Sunday, November 16, 2008
LaGrange Native Chips Moman Talks About His Life in Music
Legendary producer Chips Moman's credits read like a "Who's Who" of American music. Consider just a few of his accomplishments:
* Founded the renowned Stax McLemore Avenue studio where artists like Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, and Booker T. and the MGs created innumerable R&B classics.
* Played lead guitar on Aretha Franklin's "I Never Loved A Man" and co - wrote (with Dan Penn) Aretha's "Do Right Woman."
* Formed American Sound Studios and with the '827 Thomas Street Band' (American's rhythm section) produced over 120 R&B, pop, and country hit records.
* Wrote "Luckenbach, Texas" for Waylon Jennings and subsequently produced hit recordings for (among others) Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Roy Orbison.
Having achieved all this, you'd think he'd have earned the right to brag! But that's not his nature - he's more comfortable talking about (and praising) the musicians and artists he's worked with. Here's the interview:
GaRhythm: You hitchhiked to Memphis at age 14. What made you go to Memphis?
Moman: I had an aunt living there at the time and her son was in the painting business. I went there in hopes of getting a job painting.
GaRhythm: But it didn't turn out that way!
Moman: Well, I went to work painting! [laughs]
GaRhythm: When did you start playing guitar?
Moman: I played guitar ever since I could remember really. I was playing guitar before I ever left here [Georgia]. It seems like I always had played guitar. I had two cousins that played guitar and all my mom's sisters played piano.
GaRhythm: You were working in the painting business and you got more and more into music and wanting to be a professional...
Moman: I never did think in terms of being professional. There were some boys that I hung around with in the neighborhood in Memphis. We all got together and started picking a little bit together. I didn't even own a guitar. I was using another boy's guitar - one of my friends. And we played a couple of the little teenage dances at that time. None of us knew what we were doing - we just got together and kind of played a little bit. And I ended up getting up a job with [Sun recording artist] Warren Smith. He walked into Smart's Drug Store where I was sitting there playing this boy's guitar. And he asked me if I wanted a job and I said "doing what?" That's how it started. It was just something that kind of fell in my lap. It's not something I planned. I never had an idea that I'd ever play music for a living or anything. It was just something that was a hobby. It was entertainment at home, you know?
GaRhythm: Then you went out to California?
Moman: Yeah, with Johnny and Dorsey Burnett.
GaRhythm: You were around 20 or 21?
Moman: I was probably 20 at that time. Johnny and Dorsey had won the Ted Mack Amateur Hour and they were starting to record. And so I played with them and then I started getting hired by other people to play on different sessions out there. A lot of demos and things. That's where I really started getting around recording studios. I'd never been in recording studios at that point.
GaRhythm: Somehow you got back to Memphis, because it wasn't too long after that you got into the Stax and Satellite thing. How did that come about?
Moman: I had gotten in a car wreck on the road with Gene Vincent and Gary Stites. And I was back in Memphis trying to recuperate. Wearing a cast and stuff. Anyway, I played on a record or two for Jim Stewart [owner of Stax Records] who had a little place out in Brunswick [Tennessee]. He had one tape machine and four microphones. We got to talking, and since I had a little experience out there at Gold Star [California recording studio] I said "why don't we find a bigger place?" And a guy named Paul Ritchey and I were riding around and we found this old theater over on McLemore. So we got together here and pooled our money and rented that place and started building that studio.
GaRhythm: And that was the Stax studio, right?
GaRhythm: Jim Stewart's direction in those days was more country-oriented?
Moman: He was a country fiddle player. But he had studied music and could read music. To me that was big time if you could read music!
GaRhythm: He worked in a bank or an insurance company?
Moman: He worked in a bank.
GaRhythm: He must have liked you or trusted you because you steered the company in the rhythm and blues direction...
Moman: That's true. Living in California changed a lot of my music. California was light years ahead of Georgia and Tennessee.
GaRhythm: At Stax, were you just doing things on your own? How did you start?
Moman: I would spend the day just figuring out what I was going to do. Usually it was just someone that would walk in. There was a lot of curiosity in those days. People would just walk into a recording studio, you know? And that's how David Porter came in. And William Bell. These people would just come into the studio and while they were in there we'd just start recording. So that's how those records came about. When Jim would get off in the evenings, he'd come in and I'd play him what I did that day.
GaRhythm: And this was in the McLemore theater, right?
GaRhythm: Now, the first band you had was the Triumphs. You had Booker T. in there. Was that your session band - how did that work?
Moman: They would come in usually in the afternoon after school was out.
GaRhythm: Booker was in high school, I guess.
Moman: Yeah, he would come in wearing an ROTC uniform - him and David Porter.
GaRhythm: Then you had Howard Grimes [on drums]. Was he the Hi Records session drummer?
Moman: That's the same guy. But the guy who played on "Last Nite" by the Mar-Keys, I believe his name was Curtis Green. I remember he came in and I don't think I ever saw him again. I don't know that he ever came back to the studio after that.
GaRhythm: You came up with the name for the Triumphs and then Booker T. credited you with naming the MGs. So you had the MGs and the Triumphs. Were you a car nut at that time?
Moman: The first new car I'd ever gotten was a TR3 Triumph. That was in '61. So I named the band the Triumphs. When I left Stax, they kept those musicians and I guess added to them. But Booker T. was still part of it and they named his group after the other little red sports car, which was an MG. Booker T. was always one of my favorite people in the whole wide world. I always thought a lot of him and he was really a great musician.
GaRhythm: You've been asked about the Memphis sound and the use of horns. What's your take on that?
Moman: We were using horn [sections] over there on the Mar-Keys. Other people were using one horn. They'd use saxophone because saxophone seemed to be the instrument in early rock and roll. They weren't using horn sections. The horn players were guys who'd drop by the studio. So, if somebody who played an instrument dropped by the studio and we were working we'd use them - it didn't matter what they played.
GaRhythm: You'd say "let's do a harmony part here" - is that how it came about?
Moman: That's exactly how - it was just a head arrangement. And different guys would drop in. Gilbert Caples - great saxophone player. Floyd Newman played baritone saxophone. Wayne Jackson on trumpet. Bowlegs Miller played on a lot of stuff. Fred Ford. [Jazz pianist] Phineas Newborn used to drop in. We never really recorded with Phineas, but he always came by and would sit down and play piano and knock everybody out.
GaRhythm: Would you say the Memphis sound is defined by the use of horns?
Moman: I think the horns had a great part but not any more than the bass. The bass and the drums always laid down some kind of groove that everybody could play to. We were doing something that really and truly was new to us. It was the white and black musicians together, and it just turned out to be a little bit different. This wasn't planned. It was just something that happened. A lot of great things have happened that way.
GaRhythm: How did the American studio band evolve?
Moman: One at a time. Just one at a time. I played guitar on a lot of the early things. But you get down to a point where you can't engineer and make records and go out and play [guitar] too. There wasn't a lot of overdubbing because we didn't have stereo. I knew most of the good musicians in town. So when I'd get up enough money to cut a session I would hire the best musician I could hire. As it went along I could afford to hire them every time. That's how that house band was put together.
GaRhythm: You started with Tommy Cogbill and Bobby Emmons?
Moman: Right. Tommy and Bobby. Actually Stan Kessler was among that bunch too. Stan had been a musician around Memphis a lot and engineered a lot of records and produced a lot of records.
GaRhythm: Did he play an instrument?
Moman: Yeah, he was a bass player. At one time we had three bass players. Mike Leech, Tommy Cogbill, and Stan Kessler.
GaRhythm: What about [drummer] Gene Chrisman? How did you find him?
Moman: I had played a job or two with Gene. But Gene had also been on the road with Jerry Lee. He was just known as a good drummer so I called him for sessions. He's probably got the best collection of records, and he even kept all the charts that were made from the early days. He would always write down what he had to play.
GaRhythm: He used number charts? He thought really structured, is that what you're saying?
Moman: Absolutely. Gene's always been a stickler for knowing where he's at in a song. He's always been like that.
GaRhythm: What about Bobby Emmons? He was normally the organ player?
Moman: Yeah, but he played piano too. He played piano on a lot of records - some of the Joe Tex records and a lot of other records. He played back and forth on piano and organ.
GaRhythm: Then Bobby Wood did the same thing - they switched around a lot?
GaRhythm: And they both wrote songs?
Moman: I don't think they started seriously writing songs until the 70s.
GaRhythm: How about Reggie Young? You met him through the Bill Black Combo?
Moman: Yeah, actually Reggie Young was the original guitarist on the first Bill Black record that I know of ["Smokie"]. And it was kind of a partnership deal with him and Bill. I think there was a question of whether it would be the Reggie Young Combo or the Bill Black Combo. Anyway, Reggie got drafted. So, he did his stint in the Army. Right after that he came to American.
GaRhythm: And then Mike Leech?
Moman: Mike was another musician who could read music and write music because he came out of college to play with American.
GaRhythm: What about Bobby Womack?
Moman: He became one of our group. He was there on most sessions and during that time we recorded him too. He was there playing for a lot of people.
GaRhythm: You had said elsewhere that, from about 1967 to 1971, you were often working seven days a week at the studio -- almost sleeping there...
Moman: Well, we were really. When we would get through with something we'd say "let's call home sick." Nobody wanted to leave!
GaRhythm: When you recorded, were the sessions pretty quick?
Moman: I guess we were quick for the times. But those sessions didn't happen instantly. It was nothing unusual for us to cut a song in three or four hours. But it was not unusual for us to spend 2 or 3 days on one song. We just did it until we liked it.
GaRhythm: So you started with the rhythm section and then added a scratch vocal and then came back and did the horns. Is that how you liked to do it?
Moman: Yeah, but sometimes we did it all at once. After we got stereo machines and the extra tracks we'd bring in people afterwards. But until then we'd do it with everybody at once.
GaRhythm: James Carr did the first version of the song you and Dan Penn wrote called "Dark End of the Street." Can you remember how long it took to record that song?
Moman: It probably took 4-5 hours to cut that song.
GaRhythm: I noticed a reissue album on Joe Tex that you had written the liner notes on. What are your memories of him?
Moman: Joe Tex was an unbelievable talent. He was a great songwriter but he couldn't play an instrument. He'd have all these songs that he knew the words to but no one knew the chords! He would just stand there and sing a cappella. Usually Bobby Emmons would sit there for an hour or so on every song and put some chord changes to what Joe had. And then we'd just make it from there. Cause Joe would have all these things in his head but he didn't exactly know how to get them out. But he was brilliant. He was one of the most brilliant recording artists I've ever known.
GaRhythm: Tell me about the James Carr and Oscar Toney sessions.
Moman: Well most of the time they'd come in and we'd have no idea at all in the world of what we were going to cut and we'd just start hunting songs. Sometimes I'd have a song or two but most of the time I didn't. We'd just start fiddling around till we came up with something.
GaRhythm: I really liked the Dusty Springfield album. She was really hard on herself from what I understand.
Moman: I would like to say on Dusty Springfield that I was there for a lot of that session but I did not produce that session. I forget whether it was Jerry Wexler, or Tom Dowd, or Arif Mardin who came down from Atlantic to produce that session. People keep giving me credit as a producer on Dusty Springfield and I was not the producer! That's one of the reasons I haven't pursued any publicity because no matter how many times I tell it right it comes out another way.
GaRhythm: On the Aretha sessions you and Dan Penn wrote "Do Right Woman." And Dan Penn has described you as nearly breaking your neck getting to your guitar when you heard her sing on that session. Is that accurate?
Moman: That's about right. That was an exciting moment for us.
GaRhythm: Was that when she was singing that song ["Do Right Woman"]?
Moman: Well, she first did "I Never Loved a Man."
GaRhythm: You played the lead guitar on that ["I Never Loved A Man"]?
Moman: Yeah. Anyway, there was kind of a fiasco there at the session. And Aretha and I and Dan and Spooner were the only ones left at the studio. Wexler and Rick Hall and all the other musicians were gone. So, we went in and we cut "Do Right Woman." So when they all returned back to the studio we had that track done and there were no more sessions. So Wexler took the tracks to New York and overdubbed the background voices and a piano part from that track.
GaRhythm: And so this incident about you breaking your neck - what Dan meant was that everybody felt that way in hearing her - how good she was?
Moman: Oh yeah. We loved her. I was crazy about Aretha Franklin when she wasn't selling any records. When she was with the Ray Bryant Trio on Columbia.
GaRhythm: So Tommy Cogbill played guitar on the Aretha sessions?
Moman: Tommy Cogbill played bass on the Aretha records. He started out playing rhythm guitar. At one session, I asked Wexler to put Tommy on bass because Tommy was an incredible musician. So he put Tommy on bass and when he did that the session really started coming together. And that's how he started playing bass. And since he did that that day he became THE bass player - period. He was incredible.
GaRhythm: You guys were supposed to be the touring band behind Elvis when he did his Las Vegas tour?
Moman: People talked about it but that never came about because we couldn't afford the cut in pay! None of us could go for what they paid.
GaRhythm: It was interesting on those [American] sessions that Elvis wasn't used to people telling him that he could do better. He was used to having the whole thing done and he just sings over it.
Moman: Well, he and I didn't have any problem recording. More of the problems came from the entourage around him. Whenever I got ready to talk to him about how he was singing a song or something I would turn all the monitors off and I would walk out into the room and go into the booth with him personally and just stand there and talk with him. And it was no problem. I think it would have been a problem had you been on a talkback trying to tell him things or help him because it would be an embarrassment to him with that entourage around you know. So it was handled a little bit differently than I did other sessions but not very much different.
GaRhythm: To you guys it was another day.
Moman: Just another day - that was what it was.
GaRhythm: In 1973 you guys [American rhythm section] came to Atlanta. But you stayed a very short time - about six months?
Moman: Something like that. Then I sold the studio to Ilene Burns [Bang Records]. I went on up to Nashville because that's where all my friends were going to be.
GaRhythm: And you resisted going there a little bit?
GaRhythm: Did you all go up from Atlanta at the same time? Were you still together then?
Moman: Yeah, we were still together. I was the last one to go but then I had a studio to sell and things to close up. But I was really quitting at that time - I had had enough. And I only went there just because that was where my friends were. We'd been friends and worked together so long that it was kind of hard to separate.
GaRhythm: There was a clique up there [in Nashville] and you busted up the clique...
Moman: Yeah, they weren't very friendly towards us going there. They had a clique and outsiders weren't welcomed. But it wasn't just Nashville. It was that way in LA. It was like at American [Studios] - I didn't want to take a vacation because I was afraid someone would come in and get my job!
GaRhythm: So this was just like the competition anybody feels on the job?
Moman: That's right. Exactly.
GaRhythm: And your first big record was with BJ Thomas?
Moman: Yeah. That was right after I first got to Nashville. Course I had had all the early BJ Thomas records - "Hooked on a Feeling" and "Eyes of a New York Woman."
GaRhythm: So that was a reunion of sorts?
Moman: Yeah, they might have even named that album "Reunion." I don't know. But I hadn't worked with him in a great while.
GaRhythm: Tell me about your association with Willie Nelson. I understand you were a big fan of his.
Moman: I loved Willie Nelson when he first came to Nashville. He and I and Roger Miller all signed to Tree Music about the same time. And I was really into a lot of the demos that I was playing on and hearing up there. I really loved Willie Nelson from the first time I ever heard him.
GaRhythm: So that's how you wound up working with Waylon and Willie both? You kind of went way back?
Moman: Yeah I did but that's not what got me to working with them. Actually, I didn't work with Willie until "Luckenbach" with Waylon. That's what brought him in on the session because he and Waylon had done some duets. And so that's the first time I really worked with Willie. Other than I was always cutting a song or two of his here and there.
GaRhythm: Then you left Nashville for Memphis?
Moman: I went to Memphis in 1985. I got involved with the city and a bunch of political people. It didn't work and I left there in turmoil. And I went back to Nashville and didn't do anything except just piddle around. Then I decided to come back to Georgia, which was originally my home. And I did.
GaRhythm: So for about five years you didn't listen to music? Were you just trying to get reacquainted with Georgia?
Moman: That and just trying to get a better feeling about myself and the music and everything. It was a difficult time really.
GaRhythm: Now you've built a studio and you've started ChipsMoman.com Records. And you've hooked up with [producer / writer] Buddy Buie and J.R. Cobb.
Moman: Well, they were old friends of mine. My secretary [at American] was Sandy Posey. And Buddy Buie got his first hit - "I Take It Back" - that I recorded by Sandy Posey. So, Buddy Buie and I had been friends for a number of years - since the 60s. So we just renewed our friendship when I came back. We hang out, play golf and poker together. We sit up all night and mess up the house!
GaRhythm: Now you're in the Internet era and you're launching an Internet record label. As far as artists, you've got Billy Lee Riley, Billy Joe Royal, and Carl Perkins. Is that who you're starting out with?
Moman: Yeah, these were the first tapes I came to in a vault full of tapes. I cut all new stuff on Billy Joe. I only used a couple of old sides. And I'm really proud of the album. My son and I produced that together and my daughter sings background.
GaRhythm: It's a lot more relaxing to do it that way...
Moman: Yeah, it's a family affair.
GaRhythm: You have said that there's really nothing new in music. What needs to happen in the music industry?
Moman: I think labels right now are starting to have a problem. I think they've got some serious problems. There are some good records out but also a lot of bad records. It's just different. I think we're probably on the verge of something breaking through that's new or some kind of exciting new artist. You can kind of tell when music gets stale. In country music a lot of the sales have dropped off. I think it's time that something new happens. I don't know if I'll come up with it. But I do know that I don't want to continue being involved in records the way that I have been and with the companies running things the way they have.
What I'm going to do is stick with this Internet thing and see if I break through to have a hit record on the Internet. I'm going to be devoted to trying to make it happen. I think it's a great tool. I don't think we have to put up with the record companies dominating everything. Using the artist and writers and producers. Giving our money away while they don't spend any of theirs. So I'm going to stick with this and see if it can possibly happen cause that's what's interesting to me. I'm just going to hang in there and see if I can develop a company that can work on the Internet.
GaRhythm: That's cool! Can I tell people what else is in the vaults? Is there anything that you might want to hint about?
Moman: Well, there's no way I could name you what's in the vaults. I'm just going by years and what kind of heads are on the machines. I have a lot of 3, 4, 8, 16, 24, and 32-track tapes. Right now I'm working with a lot of 24-track stuff. And I'll be going back to the 16 and on back to the 8. And I might get out some of the mono stuff since that's easy. But that's kind of the way I'm doing it because it'd be hard to do it any other way.
* * *
[Postscript: This interview with Chips was conducted by telephone in the summer of 2001. Chips apparently has dropped the idea of an internet record label, but he still records and produces occasionally. He now lives in West Point, Georgia.]
Posted by Allen at 8:28 PM