Fans of the Memphis Boys have much to be excited about with the upcoming publication of Memphis Boys: The Story of American Studios by author and poet Roben Jones. We were very fortunate to obtain an interview with Roben, who is also an occasional contributor to this blog. This book is a must read -- I've reserved my copy!
Here's the description from Amazon's site:
Memphis Boys chronicles the story of the rhythm section at Chips Moman's American studios from 1964, when the group began working together, until 1972, when Moman shut down the studio and moved the entire operation to Atlanta. Using extensive interviews with Moman and the group, as well as additional comments from the songwriters, sound engineers, and office staff, author Roben Jones creates a collective biography combined with a business history and a critical analysis of important recordings. She reveals how the personalities of the core group meshed, how they regarded newcomers, and how their personal and musical philosophies blended with Moman's vision to create timeless music based on themes of suffering and sorrow.
Recording sessions with the Gentrys, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, the Box Tops, Joe Tex, Neil Diamond, B. J. Thomas, Dionne Warwick, and many others come alive in this book. Jones provides the stories behind memorable songs composed by group writers, such as "The Letter," "Dark End of the Street," "Do Right Woman," "Breakfast in Bed," and "You Were Always on My Mind." Featuring photographs, personal profiles, and a suggested listening section, Memphis Boys details a significant phase of American music and the impact of one studio.
Allen: Roben, this is a great thing you've done. Tell our readers a little about yourself – the usual bio stuff.
Roben: Thanks for the compliment Allen. About me – I'm from West Virginia, a little town called Hansford that's right on the edge of the big mountains. When I was a child and lived there, the town was unincorporated, which meant that it wasn't even on a map, and that was kind of strange. It's like your town doesn't exist or something. When I was fourteen my family came to Gallipolis, Ohio, and I've been there ever since.
I had a year and a half at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia. Shane Keister, one of the later Memphis Boys, also went to school there, about four years before I did. And Bobby Wood's wife Janice is from Gallipolis! So there's a bit of synchronicity.
I was a poet for many years before I wrote this book. I really thought I was going to be the next Emily Dickinson. I wrote for little magazines, gave readings, read my work on West Virginia Public Radio and so on. All the things poets do. My first major publication was in an anthology called Wild Sweet Notes: 50 Years of West Virginia Poetry. It came out in 2000. It’s still in print if any of your readers would like to find it.
Allen: How did you become interested in the Memphis Boys? When did you first hear them?
Roben: I tell the full story in my preface to the book, but to sum it up, one Saturday morning in April 1969 I heard on the radio the Box Tops version of I Shall Be Released. I was fourteen.
To this day I can't describe how affected I was by that record. It wasn't the song so much as it was the production. I didn't know who had done it until I bought the 45, but Tommy Cogbill and Chips Moman had woven the music so creatively around this Bob Dylan tune that they had transformed it into a statement of their own. It was just such an original concept. It made me aware of the producer's role in making a great record.
And that was just IT for me. I had to hear more. I started collecting all the Memphis Boys work.
Allen: Lots of people are fans of the Memphis Boys, but in writing a book you are paying them the ultimate tribute. What made you decide to do it?
Roben: It was a case of one thing leading to another. I’d met Mike Leech online, which was quite a thing, and I'd been asking him questions about the songs and sessions. Mike asked me one day if I'd ever considered writing a book about the Memphis Boys. Up until that second, I hadn’t. I knew their great history needed to be documented, but it had never occurred to me in a million years that I could be the one to do it. But Mike thought I could, and he encouraged me. He believed in me more than I believed in myself at that point, and so I agreed to try.
I knew that the book would be my way of thanking the group, and Chips, for all the beautiful music they had created. My goal was to tell their story accurately, in a way that would do them honor and let the world know what they'd accomplished.
Allen: I understand it's being published by the University of Mississippi Press. How’d you hook up with them?
Roben: Actually, it's being brought out by the University Press of Mississippi. They are a smaller press that specializes in books about Southern culture. They are based out of Jackson, Mississippi.
As to how it happened – that came about through Hayward Bishop, the Memphis Boys' former percussionist and second drummer. Hayward knew John Broven, who ran Ace Records in England and who also had contacts among publishers here. Hayward arranged to have Broven see a rough draft, and from then on Broven shopped the book. He recommended that I try the University Press of Mississippi. I sent them some sample chapters and they liked it. So all thanks to Hayward and John Broven for that.
Allen: Tell us about your research efforts – give us an idea of the range of sources you used to write the book.
Roben: I spoke to a fair number of people – old patrons of the group like Quinton Claunch, Fred Foster, and Papa Don Schroeder. I also spoke with a few singers – B. J.Thomas, Sandy Posey, and Brenda Lee. Brenda did an album at American in 1970 that she considers one of her best ever. I talked to some of the songwriters who had been a part of American – Wayne Carson was the one with whom I spoke most often. I interviewed a few of the sound engineers, interesting characters like Ed Kollis, who's also one of the most underrated blues harmonica players in the world.
I read and re-read the great histories that had already offered a slight look at American – Peter Guralnick's Sweet Soul Music was a major source. It was an example of how a music history should be written. I also re-read the works of just plain historians, people like David Halberstam and William Manchester, who could tell not only the facts but the facts behind the facts, if you will. I was learning how to be a historian as I went along, and it's to be hoped that their styles helped teach me what to do.
One really cool thing was that both Reggie Young and Bobby Emmons had kept all their session logs! Many musicians don't do that but they had. That was a big help in determining exactly whom they were recording and when. Reggie would get out his session books and go over them with me line by line. And we'd discuss details of the important dates. It was just like being back there.
I also talked to musicians in Nashville who were establishing their careers at the same time the Memphis Boys were, because I wanted to know what influence the group had on their contemporaries. I’ve got a comment in the book from Ron Oates, the piano player, who was saying that the younger Nashville musicians wanted to incorporate some of that freedom and expressiveness they admired into their own sessions. I talked to several other people as well, but the one from whom I learned the most was Norbert Putnam. He gave me a context, supplied me with a lot of background details, especially about the early days of Muscle Shoals when Reggie was working many sessions there and Dan Penn and Spooner were part of it all.
Allen: You mention that the guys said you uncovered stuff they didn't know. Could you give us a sneak preview?
Roben: Here's one example. After the Elvis sessions in 1969, when the studio became really successful, some of the guys thought that the atmosphere and mood of the place changed. Which was completely understandable, because everybody was dealing with success at a level they had never anticipated. Several people observed that things got more complicated, but they kept that observation to themselves and had absolutely no idea that anyone else among them was seeing it that way too.
Understand that they never sat down as a group and talked about what was going on when it happened. These are very matter of fact sort of people. They didn't analyze anything, they just did it. The way they communicated best with each other was through that incredible music.
Allen: I think you may have the most complete discography to date – better than the Memphis Boys themselves. How did you find that information?
Roben: I've already mentioned Reggie Young's and Bobby Emmons' session books. But I'd been a record collector since discovering their work in 1969.I have a friend in New York City who's also a record collector and American Studios buff, and we'd pool our information about new releases and older singles. A friend of John Broven's over in England helped me some as well, and I also got some assistance from the guys themselves. Several of them made CDs for me of single releases I didn't have and had never heard, because they all wanted me to know as much of their work as possible. They went far out of their way to do that, and I appreciate it very much.
Allen: I've always wanted to know more about Tommy Cogbill. What did you find out about him?
Roben: Learning more about Tommy Cogbill was one of the absolute delights of doing this book. I discovered the group through Cogbill, as you know, and he was my favorite always. The book in fact is dedicated to him.
Tommy Cogbill was the heart and soul of the Memphis Boys. What Otis Redding was to Stax, what Duane Allman was to his band, what Keith Richards is to the Stones – that was the role Tommy played for the American Group. He was the one they all looked up to, the one whose opinions mattered most. Even Chips deferred to him in many ways.
He was Mr. Reliable, the one holding everything together. He was very much a gray eminence because he was quiet and preferred the background. He was respected not only as a musician but for the content of his character, as Spooner Oldham is. Tommy embodied the strong silent type – he always had time for people, was patient with younger musicians. That patience was what Jimmy Johnson and Roger Hawkins both remembered most about him.
The Memphis Boys could be very tribal at times – they had a way of shutting out most of the guys who came in later. Tommy never did that. He accepted everybody just as they were, on whatever personal or musical level he found them. There was no pettiness in Tommy. And when he became successful, he went through a few changes here and there about it but for the most part just stayed unaffected as ever and concentrated on doing good work.
It's one big hope of mine that people will go back and seek out Tommy's work as a producer. He’s remembered for Angel of the Morning and Sweet Caroline, but he did many other great works as well. As a producer, he was twenty years ahead of his time. As a bass player, he was the best.
Allen: Very little – other than the Aretha sessions – has been written about the early years of Muscle Shoals when Tommy, Chips, and Reggie covered sessions in Muscle Shoals. You talked to Roger Hawkins, Dan Penn, Spooner Oldham, and Donnie Fritts among other people. What did they have to say about the Memphis Boys?
Roben: The guys in Muscle Shoals were a revelation. I want to write something about them alone someday. They are incredible musicians too, and they all speak of Tommy, Chips, and Reggie with the greatest admiration and respect.
As you know, Dan and Spooner were part of American for several years, and Donnie was pretty much an honorary group member. They all say they learned from Chips' standards of excellence and Tommy's total commitment to the music. And the guys in the Shoals' first rhythm section, who worked with Reggie before they moved to Nashville, say they used to listen to the Memphis Boys records and learn from them. They thought it was a better way of making music than the assembly-line Nashville formula that was in use back then.
Jerry Carrigan said that later in his career, when he sat in with the group for some sessions in Nashville, he’d walk into the studio smiling because he knew that he and they had the same approach to making music. He wouldn't have to fight them to do something creative on the record because they were creative as a matter of course.
Allen: Give us a sense of the average studio session – how it went, how they put the music together.
Roben: It really depended on who was producing. It was very informal always, but if Chips was at the board there would be a lot of cutting up and kidding around. He’d sit around and talk to everybody beforehand, just visiting with everybody to get them relaxed and loosened up. That was unheard of in Nashville where everything was on the clock.
Chips would work with the band, sometimes all night long, like a sculptor slowly carving his vision from wet clay, working with a song until it was both technically right and expressive of a true feeling. He is a writer himself so he knew how to frame a lyric. He’d make a few gentle suggestions, but he also left a lot up to the band.
He also did a lot of just hanging around, hanging out with them. He liked an environment where it was just like a family in a house, or a bunch of good old boys picking on a front porch somewhere.
Tommy was a little more precise. You got in there, you did the song in a couple of takes, and if it didn't work he'd set the piece aside. Tommy wouldn't be in the studio all night. He usually had everybody out of there by 10 PM.
Dan Penn is a great producer, very underrated about the moods he can create on record. He sort of combined the two styles. He was as informal as Chips but as precise as Tommy.
The musicians used to horse around to put the out of town acts at ease. It didn't always work, but the singers were then supposed to be awed at the depth and beauty with which these guys could play.
Allen: Talk about the studio in terms of the physical setting. How did they come to acquire the building at 827 Thomas Street?
Roben: That was all Chips' doing. He had the building, he had the studio from the moment he started bringing the band in for sessions. He had found it, he said, while he was just driving through town. As you know, he discovered the movie theater that became the Stax building, and he'd found it the same way, so he had a talent for seeing great old buildings and knowing what would work. That’s an essential skill for a producer, I think. He was in partnership with Seymour Rosenberg when he found 827, and Seymour's father owned an auto-parts store further down on Chelsea Avenue, so that may have had something to do with the location.
Allen: What about the Memphis Boys in the pre-American days? They started at Hi, Stax, and Sun. How did it all come together?
Roben: If there was a catalyst, it was the Bill Black Combo. That’s where Reggie Young and Bobby Emmons worked. They parlayed that into a staff job at Hi, and later on both Mike Leech and Tommy Cogbill joined them there.
Gene Chrisman and Bobby Wood came from the Sun side of things. They were in a club band together, an outfit called the Starlighters.Stan Kessler recorded them and he used all the musicians plus Chips for Bobby's solo record in 1964.That's why he often gets credit for putting the band together.
They all knew each other from the clubs, but Chips was the only one who had any Stax affiliations. Later on Shane Keister worked for a little while at Stax, and Hayward Bishop drummed for the remnants of the Bill Black Combo. So that kind of takes the story full circle.
Allen: What do you think makes these guys so special? You have talked about the check-your ego-at-the-door philosophy among other things.
Roben: Lack of ego is part of it, but that isn't the only characteristic that makes this group special. They may not be egomaniacs in the usual sense of the word, but they do have a great deal of craftsmanly pride. They never wanted to put their names on a product of inferior quality. Listen to the songs on the albums they did – there is absolutely no filler. From Chips right on down the line, they wanted absolutely every song on every session to be the best it could be, and they wanted every song to have the potential of being a Number One hit.
That attitude was helped along by the fact that each and every member of this group, past and present, is a musical virtuoso – we're talking world class, skill on a symphonic level. And that's not just hyperbole, because these guys incorporated principles from classical music into their work – the concept of dynamics, for example. It makes for music of great subtlety and nuance.
Another factor – and it's hard to believe this has been overlooked as people have written about this group – has been the very specific philosophy of life expressed in their music, in large part because of the subject matter Chips emphasized on his sessions. It is music about sorrow, pain, unhappiness, hard times, suffering, and how to endure them with stoicism and grace. It’s the very voice of the working-class South, people who try and try but can never get ahead or catch a break. Chips and this group speak to them and for them. And they should rightfully be recognized for the depth and breadth of that viewpoint. It’s grown-up music for grownups, and it has so much to say.
Allen: Do you know anything about Chips' vault and whether future releases of early American recordings are a possibility?
Roben: I can't presume to speak for Chips, but I wouldn't be a bit surprised if he releases something else eventually. I hope he does. We’ll all need something beautiful and stoic to listen to as we get older.
Allen: What are they up to now? Do you still talk to them?
Roben: Do I talk to them? Oh sure, some of them more than others. Mike Leech has been my best friend since before the book, so I guess I hear from him the most. Occasionally I hear from Bobby Wood. I usually see Reggie at various musical events when I get to town for them – it's always good to see him. I’ve stayed in regular touch with Spooner Oldham, Shane Keister, Wayne Carson, Glen Spreen, and Donnie Fritts. I talked to Hayward Bishop a lot. I've remained close to a few of the Shoals guys as well.
The group are less active than they used to be, especially since Chips has retired, but now and then they get together for special events, like this past summer when Chips and the core group reunited for Elvis Week in Memphis.
I just want to say in closing, thanks for giving me space on the blog to talk about the book and for asking me some great questions. I’ve never done an email interview before, and it's been lots of fun.
This book was truly a labor of love, and so much happened to me during this journey that I could write a book about writing a book! Maybe I will someday. I’d also like to extend my thanks to all the group and their friends for being so open, so gracious, and so patient with me. Doing this book is something for which I'll always be grateful. I wouldn't have missed this for anything.