Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Johnny Jones - No Love As Sweet As Yours (Fury 5053)

No Love As Sweet As Yours

A Not So Happy House

As reported in The New York Times, landmark Harlem record shop Bobby's Happy House was being evicted from its current location effective this past Monday, January 21st. As the 'gentrification' of Manhattan continues it's inexorable crawl northward, it has finally reached 125th Street, long the cultural nexus of Harlem's rich history. The owner of the building that houses Bobby's, something called the Kimco Realty Corporation, couldn't care less. The blistering irony of the fact that they were throwing Bobby Robinson out on the street on Martin Luther King Day was apparently lost on them.

I went to the Happy House yesterday to see what the deal was. Robinson's daughter, Denise Benjamin, who's been helping Bobby run the place for years, was kind enough to speak with me. She said that Robinson had been 'in denial' ever since they got the news that they would have to close their doors last summer. "They're going to tear down the building," she told me, "so we've got to move one way or the other." When I mentioned how horrible I thought it was that they were being evicted on MLK Day, she replied "I know, 'I have a dream,' right?" She is currently in negotiations with another landlord around the corner on 125th Street, and is attempting to interest new neighbor Bill Clinton's Economic Empowerment initiative in their plight. So, there is hope. As of right now, however, for the first time in sixty two years Bobby Robinson is not the proprietor of a record store in Harlem.

Denise was still there yesterday because the Kimco slugs came in and inspected the place after they had moved everything out of the store over the weekend, and told them they'd have to clean out the basement (long the repository of unsold store stock), as well. She told them she'd need a little more time. That was the scene I walked into yesterday, as friends and neighbors pitched in to help bring decades of moldering vinyl out into the open for one final 'clearance sale'. There were a couple of crates of 45s there. As I rummaged through them, I couldn't believe that this was how all this history was ending up, that it had ultimately come down to this...

So much more than merely a 'store owner', Bobby Robinson is a pivotal figure in the evolution of Black American music. This incredible record that I dug out of those crates yesterday is a case in point.

As both a songwriter and producer, Robinson had few equals, as evidenced by this little known 'southern soul' gem, waxed right here in New York. This is not the Nashville guitar playing Johnny Jones (leader of the legendary Imperial Seven and, later on, The King Casuals), but Little Johnny Jones of Augusta, Georgia. Jones, a member of the Swanee Quintet, was chosen to replace Sam Cooke in the Soul Stirrers in 1957. After touring with them that summer, however, he decided that it wasn't for him, and returned home to Georgia (leaving the job open for Johnnie Taylor). Jones went on to record Gospel under his own name for Nashboro's Creed subsidiary but, as far as I can tell, the two singles he cut for Robinson in the late sixties were his only foray into 'secular' music. Just a great singer, you can hear some of his Cooke-styled inflections here... not to mention that little Jackie Wilson like flight there towards the end, whoah! How about those two guitars (one of which is very probably being played by Sterling Magee)? Anyway, just as wonderful records like this one lay unheard all these years in the cellar of the Happy House, so it is that Bobby Robinson has gone virtually unnoticed by the mainstream media.

Below is an appreciation of Mister Robinson that I put up as part of a piece I did last January on Grandmaster Flash:

"Originally from Union, South Carolina, Robinson settled in New York just after World War II. He opened a record store on 125th Street in Harlem, a couple of doors down from the Apollo Theatre, in 1946. Along with his brother Danny, he soon became a fixture in the neighborhood, and was on a first name basis with the performers and music industry types that hung around the Theatre. In the liner notes for the now out-of-print The Fire/Fury Records Story, Bobby goes on to say "I also got to know the fellows who had their own record labels. I remember spending a lot of time with Ahmet Ertegun and his partner, Herb Abramson, when they founded Atlantic Records. They would come up to the store and ask me for advice."

In What'd I Say, Ertegun (pictured here with Robinson and Clyde McPhatter around 1954) says that he used to give Bobby 25 free copies of their releases if he agreed to play them on his outdoor speakers. As Atlantic's records began flying out of the store, Bobby soon decided to start his own company. Ertegun told him "Listen Bobby, you are making such a mistake. You've done so well out of the record shop, you're going to sink all your money into this ridiculous idea. Please, please don't do it..."

Robinson didn't listen, of course, and started up his own Robin label in 1951. That was soon replaced by Red Robin, and a succession of others that were run by Bobby, Danny or both. Local Doo-Wop and Jazz releases on Whirlin' Disc, Holiday, Everlast, Vest and Fling would follow, and the records sold well locally. Bobby longed for national distribution, however, and made a series of bad deals that caused him to close down most of his original labels in 1957.

He would start up Fury Records (and its accompanying Fire Publishing Company) later that year, and business continued as usual. As we mentioned last month, Bobby hired a young southerner named Marshall Sehorn as his new A&R and promotion man in 1958. It was Sehorn that brought in Wilbert Harrison to record Kansas City at the Bell Sound Studios in New York in March of 1959. The record just took off, going straight to number one on both the R&B and pop charts while selling over 4 million copies (something Ahmet Ertegun had yet to do with Atlantic), and Bobby was on top.

Only it didn't last. Harrison was already under contract to Savoy Records (although he neglected to tell Robinson that) and they sued him for a million dollars. Although they eventually worked it all out, Bobby was unable to release a timely 'follow-up' record on Harrison, and he never charted again. Undaunted, Robinson took the name of his publishing company, and started up a new label at that point so he could continue to record. He would hit the #1 R&B spot again in early 1960 with Georgia transplant Buster Brown's smokin' Fannie Mae (Fire 1008).

He would go on to record classic Blues records by people like Arthur 'Big Boy' Crudup, Sam Meyers, Lightnin' Hopkins and Elmore James (James even cracked the R&B top 20 that year), while making it to #1 once again with the amazing Bobby Marchan's There Is Something On Your Mind. The Savoy lawsuit was finally settled in 1961, and Bobby was able to fire up his Fury label once more. One of the first artists he recorded was a recent high school graduate from Georgia who, along with her brother and two of her cousins, made up Gladys Knight & the Pips.

The great Every Beat Of My Heart had been released on the small Atlanta based Huntom label first, but Bobby flew Gladys and the Pips to New York to re-record it. After the song began to hit, Vee-Jay records in Chicago leased the original master from Huntom, and with their superior distribution network, took it to #1 R&B (the Fury single stalled at #15). Bobby sued this time, and the courts forced Vee-Jay to pay him a nickel for every record they sold. Not bad (the white guy in the above photo is Marshall Sehorn, by the way).

We've already spoken about the circumstances regarding the label's next #1 R&B smash, Lee Dorsey's Ya-Ya. Sehorn and Robinson's southern connections were paying off big time as the record even broke into the pop top ten. His next big chart successes were to come from closer to home, however. Small's Paradise was a legendary Harlem nightspot located just ten blocks from his record store, and Bobby was a regular. In 1962 he made a bet with the saxophone player in The Noble Knights that he could deliver him a hit.

He started a brand new label called Enjoy just for that purpose, and its very first release took King Curtis all the way to #1 R&B with Soul Twist. Curtis had lost the bet, and so had to sign a contract with the new label. The house band at Small's featured Don Gardner on drums and Dee-Dee Ford on keyboards. Bobby heard them singing an incredible song called I Need Your Lovin', and put it out on Fire in the summer of 1962. It coasted to #4, and the follow-up Don't You Worry broke into the top ten as well. Robinson would close out the year with Les Cooper And The Soul Rocker's #12 smash Wiggle Wobble on his Everlast imprint.

I'm not sure what happened at this point, but Bobby's chart days all but dried up. In Jeff Hannush's great I Hear You Knockin' he says that "By early 1963, Robinson's labels were in financial difficulty. One of Robinson's silent partners, Fats Lewis, pulled out of the operation just as a major deal with ABC was about to consummate."

Whatever the case may be, Robinson kept on keepin' on, continuing to make great records, some of which, in my opinion, are even better than the hits. He had developed into a great producer, and it was said that he had 'the best ear in the business'. Deep soul by the likes of Willie Hightower and Joe Haywood went nowhere, as did cool proto-funk sides by groups like The Ramrods. He remained a much respected figure in Harlem, and often held court backstage at the Apollo. As I've said before, legend has it that he pitched Warm And Tender Love to Jerry Wexler on one such occasion. As near as we can figure it over on soul detective, the last sides he recorded back then were on his new Front Page label circa 1969... [ed. note: I've since found out - yesterday while I was digging through the crates - that this is inaccurate. Bobby was releasing records on a variety of labels right through the seventies.]

That is until he started it all back up again ten years later to record the first wave of Rap as it happened on the streets around him. This is a seminal figure, folks. This is the man that ties it all together... the missing link, if you will. He is still around, working most days at his 'Happy House', which (like we talked about a couple of weeks ago) remains an important cultural focal point in the Harlem community..."

Sadly, as we've seen, this is no longer true.

From Doo-Wop to Hip-Hop, Bobby Robinson has been an integral part of the New York music scene for over sixty years. What will it take to get myopic institutions like The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and (amazingly) The Rhythm & Blues Foundation to sit up and take notice?

Monday, January 21, 2008

The Impressions - Keep On Pushing (ABC 10554)

Keep On Pushing

"Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that."
- Martin Luther King, Jr.

Please pause with me here a moment to honor the memory of this great American, whose life of intelligent leadership and non-violent confrontation changed the world.

Curtis Mayfield's timeless anthem of the civil rights movement that we have here today spent the Freedom Summer of 1964 at number one R&B.

The struggle continues.

Keep On Pushing!

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Elvis Presley - Any Day Now (RCA 9741)

Any Day Now

part two

"...I got nothing. I lost my house, my car, everything. I left a part of my life there at Stax. I spent just about a year not knowing what I was doing, staying drunk all the time, just about going crazy. Boy, I was a down sonofabitch." Thats what Chips Moman told Peter Guralnick in Sweet Soul Music.

Things were not good.

Around this time, Moman did some sessions for Buddy Killen in Nashville, mostly recording demos of Country songs for his Tree publishing company, and working with a young kid he had just signed to his Dial label named Joe Tex, whose records were going nowhere. There was no way Chips could break into the 'A team' establishment there in Music City, and he knew it. Back in Memphis, he hired a lawyer named Seymour Rosenberg to sue Stax for the money they owed him. An out-of-court settlement was reached in early 1964, for $3000 (!). "I think a deal was cut myself," Moman told Rob Bowman, "the fact is, who would settle for that?"

The fact remains that he did, which I think is fairly indicative of his state of mind in those days. There are those who say that Chips was in a 'deep depression', and others who will tell you that the ol' gambler in him was merely 'playing possum'... In any event, he soon entered into a partnership with Rosenberg to open a studio in North Memphis on the corner of Thomas and Chelsea in an old grocery store (Rosenberg's father owned an Auto Parts store on the same block). Once again situated in a 'black neighborhood', they bought in some used equipment, and set up shop. They named it the 'American Sound Studio'.

Rosenberg, like seemingly everybody else, had his own record label, Youngstown, and figured he had the perfect set-up. One of the first people to record there was a young kid from the neighborhood named Isaac Hayes. His vinyl debut, 'Laura, We're On The Last Go-Round' was released on Youngstown in 1963 and (predictably) sank like a stone. Chips, still in the midst of his self-destructive tear, soon drank and gambled away his share of the studio, and apparently just didn't care. Before long he was back 'painting gas stations', and working as the engineer at the studio whenever they needed him.

He was doing sessions for small local labels like Pepper and Goldwax, working for whatever they would pay him. Goldwax signed a guy named LeRoy Daniel to the label in 1964. "We got this producer, man," Goldwax owners Quinton Claunch and Doc Russell told him, "All we ever have to do is give him a bottle of whiskey and a couple of pills, man, and he'll cut you a f#*king record!" They didn't know that Daniel was a good friend of Moman's from way back. When LeRoy told him what they had said, it kind of woke Chips up a little bit. "...that's the way I was living, really," he told Guralnick, "I was just barely getting by..."

In early 1965, Isaac Hayes, who wasn't happy with his limited role at Stax, was back at American. He brought along David Porter (who Chips had written some songs with in the early days on McLemore Avenue) and Homer Banks, who was then working at Estelle Axton's Sattelite Record Shop. Smelling revenge, I'm sure, Moman cut a single on Homer called 'Sweetie Pie', that was released on the local Genie label. It didn't sell, and Hayes & Porter were soon back at Stax, working with a new act the label had signed, Sam & Dave.

Goldwax was back at the studio soon after that with The Ovations. It's Wonderful To Be In Love would become the first single recorded there to break into the top 40 on the Billboard charts, reaching #22 R&B. You know, Moman had told Guralnick that he charged Goldwax $5000 to produce a session the next time they came in, after the whole 'whiskey and pills' thing. He maintains it was a James Carr session, but Guralnick kind of discounted that, saying "the chronology of James Carr's career does not exactly fit the story..." It may just have been this one on The Ovations. Be that as it may, things were about to change.

One night at a local burger joint in the summer of 1965, Moman saw a bunch of high school kids dressed in these matching 'mod' outfits. It was the height of the 'British Invasion', and he knew that could only mean that they were in a band. The wheels were turning. He asked them if they'd like to make a record, and invited them down to American later that week. According to Phillip Rauls (who would later become their road manager), they signed with Rosenberg's Youngstown label and cut a single that didn't do much.

Their second Youngstown 45, Sometimes, wasn't doing anything either, until local DJ Roy Mack flipped it over and started playing the B side (chalk up another one, folks!). Moman had brought in a song that had originally made some local noise for an R&B group called The Avantis, and had the boys cover it (a song he hated so much, he later told author Jim Dickerson, that he "mixed it with the sound turned off") for the flip. When Keep On Dancing was picked up by MGM for national distribution, it just took off, spending 13 weeks on the charts, going all the way to #4 Pop in October, 1965. If you look at the scan above, you'll notice that it reads 'Prod. by Chips Moman'.

He was back.

A 'bean farmer' named Don Crews bought out Rosenberg's share in the studio at this point, and Chips gave him half-ownership of the Gentrys record in return for what he had lost initially, half-ownership of the studio. His next project was to produce a record for MGM on Sandy Posey (the receptionist and secretary at American), Born A Woman. Showing, in my opinion, the depth of Moman's talent, this Country Pop piece of fluff would go to #12 on the hot 100 in the summer of 1966. At home in all 'genres', he was establishing American as a force to be reckoned with.

Jerry Wexler, meanwhile, had been having his own problems with Jim Stewart, who had barred him from recording Atlantic artists like Wilson Pickett and Don Covay at Stax in December of 1965. Moman was only too happy to help out. Not satisfied with the equipment at American, and high on Muscle Shoals after the success Percy Sledge had been bringing the company with When A Man Loves A Woman, Wexler hired Chips and his bass player at American from day one, Tommy Cogbill, to come to Fame and play on Pickett's sessions there beginning in the spring of 1966. That's them (along with the Stax horn section) on elemental soul classics like Land Of 1000 Dances and Mustang Sally. Unreal.

Dan Penn, who had a single picked up by MGM himself, met Moman at the company's Nashville digs in early 1966. The two quickly became inseparable, and before long, he left Rick Hall behind, and came to work with Chips at American. As we've discussed in the past, the two would write The Dark End Of The Street during breaks in an epic Poker game with Papa Don Schroeder at the Nashville Disk Jockey Convention that summer. Wow. When Wexler brought Aretha Franklin to Muscle Shoals in February of 1967, Cogbill, Moman and Penn went too.

That's Chips playing the incredible lead guitar on I Never Loved A Man The Way That I Love You... imagine? As if that weren't enough, Penn and Moman had written another stone classic for the sessions, Do Right Woman - Do Right Man. Only a rough version of the song had been completed before the infamous blow-up and consequent quick departure of Franklin from Fame, and it was completed up in New York. Moman, ever the engineer, told Matt Dobkin, "I flipped out over it. The only thing I found wrong, and I still find wrong; Obviously, Rick Hall's machine and the machine in New York were traveling at a slightly different speed. The piano is out of tune on that record, and it bothered me immensely... if you listen to the piano, you hear it - it's almost a quarter-tone sharp to the track." Oh, the soul minutiae of it all!

Moman, as he told Allen Smith, had been consolidating his own rhythm section at American "one at a time," and by early 1967, he was ready. Alternately known as The American Group or the 827 Thomas Street Band (or, later on, merely as The Memphis Boys), they would place 122 songs in the top forty on either the R&B or Pop charts over the next five years. As you know, we've been focusing on some of the lesser known achievements of that incredible band over the last few months, which is, in my opinion, where the true genius of Moman and his studio can be found.

Just as he had done with Dan Penn, he lured Papa Don away from Muscle Shoals in the spring of 1967, and he was the guy that really got the ball rolling as he cut monster hits Shake Your Tail Feather on James & Bobby Purify and For Your Precious Love on Oscar Toney Jr. at the same session!

This was also when Schroeder was instrumental in getting The Letter picked up for distribution by Bell Records. Like true brothers, Penn and Moman had been needling each other for some time, each challenging the other's idea of what made up a hit record. When Chips handed Penn the job of producing The Box Tops over the course of a weekend when he wasn't around, he really never thought anything much would come of it. Even when he heard the finished master, he refused to admit it was any good... especially with that "damned airplane" on there. As Penn told Guralnick, " was the biggest record he ever had. It jumped on #1, and it stayed up there for four weeks, and, man, he wouldn't even come to the studio that whole four weeks, and when he did, he was a crabby old man, just didn't have nothing to say..."

Up to this point, as Wayne Jackson told Peter, Moman would "get his front money, and get a boat and a Thunderbird and go to Florida until he was broke and then come back and do it again." A big fan of the 'toys' (like the ol' TR3), Chips wasn't taking things too seriously. I spoke with Papa Don down in Pensacola while I was doing my research for this post, and asked him how come he stopped recording at American. He made it a point to tell me that it wasn't anything personal, and that he considered his friend Chips (who he visited with just last year), to be an 'incredible talent', and the best engineer in the country in those days. What happened, he says, was 'strictly business'; His friend Florence Greenberg had hired him to work his 'Papa Don Production' magic on one of Wand's biggest artists, Chuck Jackson. He booked American for the session, and flew everybody down there, had the material selected, the charts written up, and the whole nine yards. When it came time to cut the record, Chips was nowhere to be found. Finally, he told Schroeder that he was 'too tired' (this was, if you do the math, almost certainly during that month when The Letter sat there at #1, or shortly thereafter)... "He only wanted to work when he wanted to work," Schroeder told me, "and I just couldn't do business like that." Papa Don finally produced the session up in New York, and sent Shame On Me into the R&B top 40 in the fall of 1967 (thanks for yet another great story, Papa!).

Chips has stated that the unprecedented success of The Letter 'jumpstarted' him, and woke him up to the fact that he could end up with a losing hand yet again, if he didn't pay attention. He 'grabbed on to the board' and refused to let it go for the next five years, often sleeping at the studio for days at a time.

It paid off.

Jerry Wexler, once he got wise to the fact that Moman was not about to make the trip to New York anymore, advanced him $5000 to upgrade the equipment at the studio, and Atlantic soon became their biggest client. Untouchable records by the likes of Esther Phillips, Wilson Pickett, Solomon Burke, Don Covay, King Curtis, Arthur Conley, Dusty Springfield, Herbie Mann, and the Sweet Inspirations (to name a few) were recorded there over the next couple of years, under the auspices of Tom Dowd and Arif Mardin.

Old friend Buddy Killen began bringing his artists to Memphis to record as well, resulting in some incredible stuff. He brought New Orleans legend Clarence 'Frogman' Henry in for a few sides, including the great This Time, which was penned by Moman. Records like Joe Tex's Skinny Legs And All were just huge, and brought Reggie Young's trademark guitar licks into the mainstream once and for all.

As we've discussed, after John Richbourg cut Joe Simon's No Sad Songs album there in late 1967, he made a decision to record the rest of his Sound Stage 7 artists at American as well. Driving folks like Roscoe Robinson, Sam Baker, and Ella Washington over to Memphis, he used Chips as the arranger on many of his 45s from that period (there's a really cool one of those up on The A Side as we speak).

As we talked about only a few weeks ago, Bobby Womack practically moved into the studio during this period and, in addition to cutting a string of his own hits like Fly Me To The Moon, How I Miss You Baby, and Woman's Gotta Have It, he played guitar on countless other sessions, adding his own distinctive sound to the mix.

At the same time that all of this authentic soul was being laid down, American continued its dominance of the Pop charts, cranking out top ten hits for people like B.J. Thomas and Neil Diamond seemingly at will.

Enter The King.

Much has been made of Elvis' sessions at American in early 1969. You can read about them in painstaking detail on the myriad Presley pages that are all over the web. I just want to bring home a couple of points here, as they relate to Moman.

First off, he wasn't intimidated by the King, and cleared out all of his ass-kissers and hangers-on before he would consent to record him. There was probably nobody else in the country at that point who could have gotten away with that! RCA told him that they wouldn't be giving him label credit as a producer. He told them he didn't care about that shit, and let's get on with it...

A true poker player, Chips knew how to read people. He took the anxious Elvis aside and told him that he would cut him a number one record (something he knew he wanted more than anything else), but that he'd have to follow his direction. He held the King in the palm of his hand. Elvis did what he said.

The songs Moman chose for him were unlike anything he had done before, and challenged Presley to try to actually sing, something he hadn't done in years. In The Ghetto, which was resisted by everybody in the Elvis camp as being too much of a 'message song' shot to #3 that May. Released before the actual album (From Elvis In Memphis), it featured our current selection on the flip. A cover of Chuck Jackson's biggest hit, I'm sure this one was hand picked by Moman as well (possibly a tip of the hat to Papa Don?). You can hear Elvis struggling a bit there on the bridge, as he tries to stay on key. Is it soul? No. In so many ways, though, that was Moman's strength, the ability to bring to each production exactly what was needed for that particular artist, even if he was a King.

Suspicious Minds went to number one that September... Chips had delivered.

continued in Part Three.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Triumphs - Raw Dough (Volt 100)

Raw Dough

Lincoln Wayne Moman

That's his name. Like some solitary figure out of the old west, you never know where he might turn up. Just when you think you know him, you find out that maybe you didn't know him after all, and he's on his way out of town. Enigmatic, elusive, he travels alone. According to popular legend, his nickname 'Chips' refers to his fondness for the game of Poker. A game that requires artifice and skill. A game that may be, after all, the key to understanding this reclusive giant of American Music.

He grew up in rural LaGrange, Georgia, south of Atlanta. As he told Allen Smith, "I played guitar ever since I could remember, really... it seems like I had always played guitar." His mother , he says, started him off on the ukelele, before getting him his first real guitar from Sears and Roebuck, a Gene Autry model. When he was 14 years old, he up and hitch-hiked to Memphis. That was in 1950. Staying with his aunt, he took to painting houses to earn a few dollars, while he continued to learn to play on the borrowed guitars of his friends from the neighborhood. "None of us knew what we were doing," he said, "we just got together and kind of played a little bit." He spent much of his teenage years out on the road, hustling jobs wherever he could find them, continuing to play in pick-up bands whenever he got the chance.

By the time he turned twenty, he was back in Memphis. Rockabilly pioneer Warren Smith heard him playing one of those borrowed guitars one day in a local drugstore, and hired him on the spot to play in his band (I guess he must have been pretty good by then). As Smith went on to record at Sun, Chips was in the middle of it all, beginning his long association with the Memphis studio scene right there on the ground floor. He earned his reputation as a 'guitar-slinger for hire' in those days, playing with Smith all over the South.

After Memphis brothers Dorsey and Jimmy Burnette hit it big (along with Paul Burlison) on Ted Mack's amateur hour up in New York as The Rock and Roll Trio, they needed someone to go out on the road with them in support of their records. They hired Chips to play with them on a tour that would take them out to California. It was here, at the legendary Gold Star Studios, that he got his first work as a session guitarist. Intrigued by the whole process of 'making records', he knew he had found his calling.

While out on the road with Gene Vincent and Gary Stites, the young Moman was in a car accident that sidelined him for a while, and he returned to Memphis. He got a job playing in Ray Scott's band (whose claim to fame remains being the author of Billy Lee Riley's Flying Saucers Rock and Roll), a band that also included a drummer named Gene Chrisman. In that crazy world of 1950s Memphis, a barber named M.E. Ellis (who had also opened his own record company... didn't everybody?), introduced Chips to one of his customers, this guy that worked in a bank, and was trying to get his own little studio and record label (Satellite), up and running. His name was Jim Stewart.

Stewart and a couple of partners were recording in his uncle's garage using some primitive equipment they had borrowed from Ellis. They wanted to cut a record on a woman named Donna Rae, who was somewhat of a local personality, hosting Wink Martindale's 'Dance Party' TV show every week (that's ol' Wink on the show with another guy from Memphis at left). Chips convinced Ray Scott to come up with a couple of songs for her, on the condition that Jim let Ray  make his own record at no cost. No problem. Chips played guitar on the Donna Rae record there in the garage in 1958. It didn't sell. Neither did Scott's.

Convinced he needed better equipment, Stewart talked his sister, Estelle Axton, into mortgaging her house so she could lend him the money to buy a new Ampex machine. He bought out his other partners at that point, and set up shop in an empty storefront outside of the city, in Brunswick, Tennessee. With basically no clue what to do next, he asked Chips (and a friend named Jimbo Hale) to help him set it up.

Moman looked at the cards in his hand... not much there, really. Here was an opportunity to raise the stakes a little. What kind of ante had Stewart thrown into the pot? What promises were made? I don't know, but Chips was in.

With him on guitar and Jimbo on bass, they brought in Jerry 'Satch' Arnold on drums, providing Stewart with his first rudimentary rhythm section. The first release from the new studio was on a black vocal group called The Veltones that local music figure Earl Cage brought out to record. Although it was picked up for national distribution by Mercury in mid 1959 (much to everyone's amazement), it went nowhere. Ditto for the fledgling company's next record, cut on an incredible singer that Chips had brought out there himself, one Charles Heinz.

The Brunswick thing wasn't working out, and everyone knew it. Chips was on it. He knew that they had to get back into the thick of things to make it work. Familiar with the acoustics at Royal Studio, which had been built into an old movie theater the year before, Chips looked all over the city for a suitable location. He found it, pretty much around the corner, in the empty Capitol Theater on McLemore Avenue. "I wanted it in a black community," he told Rob Bowman, "that's the music that I wanted to do." It was that decision that basically created Soul music as we know it today.

As they renovated and got things set up, Estelle opened a record shop in what used to be the lobby. People came in off the street to see what was going on. People like a 16 year old Booker T. Jones, and WDIA personality Rufus Thomas. Rufus brought in his daughter Carla, recent graduate of the station's Teentown Singers, and they became the first act to record at the new studio. Released as Satellite 102 in the summer of 1960, 'Cause I Love You by 'Carla and Rufus' was produced by Moman and featured Booker T (on baritone sax!), Marvell Thomas (Rufus' son) on piano, and Lewie Steinberg on bass. It was a big local hit, which perked up the ears of Jerry Wexler at Atlantic, who entered into an 'informal' distribution agreement with the company, re-releasing the 45 as Atco 6177.

The pot was growing.

Rufus Thomas had, unsuccessfully, tried to shop a demo tape of a song his daughter had written to Vee-Jay two years before, and brought it into the studio. Stewart loved it, and pulled out all the stops, actually booking Royal for the session which was to include (gulp) strings and everything. Unhappy with the results (Chips "hated it"), they re-cut it themselves with Moman producing. Although it took a while, Gee Whiz broke into the Billboard Hot 100 by late 1960, and Atlantic exercised their option, putting it out on their own imprint and promoting the hell out of it. It paid off, breaking into the top ten on both the R&B and Pop charts, and bringing in the label's first real dollars.

See that one, raise you another.

As we've discussed before, the Stax story is a convoluted and often controversial tale that's been comprehensively covered by Rob Bowman in his towering book, Soulsville U.S.A. You should read it. Essentially, at this point, all you need to know is that Estelle Axton didn't like Chips Moman, and the feeling was pretty much mutual. Axton was up there in the record shop, while Moman was basically running things back in the studio. Estelle's son Packy, who had become the sax player in Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn's band, The Royal Spades (due to the fact that his mother happened to own a record company) was scheduled for a session in early 1961.

For whatever reason, Chips, now almost 25, and a veteran of years out on the road, was not as impressed with this bunch of kids fresh out of high school as Estelle thought he should be. He was working on an instrumental based on some chord changes that he and keyboard player 'Smoochy' Smith had worked out, and recorded take after take of the song with different tempos and horn lines, trying to get the feel of it. He used Packy, Wayne Jackson, Cropper and other members of the Spades on the ongoing instrumental project (along with anyone else who happened to be around, like Gibert Caple, Floyd Newman and drummer Curtis Green). "It was a spontaneous effort by all of us," Wayne Jackson told Bowman, "We cut that record for a week, day in and day out, until we finally got a piece of tape that was from front to back okay."

Estelle changed the name of the band to the Mar-Keys (as in Marquis) and leaked a copy of the tape to local station WLOK. The response was tremendous, but neither Chips nor her brother Jim, who had been traveling back and forth to Nashville putting the finishing touches on the LP that Atlantic wanted on Carla, seemed to care. She put her foot down, and demanded that they release it. When she sent Packy back to get the tape, it had somehow lost 30 seconds or so off the front end, and they had to scramble to find a segment of another take that matched it (while Estelle told all of this to Peter Guralnick in his interviews for Sweet Soul Music in rather histrionic tones, Moman called it a "simple splice"). In any event, Last Night (with the composers credit reading simply 'Mar-Keys' - even though the only members of the actual band to appear on the released version were Packy and Wayne Jackson) was a smash hit, selling over a million copies on its way to #3 on the pop charts that summer. When a west coast label named Satellite threatened to sue the company, Estelle and Jim decided to change its name to ST(ewart)AX(ton)...


Things were good. Moman's production style was establishing itself, and there was no shortage of musicians or ideas. His vision was paying off. Steve Cropper, who had been working in Estelle's record shop, would soon quit his own band (leaving it to Packy) and spend more time in the studio with Chips, learning the ropes. The first song he played guitar on as an actual session musician is one of my all-time favorites; I'm Going Home by Prince Conley. Produced by Moman, this awesome tune represents, in my opinion, the best of that early period, and a glimpse of what might have been.

Sometime in 1961, Moman put together a working band that reflected the innovative and integrated nature of the studio at that time. He was living his dream, playing real R&B with a group that included Howard Grimes, Lewie Steinberg, Booker T. Jones and Marvell Thomas (as well as Gilbert Caple and Floyd Newman on the horns whenever they could make it). It was the first inter-racial act in Memphis. "Some of them good old boys didn't like it much, I guess," he said. He named the band 'The Triumphs'. That was the kind of car he had, a TR3. When Stax decided to create a subsidiary label, The Triumphs would have the first release, Volt 100. Today's greasy selection is the B side of that organ heavy groove, Burnt Biscuits (now up on The A Side). That's Chips playing the guitar on here. How cool is that?

Moman had been trying to convince William Bell to step out from in front of the Del-Rios and record for Stax as a solo artist for over a year. By November of 1961 he was ready, and he brought a song he had written to the studio to record a demo on it. With Moman working the board, the incredible You Don't Miss Your Water turned out so good that they decided to release it just the way it was, setting the tone for virtually everything that was to follow at Stax...


What happened? Plainly put, I think once the money started rolling in, Estelle and Jim wanted Chips out. There was nothing on paper... Moman had been operating under the assumption that he owned 25% of the company, apparently because that's what Stewart had told him way back in the Brunswick days. Jim cut a session with Cropper while Moman wasn't around, and decided to release it, going so far as to call the group 'The M.G.'s', which was clearly derived from Chips' 'Triumphs' idea. It hit big... really big. It was the summer of 1962. There was an argument. Wayne Jackson (who 'still had pimples') heard it. Stewart told Moman; "I f#*ked you, and if you can prove it, fine, and if you can't... I'm the bookkeeper, and I've got the money!"

"Well F#*k You!" Chips said, "If you need it that bad, keep it!" and he walked out the door, never to return.


... continued in Part Two