A lot has been said over the past few years about the 'deep melancholy' of Chips Moman and his 827 Thomas Street Band. As the guys who seemed to cut Dark End of The Street and Everyday I Have To Cry Some on everybody who walked in the door, I suppose that's true to a certain extent, but there is another side (literally) to the story...
A rollicking, good time, infectiously fun side that never fails to get you out of your seat. Sides like Skinny Legs And All, Funky Street, I Found A True Love and Broadway Walk come to mind right off the bat... or how about cooking instrumentals like Memphis Soul Stew, Memphis Underground or In The Pocket? These guys were not crying in their beer, man. They were making great music, and having a great time doing it.
Sam Hutchins had come to American from Dallas at the urging of his friends The Masqueraders in 1968, and cut one Tommy Cogbill produced 45 for Mala before being signed to the house label, AGP. This rocking little number we have here is one more illustration of American's fun side. Although the flip (erroneously posted on The A Side back in 2008), is an awesomely wistful deep soul record, Chips and Cogbill let it rip on this side, and Sam is really belting it out! Check out those punchy horn charts and Ed Kollis blowing that way cool harmonica while the 'Moman Tabernacle Choir' takes it to Church and 'The Boys' just drive it on home.
Sam would cut one more AGP single (the rocking Big D Breakdown), and remain a part of the crew at American till the end, even making the ill-fated move to Atlanta with Chips in 1972. When Lee Jones left The Masqueraders, Sam joined the group, and that's him singing lead vocal on great Darryl Carter produced Hi 45s like Wake Up Fool. He has remained with them to this day, and still sounds as great as ever.
Jim Dickerson of The Commercial Appeal: "Memphis should be Music City, not Nashville... At the time when Memphis was the hottest thing going, the city didn't seem to really care... I said 'You know this place doesn't seem to like us too much, why don't we just tear this studio down and leave?'... and we left, every one of us. We pulled the kids out of school and left... I've always considered that a mistake. Not in the sense that we didn't do better when we left. We did. But if we had done the right thing, and stayed there... who knows, we might have done more there than we did away from there."
Maybe a plaque in front of a Family Dollar says it all... Chips Moman stands alone.
How I Miss You Baby
When Reggie Young came back home to Memphis in 1959, after having backed up Johnny Horton out on the Louisiana Hayride, Elvis' erstwhile bass player Bill Black snapped him up as the cornerstone of the new instrumental combo he was forming.
Within a few months The Combo had broken things wide open with the groundbreaking Smokie, Part 2. This bulldog of a record would shoot straight to the top of Billboard's R&B chart, and stay there for a full month, as would the follow-up White Silver Sands. The fact that this all-white band from Memphis could just own the R&B chart for eight weeks in early 1960 is simply amazing, and set the stage for much of what was to follow.
Reggie would spend those two months (and many more) in the Army, and so Black recruited a series of guitar players to fill in for him during his absence. As you can see in this great photo from the cover of a January, 1960 Cashbox, one of those guitarists was Chips Moman. We asked Chips a couple of years ago if he actually was a member of the group... "Hell, everybody was in Bill Black's Combo!" he said. Named Billboard's 'Number One Instrumental Group' three years in a row, this is where The Sound of Memphis was born.
Meanwhile, across the big pond, there was another group that was paying attention. Much to their credit, when they asked The Beatles who they wanted as an opening act on their first American tour in 1964, they asked for Bill Black's Combo right off the bat. Black himself was in declining health, and so it was up to Reggie to put together a version of The Combo to take out on the road. With a young George Harrison just soaking it all in (both on this tour and a subsequent tour of England in 1965), it's hard to overstate the influence Young's 'untouchable' guitar had on the future of Rock & Roll.
Once they came in off the road, The Combo (which would include Bobby Emmons, Tommy Cogbill and Mike Leech at one time or another) stayed close to home, evolving into the 'house band' at Hi Records. Instrumental chart hits by Ace Cannon and Willie Mitchell were in actuality cut by that same core group of musicians, and took that 'Bill Black (who would die of a brain tumor in 1965) Sound' to the next level. Howard Grimes told me that when he heard 20-75 on a Memphis jukebox in 1964, he knew that someday he wanted to be in a band like that...
As Hi began to move away from being strictly an instrumental label, it was this Reggie Young led rhythm section that played on elemental Soul records by folks like Don Bryant, Norman West, George Jackson and the great O.V. Wright. Once Al Jackson, Jr. left Willie Mitchell's road band for good, he went through five drummers before he hired Howard Grimes. It was a dream come true when Willie invited Howard to work on the session for Eight Men, Four Women in 1967.
Mitchell also brought along a 16 year old guitar player he had taken under his wing, a kid named Teenie Hodges. Just like George Harrison before him, Hodges was in awe of Reggie, and considered him his mentor. He told me a few years ago that he loved Reggie so much that he named his first born son after him... When Young moved on later that year, the baton at Hi was passed to Teenie who would take it and go on to create his own unique style. Reggie's influence on him, and his role in the evolution of Willie Mitchell's Hi Sound, is a part of the story that's often overlooked.
When Chips Moman decided to finally get serious and put together a studio band at American in 1967, there was no doubt in his mind about who it was he wanted. He had already been working with Tommy Cogbill on sessions for Atlantic at Fame, and was able to lure what was left of 'The Combo' from South Lauderdale over to Thomas Street by offering them a better deal (which was none too difficult, seeing as how they were being paid next to nothing). With the addition of Sam Phillips' regulars Gene Chrisman and Bobby Wood, The American Group was born.
In 2012, when we were lucky enough to get to hang out with Reggie Young for the first time, John Broven asked him "Who was the greatest influence on your own guitar playing?" I think he expected him to say somebody like Chet Atkins or Les Paul... "Bobby Womack," Reggie answered without hesitation... When Womack showed up at American with Wilson Pickett in July of 1967, it ushered in one of the most soulful and creative periods in Memphis music history. With Womack's 'upside down and backward' left handed style of playing, he and Reggie were like a 'mirror-image', and challenged each other to ever greater heights.
Soul was definitely in the house and, in addition to Bobby's collaborations with Darryl Carter on great songs like this one we have here today (taken from his superb Moman produced My Prescription LP), the interplay of their two guitars can be heard on great records by former 'Gospel Highway' colleagues who cut there like Roscoe Robinson, LeRoy Crume and L.C. Cooke, as well as those by a host of other Atlantic and Sound Stage 7 artists. By the time Womack moved on in 1968, he had left his mark. "Just about everything that I play has something to do with Bobby Womack," Reggie said when Bobby passed away last month, "He was a large influence on me."
When I reposted that piece about Bobby last month, I received a comment that read; "...great info, but no mention of the fact that all of 'Communication' and most of 'Understanding' was cut at Muscle Shoals Sound with guitar work by the unsung Tippy Armstrong..." SO, please allow me set the record straight here (thanks, Mark). All I can say is that there was no mention of that fact in the liner notes to the Stateside 'twofer' CD I bought those albums on ten years ago. I will, however, underscore the fact that Womack snagged his first Number One hit by returning to American (and compatriot Darryl Carter) in 1972, and including Woman's Gotta Have It on 'Understanding'.
Now, don't get me wrong, I love me some Muscle Shoals, you know I do... but I just feel like, now that the movie is all over Netflix and everything, there's a big part of the Southern Soul story that remains untold. Roben Jones interviewed 'The Swampers' for her great book The Memphis Boys, and here's what they had to say:
"We were in awe of the rhythm section at American," said Jimmy Johnson... "Man per man, it was just invincible." "We all looked up to the guys at American," said Jimmy's colleague David Hood, "Those guys seemed so accomplished; they played so well." "We were trying to be what the American rhythm section was... We looked up to 'em as guys who had a lot more experience than we did," commented Roger Hawkins. "The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, when it came to the American guys, we'd just stand back and say 'Gol-leee'," said Jimmy Johnson respectfully, "When they walked in, everybody got the best from their music. It was real cool to look at them and figure out how to do it..."
I don't think that is conveyed adequately in the film...
I don't know, maybe it's because American was demolished over twenty years ago (there's a Family Dollar store on the site where it once stood), while Fame has continued to operate, same as it ever was, and Muscle Shoals Sound is undergoing extensive renovations in the wake of the movie. In any event, the legend of the studio lives on.
There will be a Historical Marker placed on the corner of Chelsea and Thomas in North Memphis, where so much great music was recorded, on August 13th at 2pm. Chips, Reggie and the rest of 'the Boys' are scheduled to attend. I'm happy to report that my cohort John Broven and I will also be on hand, as well as at The Memphis Boys Salute at Graceland that evening in celebration of the 45th anniversary of Elvis' landmark sessions there.
I wouldn't miss it for the world...