A beautiful mess with ‘Memphis Boys: The Story of American Studios’ wordsmith Roben Jones

Gibson-endorsing American Sound producer Chips Moman is right at home with an acoustic guitar in LaGrange, Georgia, in 2001.
Gibson-endorsing American Sound producer Chips Moman is right at home with an acoustic guitar in LaGrange, Georgia, in 2001.
“The only two things in life that make it worth livin’, is guitars that tune good and firm feelin’ women:” Outfitted in blue denim and a dark poorboy cap, the Gibson-endorsing Chips Moman is right at home alongside an acoustic guitar in LaGrange, Georgia. The professional shot appeared in the November 18, 2001, issue of the since-defunct Atlanta Constitution morning newspaper. Photography by Jean Shifrin / The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Archives

Chips Moman had to leave Memphis for a little while. The only man to effectively produce Elvis Presley besides Sam Phillips at Sun, Moman wore his heart on his sleeve, refused to play music biz politics, and abhorred self-promotion. The Memphis Boys, Moman’s crack team of session personnel at American Sound Studio, were not confined to a sole music style or record label like Motown or their neighbors five and a half miles to the south at Stax. But the stats speak for themselves — a record 122 Billboard Top Ten hits in a five year period culminating with Moman’s misguided move to Atlanta in 1972.

Moman reimagined himself as a hot Nashville songwriter and producer, winning a Best Country Song Grammy for B.J. Thomas’s “[Hey Won’t You Play] Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song.” Memphis council members and bankers urged Moman to give the Birthplace of Rock ‘n’ Roll a second chance in the mid-’80s. The city of Memphis leased an abandoned fire house to Moman for one dollar, a 99-year agreement with an option to purchase. Christened 3 Alarm Studio, Moman convinced Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins to celebrate their diamond recording anniversary with the Class of ’55. Listeners were lukewarm.

Business deals gone south, Ringo Starr’s cursed sessions, hidden archival treasures, and final conversations occupy the final chapter of an engrossing interview with Jones. The Ohio-raised historian will be involved with the second volume of Ace Records’ upcoming Memphis Boys CD [the first arrived in 2012; Ace is the leading reissue label in the United Kingdom]. When Jones conquers her writers’ block, expect a bio on “El Paso” Nashville session guitarist Grady Martin. To rewind to part two, entitled “Straight Shooter Roben Jones Rights an Unjustly Neglected Memphis Music Saga,” just click on the link.

The Roben Jones Interview, Part Three [Conclusion]

Did Chips Moman exhibit any deficiencies as a producer?

Chips had a lot going for him artistically — a creative vision, musical talent, technical ability — he was a great sound man. He could paint the most beautiful pictures with sound and sum up feelings of hard times, despair, and sorrow like nobody else ever could. That vision took place over every other factor. Sometimes Chips emphasized the song so much that he didn’t consider the style and voice of the singer. Cases in point are Dionne Warwick’s 1970 version of Spanky and Our Gang’s “Give a Damn” and Cymarron’s sole LP Rings [1971].

As a businessman, he had a lot of shortcomings. He was a very trusting man who operated on old-school word is bond dealings. Suits didn’t always operate that way. He got taken advantage of time and time again, no matter how wary he taught himself to be, because he just couldn’t think in terms of that dollar sign above all things.

What Chips was all about was the art. That’s where Don Crews came in. Don had a solid head for business, and for that matter so did Marty Lacker, who replaced Don. As long as Chips had someone like that operating the business end of the studio, he did fine.

What was the worst instance where unscrupulous folks took advantage of Chips?

Probably when he was young at Stax Records in 1962. Chips was tossed out after he had helped build the company, and then Seymour Rosenberg approached Chips with the suggestion that he sue Stax and settle for a pittance. Chips didn’t know it, but Rosenberg was working for Stax co-founder Jim Stewart. Chips never really got over that. It hurt him till the day he died.

Was Chips justified in his decision to leave Memphis in June 1972 and unveil American Studios in Atlanta? Was it a successful venture?

Yes, Chips had some very sound reasons for leaving. The Memphis Boys weren’t getting any work at all. The whole city was dying, and the music industry there was slowly running out of steam. American couldn’t help but be affected by it.

Chips had a restless, questing nature. He had a lot of the old pioneer spirit in him. He wanted to strike out and do something new, and Atlanta was close to where he had lived as a boy. He wanted to make his life back there again.

Chips produced a moderate hit for Roger Miller in Atlanta that earned encouraging reviews — “Hoppy’s Gone,” a moving tribute to William “Hopalong Cassidy” Boyd’s then-recent death b/w “The Day I Jumped from Uncle Harvey’s Plane” [No. 42 C&W December 1972, Mercury Records].

Cymarron was a one hit wonder soft rock trio whose lead singer Richard Mainegra also co-wrote “Separate Ways” with founding Memphis Mafia member Red West for Elvis. Chips was behind the console in Memphis for their debut A-side “Rings” [No. 17 POP April 1971, Entrance Records] and continued to guide them when they tracked “Start Again” b/w “Keep Me Warm” [October 1972] in Atlanta. A beautiful single that got no airplay at all. There was an obscure Willie Hightower single — “Easy Lovin’” b/w “I Love You So.” Sadly, not much else. By 1973 Chips pulled up stakes and headed to Nashville for greener pastures.

Let’s explore the aborted Ringo Starr sessions at Chips’ 3 Alarm Studio in Memphis.

There are some of them already released on YouTube [i.e. “I’ve Changed My Mind” and a cover of Billy Swan’s “I Can Help.” “They are from a cassette recorder that somebody snuck into the control room during playback. That’s why they sound so bad,” says bassist Sam Shoup. Between 14 and 16 songs were recorded over two weeks in February and April 1987 with Starr on vocals only, including Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame,” Stevie Wonder’s “Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Doo-Da-Day,” Grand Funk Railroad’s “Some Kind of Wonderful,” “Beat Patrol,” “I’ve Changed My Mind,” and “Whiskey and Soda”].

Of course, they’re worthy of reissue. Ringo thought they weren’t. He wanted to put the All-Starr Band together and do a record with them, and he feared an album of sad songs would hurt that. That was his real reason for suing Chips to have the record blocked. Poor Chips, he didn’t want or need that kind of trouble right then.

Didn’t Ringo also reveal that he was drunk during the sessions?

Ringo said he was drinking, but Mike Leech didn’t recall anything about Ringo being drunk or out of control in any way during the sessions.

What other notable artists visited 3 Alarm?

Bobby Womack’s album with “When the Weekend Comes” [Womagic, No. 68 R&B, 1986] was recorded at 3 Alarm and so was part of Highwayman 2 [1990] featuring Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, and Johnny Cash [lead single “Silver Stallion” rose no further than No. 25 C&W].

3 Alarm was active for about four years until 1989, but Chips had an awful time with that studio. I know the building is still there. As usual the city has done nothing with it, in spite of all the money the city fathers put into trying to bring Chips back to town. That was as disastrous as Atlanta in 1972, maybe more so. Chips never cut another record in Memphis.

What was Chips’ final project?

Chips’ last project that was released was a 2001 Billy Joe Royal album called Now and Then, Then and Now, recorded shortly after he moved back to LaGrange. Chips hoped to launch a label from which other recordings could come, but that didn’t happen.

Around 2002 when I began the book, they had just finished an album with B.J. Thomas that never got distributed because the suits Chips shopped it to weren’t interested. I don’t think some of them even knew who either Chips or B.J. were.

The last project Chips worked on was a set of recordings he attempted with Willie Nelson and Jerry Lee Lewis in 2004 and 2005. Nothing came of it, and the session pretty much fell apart. I’ve never had an opportunity to hear any of these abandoned sessions. I assume they are in Chips’ tape vault.

As a matter of fact, when Chips found out I was a collector, he asked me to send him some albums he’d lost for his vault. There had been a fire some years back, and a few of his tapes were destroyed. Of course, I sent him the CD’s that he requested — an older B.J. Thomas album and maybe a Merrilee Rush one. It was an honor.

What else can you reveal about Chips’ unreleased music vault?

Chips had a tape archive at his farm in LaGrange. Everything appeared to be well stored and cataloged. His son Casey would probably be the one who knows about it in more detail, or his daughter Monique. I imagine they would be the ones to approve whatever does get out.

I’d love to see Chips’ library unearthed and hear all that is there. Roy Hamilton’s lost January 1969 album springs to mind. We need more beautiful things to listen to in life.

Did Chips give you any feedback after the book was published?

Chips was pleased with some of the individual chapters, but overall he did not like the book. He told me he was “very disappointed” in it. I don’t think I totally succeeded in capturing Chips’ complicated personality, although I tried. I told him so, and he nodded.

Chips didn’t exactly say why he disliked it. He probably felt it wasn’t universally flattering to him, but I went out of my way to emphasize his many gifts and talents.

Why did Memphis drag its heels into the twenty-tens before finally giving Chips his rightful due?

The City of Memphis left Chips and American out of the 1972 Memphis Music Awards, despite them having recorded some important material the previous year, including songwriter John Prine’s self-titled first album.

Chips was hurt and more than anything, their exclusion from the awards was his impulse to leave Memphis for a temporary sojourn in Atlanta. Eventually settling in Nashville as a country producer, Chips really didn’t do anything different than he had done at American — his style was the same, he used the same band, and made the same types of records with the same themes.

One of the most admirable things about Chips was that he never played music industry politics. He just wanted to be left alone to create. The music industry didn’t like that. He wasn’t above telling off the suits if need be, which is why he never got his due in Memphis till he was almost too old and sick to enjoy it.

Graceland set the ball rolling in the right direction during Elvis Week 2009 when Chips and the Memphis Boys were interviewed by former Turner Classic Movies Vice President of Original Productions Tom Brown to promote the 40th anniversary of the Elvis sessions and the issue of the deluxe 2-CD Legacy edition of From Elvis in Memphis. The Memphis Grammy chapter surprised them with a certificate for “Suspicious Minds.”

Chips was given a Blues Note on Beale Street during Elvis Week 2010. Two years later, the Memphis Boys received their note. Chips had already had his stroke but had recovered from it more or less. He was beginning to look frail. And you never thought of Chips as frail. He had an incredibly strong spirit. I’m amazed he made it to 79 years old [Moman passed away on June 13, 2016, the day after his birthday]. He gave the world so much beauty and so much to think about.

There’s plenty more the city of Memphis could do to honor Chips. I’d like to see them name a street after him and a street for the Memphis Boys. After all, his hometown of LaGrange dedicated a then–unfinished six-mile section of highway known as the Pegasus Parkway in Chips’ name in 2011 [Moman used an early 1960s Rambler American to cut the ribbon by driving through it].

When did you last speak with Chips?

It was for the ceremonies when the city of Memphis put up a plaque at 827 Thomas Street, in front of the Dollar Store that’s there now, to commemorate American. Graceland unleashed their second Elvis Week concert featuring the Memphis Boys later that night [August 13, 2014].

That’s when Chips told me he didn’t like the book. He was in a wheelchair then, because he had had another stroke. His emphysema was getting the better of him as well. I hated to see him in that kind of shape. He tried to quit smoking several times, poor man, but never succeeded. Unfiltered Camels, the worst.

But I was glad he had lived long enough to see his beloved city bestow recognition. They said at the ceremony that they took my book in to the City Council and the Memphis Historical Society and showed them pages and chapters from it to demonstrate why American had been so important.

What keeps you contented these days, and is another book on your radar?

I’ve been doing the housewife thing for almost two years now…and I love it. I married my longtime companion, James Fetterly. We found an old 1940s house in Gallipolis, where I’ve been since I was 14 when my family came here. We’ve been doing a lot to it, putting our stamp on it you might say.

This might seem funny to many people, but ever since the book came out I haven’t been able to write a thing. Just a complete case of writer’s block. I wanted to write a biography of Grady Martin, and maybe I will if my “voice” ever comes back. I imagine it will eventually.

When that happens, I not only want to write about Grady but do poetry as well, and get a memoir about growing up in the West Virginia coal camps my mother wrote published. Mom wanted to get it all down on paper before she died because it was a way of life that is now gone. She and one of her older sisters both always wanted to be a writer, and that’s why I became one.

I haven’t given up writing by any means, but after Memphis Boys and all that happened during and as a result of the book, I just burned completely out. It’s only now I realize how much I poured into the writing of that very simple story. I think my whole life went into it.

But I was and am honored to be the one to tell it. I’m kind of happy I was able to put my writing to the purpose of giving recognition to others, rather than have it be just an ego thing about me and what I was doing.

Why a bio about Nashville A-Team alum Grady Martin [19292001]?

Grady is my favorite session guitarist next to Reggie Young. His work was so varied, so versatile, but always done with passion and heart. The song that turned me on to Grady was “The Partisan” with Joan Baez [Come from the Shadows, 1972].

His collaborations with Marty Robbins remain definitive, especially Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs [1959] — e.g. “El Paso,” “Big Iron,” and “The Little Green Valley.” He unleashed the electric guitar solo on Elvis’s “Devil in Disguise” [No. 3 POP, 1963] and is the mandolin player on Larry Gatlin’s “Broken Lady” [No. 5 C&W, 1975], which he recorded with the Memphis Boys under Fred Foster’s direction.

Grady released solo singles as well as 13 albums [1951–1977 on Decca, Capitol, and Monument]. On his 1965 Instrumentally Yours he did a slow ballad called “Theme from Malamondo [Funny World].” Superb. “Ribbon of Darkness,” that he did both with Marty [No. 1 C&W, 1965] and as a solo piece [A Touch of Country, 1967], is phenomenal. On his final Cowboy Classics LP [1977] he arranged and played a version of “Shenandoah” that would break your heart. That’s just for starters.

What doors have been opened in the decade since Memphis Boys was distributed?

I got to write the profile of Chips that appears now in the Memphis Music Hall of Fame at his exhibit [Moman was inducted in 2014]. I got to live a dream come true when Ace Records asked me to help choose the selections for the Memphis Boys companion CD [2012], and I also got to write an essay for the collection. That was a true honor, and I’m most grateful.

The true honor, though, was all the great people I met and in many cases befriended…so many of whom are dead now. I miss them all. Doing the book was such a privilege, a trust, and a labor of love. I really wanted that spotlight to shine on some topnotch talents who never got the credit they deserved.

Don’t go anywhere yet! Both previous chapters of the Roben Jones interview can be accessed below.

© Jeremy Roberts, 2019. All rights reserved. To touch base, email jeremylr@windstream.net and mention which story led you my way. I appreciate it sincerely.

Written by

Retro pop culture interviews & lovin’ someone fierce sustain this University of Georgia Master of Agricultural Leadership alum. Email: jeremylr@windstream.net

Get the Medium app