Back when Memphis was electric — B.J. Thomas on Chips Moman and the Memphis Boys
The impact of producer Chips Moman and the Memphis Boys is still being felt 45 years after the unceremonious closing of American Sound Studio in Memphis. The team recorded over 120 Billboard hit singles during a four-year period — 1967 thru 1971 — whether pop, R&B, soul, country, gospel, or rock and roll. These guys are as synonymous and crucial to American as Booker T. & the M.G.’s were to Stax and the Funk Brothers became with Motown.
Artists such as Elvis Presley, Bobby Womack, Dusty Springfield, Neil Diamond, and B.J. Thomas recorded landmark songs at American. Of course, Presley is the most glaring example of an artist who significantly rejuvenated his fading career by cutting at the studio. Without Moman and the Memphis Boys, fans would not have “In the Ghetto,” “Suspicious Minds”, “Don’t Cry Daddy” or “Kentucky Rain.”
But Thomas had perhaps the longest working relationship with the group, recording hundreds of songs over a 40-year period. Many of his career-defining singles, such as “Eyes of a New York Woman”, “Hooked on a Feeling”, “I Just Can’t Help Believing”, and “Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song,” feature Moman and the Memphis Boys.
Songwriter Mark James actually invited the legendary singer to Memphis in late 1967. From the minute Thomas arrived at American and stepped on the studio floor, he felt like they were his band and he was their singer. In his words, “We just fit together perfectly like hand-in-glove.”
When Moman decided to leave American in 1972, he eventually wound up in Nashville and re-assembled the Memphis Boys. Their hit-making charm picked up right where it had left off, as Tammy Wynette, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Ronnie Milsap, and Thomas scored additional chart-toppers.
Awards have been inexplicably few and far in-between for the group. In the first two decades of the 21st century there have been steps in the right direction — the Memphis Boys were inducted into the Nashville Musicians Hall of Fame in 2007, while they, along with Moman, were subsequently honored by the Memphis Grammy chapter for their pioneering work on “Suspicious Minds” in 2009. But they are still not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Marty Lacker, an original member of the Memphis Mafia, was a key under the radar Memphis music insider for 50 years. When asked to comment on Thomas, Moman, and the Memphis Boys’ cultural impact, the former business manager and vice president of American wasted no time.
“B.J. is a really good artist and unlike many of the young artists of today, he can truly sing and do it without all the new studio technology that helps kids now,” confirmed Lacker prior to his February 13, 2017 death. “He was an exceptional fit with Chips and the Memphis Boys. Their innovativeness and creativity is a significant reason why all those artists they cut had big hit records.
“I think the politics of NYC and L.A. are keeping them out of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The folks that vote on those selections don’t have a clue about their importance in the history of the music business and their hit records.”
While bassist and arranger Tommy Cogbill died in the early ’80s and additional bassist Mike Leech pursues solo interests, pianist Bobby Wood, organist Bobby Emmons, guitarist Reggie Young, and drummer Gene Chrisman attended both Elvis Week 2012 and 2014 in Memphis and basked in the adulation of their many fans.
On August 13, 2012, the talented musicians were honored with a Beale Street Blues Note. Lacker and Memphis music impresario Herb O’Mell gave loving tributes, and Moman was in attendance. The following evening found the Memphis Boys performing a sold-out concert at Graceland. Ginger Holladay and Mary Pederson, backing vocalists on many of American’s hit records, lended support. Seventy-two-year-old Emmons sadly passed away of a blood-related illness on February 23, 2015, followed 16 scant months later by Moman from stroke complications and emphysema at age 79.
With that said, in an exclusive interview featured below Thomas reflects on his fruitful partnership with the uber-talented producer and his studio crew.
The B.J. Thomas Memphis Interview
How did you meet songwriter Mark James?
Mark was a fellow musician of mine. He played the guitar and sang in another band during the time I was in Houston, before I had any hits. We were buddies. Steve Tyrell was another friend of ours.
Steve had gotten a job as a promotion man with Scepter Records and he influenced Mark to move up to Memphis and start writing songs. By then I had had a few hits.
Around 1967 Mark called me and said, “Hey, B.J., they’re really recording a lot of hit records up here at American Sound Studio. They have a lot of great writers in their stable. I’m writing songs, too, so why don’t you move up here? I think you could cut a bunch of hit records if you did.” I replied, “Hey, I’d love to.” So my brother and I packed our stuff and moved to Memphis.
I think I recorded more of his songs than any other artist. I have a lot of his songs on my albums that weren’t hit singles.
To single out a few, “Living Again” [B-side of “Everybody’s Out of Town,” on Young and in Love, 1969], “Mr. Mailman” [Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head, 1969], “I’ve Been Alone Too Long” [Songs, 1973], and “Man to Conquer All” [Back Against the Wall, 1992] are a few of my favorites [Author’s Note: “Pass the Apple Eve” from 1969’s Young and in Love contains an impassioned Thomas vocal, Reggie Young’s driving sitar, and a tight rhythm section].
Of course, Mark’s biggest record, “Suspicious Minds,” was recorded by Elvis. It certainly made his name [Author’s Note: Thomas recorded a strong cover version, retaining Chips Moman and the Memphis Boys. It also appears on Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head].
About 10 years ago I went in the studio and cut a few things that he wrote. The session remains unheard. I think Mark has more or less gone into writing film scores, and I’m not sure he’s really writing pop stuff anymore. Regardless, Mark’s a great guy who always wrote consistent, above-average songs.
What was Memphis like when you moved there in 1967?
Memphis was a great city back when Elvis was alive. A very electric, fun place to be, especially if Elvis was in town. American Sound Studio was in direct competition with Stax Records. Stax was across town, and American was on Danny Thomas Boulevard. They were very competitive as far as the hits that they would do for various people. Just a very competitive music atmosphere [Author’s Note: A Facebook page dedicated to American Sound with tons of rare photos and great discussion can be accessed here. Erick Crews, son of original owner Don Crews, runs the page].
Gosh, it was over 40 years ago, so times were different. A little simpler, and not as many people. It’s difficult to explain. We were more naïve as a nation, maybe not as wise as we are now but not as weather-beaten, either. Granted, we had Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement. But for the most part, we had a peaceful country, at least on my end of it.
Did you start recording the moment you arrived in town?
Pretty much. The 827 Thomas Street Band — aka the Memphis Boys, consisting of guitarist Reggie Young, drummer Gene Chrisman, pianist Bobby Wood, bassist Mike Leech, deceased organist Bobby Emmons and bassist-producer Tommy Cogbill — wasn’t recording anybody when I first got to American, so I was hanging out with them.
Chips walked up to me and said, “Let’s think of a song and let’s sing it with the band and see how it goes.” And that’s exactly what I did.
I always recorded my vocals live with the band. Usually we’d just start from scratch. After we chose whatever song we decided to record, we would learn it on the spot. Sometimes it might develop rather quickly; on other occasions it would take numerous takes to achieve the master. But it was always a natural progression. The entire process was fun to me.
The first time I sang with them it was like, ‘They were my band, and I was their singer.’ We just fit together perfectly like hand-in-glove. I think a lot of singers can say that, because they were a great band. Chips and the Memphis Boys truly deserve to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They were capable of doing any kind of music.
I think the very first thing that I did with them was “The Girl Can’t Help It,” the Little Richard song [an A-side available on The Complete Scepter Singles, released in 2012 via Real Gone Music]. I was a very rhythm and blues guy then, and it was the kind of music I still love.
The next thing I recorded was “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” [On My Way, January 1969]. The Platters had the biggest hit with it. It proved we could record anything we wanted to do.
Mark James’ “Eyes of a New York Woman” was the first hit record we had together [No. 28 POP, June 1968]. It kind of said, “Okay, this is the direction we’re gonna go in.” Immediately after “Eyes,” Mark wrote “Hooked on a Feeling,” and that definitely broke us out [No. 5 POP, November 1968].
How would you describe Chips Moman in the studio?
Chips was a producer, songwriter, engineer, and he was really a good guitar player. Without a doubt, he had an ear for what would be a hit record. His basic instincts made him an impeccable record guy as well as a great producer.
He was probably the best engineer that I’ve ever worked with. Chips didn’t need a guy to engineer for him. He could set the knobs on the board perfectly, and he knew how to get that certain sound. His talent amazes me to this day.
What is the story behind [“Hey Won’t You Play] Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song?”
I was living in New York, and I told my manager that I wanted to go down to Nashville and get back in the studio with Chips. We had not recorded together in roughly three years. So I went there in the fall of 1974, and we began recording the Reunion album [No. 2 C&W, No. 59 Pop].
As we were concluding the sessions, Bobby Emmons spoke up rather excitedly to the control room: “Hey Chips, before we finish, play B.J. that song you just wrote with Larry Butler.” Chips complied, and he played “Wrong Song.” God, I loved it, so we cut it.
It was the only single released from the album, although my cover of Roy Orbison’s “Crying” could have been an excellent follow-up. Nevertheless, “Wrong Song” became a huge hit, going to No. 1 on all three charts — pop, country, and adult contemporary. It was the first single ABC Records ever released. They started their record company with that song [laughs].
“Help Me Make It (To My Rockin’ Chair)” was the name of the follow-up single and accompanying album.
I really never liked that song. I wanted to release another song from the album as the single, but Chips disagreed. He had been calling the shots pretty well up to that point, so the record company went with his selection. We butted heads, had a falling out, and went our separate ways for a couple of years. In retrospect, it wasn’t that big a deal.
But as it turned out, “Rockin’ Chair” didn’t do much business on any chart [№64 Pop, №37 C&W, September 1975] besides Adult Contemporary [№5]. It’s just the way it goes sometimes. Incidentally, according to Billboard I’m in the top 50 artists of all time who charted on the Adult Contemporary chart [№46 as of 2011].
After the album came out, I basically got out of the business and off the road for a few years. I was dealing with some personal and family problems.
By late 1977 Chips and I mended fences, and we recorded the Everybody Loves a Rain Song album. Unfortunately, it wasn’t that commercial, although I thought it was a pretty good album. The title cut, written by Mark James, was my last single to nearly break into the Top 40 on the pop chart [№43 Pop, №25 C&W, №2 AC, January 1978].
When did you last record with Chips Moman and the Memphis Boys?
Circa 2007 we went in the studio and recorded about 10 or 11 songs for an album. We cut just like we always did — songs from different genres including R&B, country, and straight pop.
Chips and the Memphis Boys were writing, and we got a pretty good take on a song I wrote called “Hands on Me Again.” I want to re-record the song again someday. We were just having fun, getting together one more time so to speak.
Unfortunately, there seemed to always be some personal problems that would come up within our group, and those problems prevented the album from coming to fruition. We didn’t take the album to any record companies. To be blunt, I’m not sure any of the songs we cut were of hit record caliber.
Chips suffered a stroke not too long after our session, underwent hip replacement surgery, and basically retired until his death [June 13, 2016]. I imagine our session was probably one of the last that Chips ever helmed.
Is there a reason why these Memphis session cats have not been sufficiently honored for their vast music contributions?
There must be a reason, or reasons, that I’m not aware of. I don’t know why they haven’t been recognized. For a couple of years running, they played on nearly 20 percent of Billboard’s pop chart, which was a fantastic accomplishment back in those days. Remember, Motown, Stax, and the British Invasion were all happening simultaneously.
You had to be kind of versatile in the ’60s. That’s probably why I’ve always done different genres of music, because when I first started, Top 40 radio played all the genres on one station. The Memphis Boys were one of the best bands, as far as doing any kind of genre of music. I was also in that bag, as I was just looking for any song I liked. I wasn’t looking for a certain genre.
I performed a live show with them in Memphis upon the 30th anniversary of Elvis’s death [Author’s Note: Two years later Moman and the Memphis Boys were honored by the Memphis Grammy chapter for their pioneering work on “Suspicious Minds”].
I’m glad they were finally recognized. In 2007 the Musicians Hall of Fame in Nashville inducted the Memphis Boys. I joined them onstage for a short set.
Former American Studios business manager and vice president Marty Lacker has campaigned extensively to get them inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Surely, sooner or later it will happen. Sadly, we’ve already lost Chips, Bobby Emmons, and Tommy Cogbill. Chips and the Memphis Boys are simply the greatest guys in the world. I’ll always love ‘em.
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