Just last year, Ace Records’ Kent imprint issued a definitive 3-CD survey of Fame Studios, the Muscle Shoals, Alabama home of many of the greatest soul records ever committed to vinyl. Over in Tennessee, however, another joyful noise was arriving courtesy of the musicians at Memphis, Tennessee’s American Studios. Ace is celebrating the multifaceted sounds of Chips Moman and Don Crews’ American Studios with the new Memphis Boys: The Story of American Studios, a 24-track tribute featuring such visitors to Memphis as Dusty Springfield, Wilson Pickett, B.J. Thomas, Solomon Burke and a certain King named Elvis. While it’s one hell of a listen on its own merits, Memphis Boys also serves as the soundtrack to Roben Jones’ 2011 book of the same name.
Though the artists in front of the microphones inevitably bear more famous names, Memphis Boys introduces you to the work of the session men who created the sound: guitarists Reggie Young and Mike Leech, bassist Tommy Cogbill, drummer Gene Chrisman, keyboardists Bobby Emmons and Bobby Woods. Between 1964 and 1972, these men held court at 827 Thomas Street, creating the “Memphis Soul Stew” immortalized in song by saxophone giant King Curtis in 1967 and preserved as this compilation’s perfect opening shot. Curtis was just one of the many Atlantic Records artists who set up shop at American, including the great Solomon Burke, Wilson Pickett, Arthur Conley and Dusty Springfield, represented here by (what else?) “Son of a Preacher Man.” Though Springfield, a notorious perfectionist, re-cut her vocals in New York City, she likely wouldn’t have been able to dig so deeply without having soaked up the atmosphere at American while the tracks were recorded.
Studio owner Chips Moman produced one-third of the tracks on Memphis Boys, including Merilee Rush’s smash “Angel of the Morning.” It’s probably the song most associated with American alongside The Box Tops’ “The Letter,” produced by Dan Penn and also featured here. Moman too was in charge of The Gentrys’ “Keep on Dancing,” the studio’s first major hit and a ridiculously catchy song that was as simple as some of American’s later masterpieces were sophisticated. Another Moman monument is Joe Simon’s dark “Nine Pound Steel.” The slow-burning tale of a prisoner, written by Penn (“Dark End of the Street”) and Wayne Carson Thompson (“The Letter”), is a far cry from Sam Cooke’s “Chain Gang.” The Memphis boys were equally adept at brassy funk (Arthur Conley’s “Funky Street”), sweet pop (Sandy Posey’s “Born a Woman”) and just about every style in between. Other than the obvious top-notch musicianship, the common thread here is the sheer humanity in each of the tracks, or shall we just call it soul?
There’s plenty more soul after the jump, friends!
The prolific Penn’s arrangement of Hank Snow’s “I’m Movin’ On” recorded by Elvis Presley is a highlight of the compilation, and indeed, the American Studios sessions were highlights of Presley’s entire career. A real treat comes in the form of another song associated with Presley, Mark James’ “Suspicious Minds,” heard in the original version by its songwriter. The personnel at American believed in the song; James’ strong, original 1968 Scepter recording led to a cover version by B.J. Thomas, another American mainstay who scored major hits with James’ “The Eyes of a New York Woman” and “Hooked on a Feeling.” When the song was brought to Presley’s attention late in 1969, it became the Memphis boy’s first No. 1 since 1962 (and with an arrangement very similar to the one cooked up for James). Not to be left out of the fun, however, B.J. Thomas is represented with the flipside of “Hooked on a Feeling,” James’ reflective and lush ballad “I’ve Been Down This Road Before.” As for Dan Penn, his galvanic “Dark End of the Street,” co-written with Moman, is heard in a fine version by the female trio The Glories that’s less well known than James Carr’s version.
Danny O’Keefe’s wistful song “Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues” was also beneficiary of a recording by Elvis Presley that no doubt added some high coin to O’Keefe’s bank account, but it’s heard here in O’Keefe’s own, equally superlative version produced by Arif Mardin. “Good Time Charlie” was the last major hit (No. 9) to come out of American in September 1972, six months following Moman’s move to Atlanta. The album version is featured here with a different mix than that of the single.
Another prominent client of American was Goldwax Records, and three artists from the Goldwax roster appear here: soul men Spencer Wiggins, Percy Milem and the aforementioned James Carr. Equally passionate as those great, raw Goldwax tracks is Oscar Toney Jr.’s reading of Jerry Butler’s “For Your Precious Love.” With a lengthy rap preceding the song and a spontaneous “head” arrangement from Cogbill, Young, Chrisman and Emmons, it’s a stone-cold classic that both honors the original and takes the song in a completely different direction. Bobby Womack was another frequent visitor to American. He’s represented here with 1970’s grooving “More Than I Can Stand” but also as a sideman on Joe Tex’s greasy Top 10 hit “Skinny Legs and All” and L.C. Cooke’s pleading “Let’s Do It Over,” written by Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham. (Womack kept things all in the family, having married L.C. Cooke’s brother Sam’s widow!)
Memphis Boys: The Story of American Studios includes a lavishly illustrated and copiously annotated 28-page booklet, with Tony Rounce offering track-by-track liner notes after prefaces by Roben Jones and John Broven. Ace’s Memphis soul stew is available now and is yours for the taking at the order link below!
Various Artists, Memphis Boys: The Story of American Studios (Ace CDCHD 1330, 2012)
- Memphis Soul Stew – King Curtis (Atco 6511, 1967)
- Son of a Preacher Man – Dusty Springfield (Philips BF-1730, 1968)
- Shake a Tail Feather – James and Bobby Purify (Bell 669, 1967) *
- The Letter – The Box Tops (Mala 565, 1967)
- Born a Woman – Sandy Posey (MGM 13501, 1966) *
- You’ve Got My Mind Messed Up – James Carr (Goldwax 302, 1966)
- Keep on Dancing – The Gentrys (Youngstown 601, 1965) *
- Nine Pound Steel – Joe Simon (Sound Stage 7 2589, 1967)
- Angel of the Morning – Merrilee Rush (Bell 705, 1968) *
- I’m In Love – Wilson Pickett (Atlantic 2448, 1967) *
- Suspicious Minds – Mark James (Scepter 12221, 1968) *
- I’ve Been Down This Road Before – B.J. Thomas (Scepter 12230, 1968)
- Funky Street – Arthur Conley (Atco 6563, 1968)
- For Your Precious Love – Oscar Toney Jr. (Bell 672, 1967)
- Shame on Me – Solomon Burke (Atlantic LP 8185, 1968)
- Dark End of the Street – The Glories (Date 1647, 1969) *
- Skinny Legs and All – Joe Tex (Dial 4063, 1967)
- More Than I Can Stand – Bobby Womack (Minit 32093, 1970)
- Let’s Do It Over – L.C. Cooke (Wand 1171, 1968) *
- The Power of a Woman – Spencer Wiggins (Goldwax 330, 1967) *
- Suzy Do It Better Than You – Clay Hammond (rec. 1968, issued Kent LP 081, 1988) *
- I Don’t Know What You’ve Got (But It’s Got Me) – Percy Milem (Goldwax 326, 1968) *
- Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues – Danny O’Keefe (Signpost LP SP-8404, 1972)
- I’m Movin’ On – Elvis Presley (RCA LP LSP-4155, 1968)
All tracks stereo except those marked (*) in mono