansas. Between 1967 and 1971, working for a variety of labels, they would land 120 songs on the Billboard charts, backing up artists like Wilson Pickett, Bobby Womack, Neil Diamond, Petula Clark, Joe Tex, King Curtis, B.J. Thomas, the Box Tops, Paul Revere & the Raiders, and Dionne Warwick.
According to producer Jim Dickinson, who got his first studio job as a session pianist for American in 1965, the key to Moman’s success was that he didn’t waste his time grooming stars: American was first and foremost a studio. “Chips had the idea–which doesn’t seem like much now, but back then it was truly brilliant–that you didn’t need artists,” he says. “Record companies had artists, and if he had everything else, he could plug their artist into his machine. People at Stax and even Willie Mitchell’s Hi Records had ambitions to be like Motown–that’s part of the heartbreak of Stax, that they tried to do more than the area could support. Chips saw the fallacy of that line of thought, and he understood that if he could solve artistic problems for record companies they’d pay him a lot of money.”
But American’s achievement was more than commercial: the Elvis and Dusty reissues showcase an extraordinarily gifted rhythm section exploring a wide range of sounds, from gospel to swamp blues to country to pop, and playing them all with the fire and precision of friends who’ve known each other a long time. If the Stax label was the voice of the black urban south, then the accumulated work of the 827 Thomas Street Band was the sound of the white south rolling with the changes.
Chips Moman came from La Grange, Georgia. His father had been a pro baseball player, but Moman inherited his mother’s interest in music and in his teens traveled the south as a laborer, painting houses and gas stations and playing guitar in rock ‘n’ roll bands. After a trip out west, Moman came to Memphis eager to assemble a studio like the ones he’d seen in Los Angeles, where a strong producer could pull together writers, players, and engineers to create a single musical personality. In 1960 he became house engineer at the fledgling Stax, helping it move into the famous movie theater building, bringing in Booker T. Jones to play keyboards, and writing the Mar-Keys’ “Last Night,” which in the summer of ’61 became Stax’s first hit. But he felt he was entitled to more money for his creative work, and after exchanging words with Stax owner Jim Stewart, Moman was nudged out by Steve Cropper of Booker T. & the MG’s.
With a $3,000 settlement they were able to collect from Stax, Moman and his lawyer, Seymour Rosenberg, opened American, occupying a two-story brick building across the street from a record shop called Ike’s. Early on Moman managed to lose his share of the business to another partner, who in turn sold out (along with Rosenberg) to his uncle, Arkansas bean farmer Don Crews. But after placing the Gentrys, a band of Memphis high-schoolers, on the charts with “Keep On Dancing” in 1965, Moman was able to buy his interest back.
By then he’d begun to assemble a crack in-house rhythm section that included some of the best, most versatile players in town. He’d been doing session work himself and several times had gone to New York or Nashville with Reggie Young, a rockabilly guitarist for Hi, and Tommy Cogbill, a frustrated jazz musician but a smooth and melodic R & B bassist. During one visit the men decided to form a cabal so they wouldn’t have to travel so much. “Moman probably instigated this,” says Young, “’cause it was to his advantage that we didn’t work anywhere other than American. But we each drew, we were sort of a drawing card–especially Tommy, ’cause he was such a good player. If somebody wanted to use him or me, we wouldn’t go out of town, they’d have to come there and record.”
Young had moved to Memphis from Arkansas around 1950 and by the end of the decade he was the hottest guitarist in town, playing with Bill Black, Scotty Moore, and D.J. Fontana– Elvis’s first band. Moman lured him over to American from Hi, along with Bobby Emmons, an organist from Corinth, Mississippi.
From producer Stan Kesler’s band came Gene Chrisman, a masterful drummer–earthy and rock steady, yet sensitive and precise. “You can hear every note,” marvels Dickinson. “The articulation of what he does is so minute, plus he has the ability to hear a demo and write it down in this bizarre little system of notation he uses.” Pianist Bobby Wood, also from Mississippi, was a former country singer whose career had been cut short by a disfiguring car crash. And Mike Leech joined the band as bassist and arranger after Cogbill moved into the producer’s booth.
The men had all been playing around Memphis for years, but Moman knew how to motivate them. “Chips had a burning desire that just went right up the wire and got on the tape,” says Dickinson. “And he could infect a room full of musicians with it, especially those guys. When you’re recording you’re capturing the moment, and with session players like that it’s achieving a peak. You take everybody to that peak at the same time. If you’ve got half the band there on cut seven, and the other half on cut eleven, it’s not gonna work. It’s an invisible thing, and Chips was the master of it. I’ve never seen anybody better. He used to hit the talkback; he had this one particular tube in his board that would glow purple, and he’d say, ‘It’s glowing purple, boys, we’ve got 45 minutes.’ What did that mean? But it put the heat on everybody in the room….He always had songs, he had writers, he had musicians. He could do the magic whammy, and everybody knew it.”
“The guy had an uncanny ability in the studio,” says Stanley Booth, who wrote the liner notes to the original Dusty in Memphis. “He just had a knack for finding that little hook, that little groove. Man, he cut so damn many hits over there, I don’t think anyone’s accurately tallied up how many hit records he cut….
There was a kind of emotional thing, a spiritual thing in Memphis. It wasn’t about the money. Chips loved making money–God knows, a man named Chips, you know he loves making money. But that’s not what it was all about. It was about making real good records.”
Outside producers worked at the studio as well, often with Moman engineering. Tom Dowd, who coproduced Dusty in Memphis, was sent down by Atlantic on many occasions, and he remembers the experience warmly in Robert Gordon’s 1995 book It Came From Memphis: “We knew we had an accumulation of musicians who were masters of their instruments, who were gracious and took our bizarre direction easily, who didn’t rebel, and we enjoyed their company.” Booth draws a similar portrait: “They were gentlemen, those guys. They had haircuts. They were just nice southern white boys, real polite, and good competent musicians.” But Dickinson recalls a few instances where they weren’t so nice or polite: “Their idea of having a good time was to get drunk and fight–with each other,” he says. “And take off their clothes. Cogbill used to love to get naked. I literally got under the piano a couple of times.”
Together the players learned each other’s strengths and weaknesses, learned to shape the dynamics of a song by falling out or coming back in. “That’s the kind of instinctive, intuitive thing those guys could do that makes a record,” says Dickinson, who left American for Ardent, where he’d make his name in 1966. “And to do it without being told, to just make it start happening, has an effect on the artist, a hypnotic effect.”
The Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was shot, was about two miles south of American, and the band was in the studio the evening of April 4, 1968. “We got a call that said because of the part of town we were in, things might get a little nuts,” Young recalls. “As I was driving home I heard on the radio that he had died. I felt a little funny, because at the time I was in downtown Memphis. I was kind of glad to get out. They were rioting and everything.” Only a few days before, a march in support of the city’s striking sanitation workers had unraveled into window smashing and looting, so Mayor Henry Loeb called in the National Guard as soon as King was pronounced dead, thinking a massive show of force would stave off a riot. By the end of the week three people were dead, 47 were seriously injured, and property damage approached a million dollars. Compared to other American cities, Memphis showed considerable restraint, but like Dallas it had been stained indelibly.
“Little hamburger places used to stay open until midnight on Saturday night, and then after that they closed at eight o’clock,” says Booth. “There was just this atmosphere of fear and oppression from the police. It changed everything, man. It changed America.”
It changed American, too–even though the racial climate at the studio was extremely relaxed. “Our place, it wasn’t a color thing,” Young explains. “Bobby Womack was working there, and it was as many blacks as it was whites around there most of the time.” As Booth points out, a place like American operated below the radar of Memphis society, quietly eroding the status quo: “You have to keep in mind, the world down there was completely segregated. Just to hang out with black people was an offense, you know? It was heroic of the black people to accept us, and for the white people to respond to that.”
On a personal level, he says, the King assassination had no repercussions. “Nobody I knew who had a black friend in Memphis–and all of us around the music business had many–not one friendship ever was broken by it. We were not part of the problem, we were part of the solution. And that’s the truth.”
But black-on-black violence was escalating in north Memphis, and firearms became commonplace at American. One staffer, quoted in It Came From Memphis, remembers Chips Moman opening the trunk of his car and showing off his cache of weapons. Another says, “I had a little old pistol, something you’d buy over the counter at the 7-Eleven at the time. It wasn’t nothing, but it gave me something sort of secure to have.” The paranoia can’t have done much for the creative atmosphere or for business. “We had Aretha Franklin booked at the time, scheduled to come in, and she canceled,” says Young. “I was really looking forward to that, and she canceled.”
“People didn’t want to come to Memphis after the King assassination,” says Booth. “Who wants to go to a town that’s on fire?”
Certainly not Dusty Springfield: when she signed with Atlantic, the British pop diva’s latest hit was “The Look of Love,” a cool, slinky sound-track ballad by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. She’d flirted with soul–had her first hit with the Motown chestnut “I Only Want to Be With You,” in fact. So Jerry Wexler, the president of Atlantic, came up with the idea of recording her in Memphis, tinting numbers by Bacharach and David, Randy Newman, and Brill Building mainstays Gerry Goffin and Carole King with American’s blue-eyed soul. Springfield spent about a week in September recording with the 827 Thomas Street Band, but her final vocals were rerecorded in New York.
“She wouldn’t go near some of those guys,” says Booth. “She thought they were a bunch of fucking rednecks. She just couldn’t loosen up and do it! I can understand, because here she comes from London–I went from Memphis to live in London, so I know what culture shock is like–and it’s all these guys who speak fluent barbecue, and she don’t know from nothing….Not everybody could see what [Wexler] was doing, naturally, and Dusty, man, she thought the whole idea was crazy. And then she goes down there and there’s all these guys who speak another language. It’s like going to China to cut a record.”
Springfield, interviewed for the liner notes to the reissue, was more diplomatic, saying she’d been intimidated by the studio’s awesome reputation: “They take you to the studio, and they stand you in the booth–‘Oh, that’s where Wilson Pickett stood’–and, you know, you kind of freeze at that point.” But like many artists who came to Memphis to record, she was also taken aback by the informal working environment. She was used to showing up at a clean, modern facility and overdubbing her vocals onto finished backing tracks. “I had never recorded with just a rhythm track–I’ve never done it since,” she said. “I like to hear more or less the whole thing–you know, the glamour bit–in my headphones….But in Memphis I didn’t have that luxury.” Plus, at American, the musicians might spend an hour shooting the bull before they finally got down to work. Instead of sight-reading from written arrangements, they’d listen to a demo tape of the song–usually a single vocal with guitar or piano accompaniment–and mess around with it for an hour or two until everyone was happy with it and the producer decided to roll tape. They were all union players, and technically their sessions were to last only three hours. But that wasn’t the Memphis way: they might spend five or six hours cutting a song–more if Moman was in charge.
When Springfield died earlier this year, Dusty in Memphis was frequently cited as her best album, but it also stands as one of the 827 Thomas Street Band’s finest achievements. (The reissue includes 14 extra tracks, but only the first of them was recorded at American; two were cut with Philly soul kingpins Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff and the rest were done in New York with unnamed session players.) “Son of a Preacher Man,” the first hit from the sessions, was a down-home soul tune by John Hurley and Ronnie Wilkins, just the sort of thing the band might have cut with Pickett or Womack.
But most of the album is lush, urbane pop, and the American rhythm section–these good old boys who liked nothing better than to get lit and wrassle–delivered performances so subtle and sophisticated that Booker T. & the MG’s couldn’t have managed them on their best day. Many of the tracks are swathed in strings and horns, but “No Easy Way Down” shows how perfectly Cogbill’s lucid bass and Chrisman’s cool drumming lock together, how elegantly Wood’s piano and Emmons’s organ interweave. Young contributes his usual quicksilver blues runs to Goffin and King’s “Don’t Forget About Me” but takes up sitar for Bacharach and David’s “In the Land of Make Believe” and Spanish guitar for the exotic ballad “The Windmills of Your Mind.” Musically speaking, Dusty may not have come to Memphis, but with the American band at the height of its expressive powers, Memphis came to her.
For Dickinson Dusty in Memphis exemplifies the Memphis pop sound. “That was the reason [American was] there, to lighten it up to the point that it would cross over. The word we’re not saying here is soul music, because it wasn’t R & B–it was soul music, and soul music is multiracial. You can’t name me an instance of a black rhythm section that made soul records.” In the early 60s, Sam Cooke mixed rave-ups like “Shake” with standards like “For Sentimental Reasons,” and Aretha Franklin cut her breakthrough album, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, with a backup band that included Moman and Cogbill.
In 1954 Memphis had become the musical midpoint between the Grand Ole Opry and the Mississippi Delta, and its rock ‘n’ roll prophet, Elvis Presley, had shaken American culture with the force of an atomic blast. But for more than a decade Presley had been recording in Nashville or LA, releasing schlock singles and sliding into irrelevance as the British Invasion took hold. In January 1969, following a highly successful TV special for which he rocked out with his old Memphis sidemen, he decided to record in town again and booked a ten-day session at American. The album, From Elvis in Memphis, and the two singles he cut there would revive his recording career and revalidate him as a singer, but they were also a triumph for Moman and the creative machine he’d assembled.
“You think I wasn’t waiting for the phone to ring?” asks Dickinson, laughing. “Everybody in Memphis wanted to play with Elvis–to breathe life back into the corpse, which they unmistakably did.” Moman knew Marty Lacker, who’d been the best man at Presley’s wedding, and George Klein, a DJ who’d been friends with Presley; together Lacker and Klein persuaded Presley to give American a shot. Young still remembers the moment Presley came through the back door at 827 Thomas, flanked by his people: “I was totally surprised at my reaction. We all backed up a step, I guess. ‘Wow!’ I thought. ‘This is Elvis.’ Without being dramatic about it, he just took over the room when he came in.”
For Moman, working with Presley was a dream come true, and by all accounts he handled the situation beautifully, asserting his authority without bruising the star’s ego. But a conflict arose between him and Felton Jarvis, who was ostensibly producing the record. “Bobby Wood and I were standing there,” Young recalls, “and Elvis turned to Bobby and said, ‘You like this song?’ These were demos they were playing. Bobby didn’t like it, and Elvis asked me did I like it, and I said, ‘Nah, I don’t like it at all.’ Well, Felton got me and Bobby over to the side: ‘Ooh, don’t be being negative. We’ve got the material picked.’
“Meanwhile Moman had played ‘Suspicious Minds’ [a tune by American staff writer Mark James], and Elvis liked it and wanted to do it. When he left the room, the guy told Moman, ‘We’ve got songs out of the publishing company, so we’re not gonna do any outside songs.’ Moman said, ‘Well, if you don’t want to cut hit records, get out. I thought the idea was that we have a reputation for cutting hit records. If you don’t want to do that, just get Elvis, and all y’all leave.’ George Klein heard that and said something to Elvis about it. Well, Elvis made everybody else leave. All his entourage, everybody was gone. It was just Elvis, the band, Felton and Moman, and a couple engineers from RCA.”
As documented on the second CD of Suspicious Minds, Presley slipped quite easily into the laid-back routine at American, working out songs with the band just as he had at Phillips’s studio in the mid-50s and tossing off good-natured covers of tunes by Neil Diamond, Bobby Darin, and the Beatles. And while From Elvis in Memphis featured country tunes like “Long Black Limousine” and “Gentle on My Mind,” the American sessions successfully recast Presley as a soul artist by Dickinson’s definition, mixing country, gospel, and R & B, reconnecting the singer with his roots and at the same time bringing him in line with the times. According to Lacker, Moman was instrumental in convincing Presley to record “In the Ghetto,” Mac Davis’s disturbing ballad of a black boy sucked into the cycle of crime and poverty on the mean streets of Chicago. When Presley began to chicken out, Moman said, “Elvis, I’ve got to tell you, man, this is a hit song. You should cut this.” Presley was still indecisive, but after Moman asked if he could have the song for one of his artists he caved. Released as a single in early 1969, it eventually went platinum. “Suspicious Minds” would be Presley’s first number one record in seven years–and the last of his career.
The clock was running out for American as well. In the spring of ’69 Moman clashed with Don Crews, the bean farmer who’d been his silent partner for years, over a contract Moman had signed with Capitol. Crews pulled out to open a rival studio, Onyx, that would compete for the services of Moman’s staff. Race relations in Memphis had been poisoned by the conspiracy theories surrounding the King assassination, and blue-eyed soul was being drowned out by black power, whose own prophet, Stax songwriter Isaac Hayes, topped the charts in October 1971 with the theme from the movie Shaft. According to Young, the American rhythm section had begun asking for a percentage of a record’s profits in exchange for the extra hours they were putting in, which he thinks might have driven away some clients. But on a more basic level, business was simply drying up. The city fathers of Memphis, disgusted by the race mixing that characterized the local recording industry, did nothing to institutionalize soul as Nashville had country. For some time, Young recalls, Moman had been talking about yanking the whole studio up by the roots and moving it to Atlanta, which seemed like virgin territory. But that was just talk–until the night of the Memphis Music Awards in 1972.
Dickinson remembers it well: he and his wife were sitting with Jerry Wexler, and the American crew and their wives were all sitting at another table. Isaac Hayes performed: he made his entrance wearing a cape and a fur bikini, walking a pair of scantily clad white women on chain leashes. “There was a studio then, a local studio run by Steve Cropper and the road manager for Paul Revere & the Raiders,” says Dickinson. “They had the most employees, so they voted for themselves, and they won all the awards….Chips, he would get really mad. You could see it going up like a thermometer, just beet red.”
Dickinson looked over at Young as the nominees for best guitarist were being read. “Reggie is like an innocent–everybody wants good things for Reggie, he inspires that in people. So there’s Reggie, he’s a big tall guy, and he had this little bitty short wife, she was sitting there all dressed up with her hair poofed out. And they read guitar player of the year–Paul Cannon, who was like a 17-year-old kid that nobody had ever heard of. And it just hit Chips–arrrrgh–and they got up and went out. And he was gone within weeks. He tore the center out of the building, took the whole control room with him, had it lifted out on a crane. He wasn’t gonna let anyone move into his studio and plug in.”
Loyal to a fault, the rhythm section followed him to Atlanta, but the new studio failed and most of the players wound up in Nashville. By the end of the 70s Moman had joined them, working with Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson, but he felt like a fish out of water. In 1985 Memphis lured him back to town with a dollar-a-year lease on an old fire station near Beale Street and financing for a new studio that it hoped would put Memphis back on the musical map. Moman pulled a sound truck up to 827 Thomas Street to record Class of ’55, an album that brought together Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Roy Orbison. But his Three Alarm Studio produced no hits, and by December 1990 the Moman Recording Corporation had filed for bankruptcy.
“Chips feels that he’s never been given proper credit, and he has not,” says Booth. “But you know, Memphis hated Elvis, until Elvis died! He was an embarrassment–ol’ greasy headed kid playing nigger music. They didn’t have any use for that. It’s only very recently that Memphis has even begun to perceive that they have something to be proud of in their musical heritage.”
But heritage is all that’s left of the Memphis soul scene. Moman moved back to Georgia. Cogbill died in 1982. Young, Wood, Emmons, Chrisman, and Leech still live in Nashville, where they keep in touch and occasionally have a boys’ night out. The building at 827 Thomas was turned into a tourist attraction after Presley died, but the neighborhood had gone to hell. Only the most devout Elvis fans were willing to drive through the grim housing projects that flanked the street, and the structure was torn down in the late 80s. The building that housed Ike’s still stands across the street, but now it’s Ike’s Beepers & Communications.
The last time Moman was in Memphis, says Dickinson, he was asked to set the record straight in an interview for the Smithsonian Institution. “Chips’s comment was, ‘I don’t want to be remembered–I want to be forgotten.'” Memphis being what it is, he’s sure to get his wish.