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The Forgotten Story Of Memphis' American Studios

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Memphis has been a music town since anyone can remember, and it's had places to record that music since there have been records. Some of its studios — Sun, Stax and Hi — are well-known, but American Studios produced its share of hits, and yet it remains obscure. But that's all likely to change with Memphis Boys: The Story of American Studios, both a book and a CD out now.

King Curtis had it right in his hit "Memphis Soul Stew." Each one of the musicians he calls in to play had appeared on plenty of iconic Memphis-based hits recorded where this one was: at American Studios, 827 Thomas Street, a slouchy, windowless one-story building you'd probably walk right past. It had been opened in 1964 by Chips Moman, a musician from Georgia who'd learned engineering and gone to work at Stax Records in its early days, only to lose his job before it really got going. Unlike Stax, Moman's studio wasn't connected to a record label; anyone was free to use it, which explains why "Keep on Dancing," the first hit to come out of American, was by a local rock band called The Gentrys.

"Keep on Dancing" hit No. 4 on the national pop charts in 1965, even though — or maybe because — the lyrics were incomprehensible and the sound was awful. The next year, Moman and his guitarist friend Tommy Cogbill were tapped for a session in Muscle Shoals, and met Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham, who were not only studio musicians, but also songwriters looking for people to record their songs. Word was getting out that American had some top-notch players (all of whom were white, oddly enough), and this was attracting artists, so Penn and Oldham started hanging around. They must have been paying attention when Goldwax Records' Quinton Claunch brought his latest discovery in.

James Carr's "You've Got My Mind Messed Up" established him, although today, he's best remembered for "Dark End of the Street," which Penn and Oldham wrote, and in which Penn sang harmony. Ironically, although it was the Memphis Boys, American's house band, on the record, American's control board was down the day they recorded it, so it was cut elsewhere.

Up in New York, Atlantic Records took notice. Atlantic had an uneasy relationship with Stax, and was always looking for other Southern studios. In 1967 and '68, most of their top soul stars were at American, and so was another of their artists who was trying to change direction. "Son of a Preacher Man" was Dusty Springfield's debut on Atlantic, and it — and the entire album on which it appeared, Dusty in Memphis — was recorded at American.

The list of hits cut at American during this period is astonishing: "The Letter" by the Box Tops, "Angel of the Morning" by Merilee Rush, "Hooked on a Feeling" by BJ Thomas, "Skinny Legs and All" by Joe Tex and "I'm in Love" by Wilson Pickett are just a few. But the local seal of approval came in January and February of 1969, when Elvis Presley, Memphis' biggest hitmaker, was in serious need of continuing the career revival he'd sparked with his 1968 television special. Presley rented the studio and the Memphis Boys, and had Chips Moman produce an album for him. From Elvis in Memphis showed that the King still had it, and gave him "In the Ghetto," his first top ten hit in four years.

Moman always insisted he wasn't a businessman, and by 1972, he'd proven it to everyone's satisfaction. The final blow came when Atlantic didn't renew its contract with American, and Moman sold the place. He, and a lot of the amazing crew of musicians with whom he'd worked, wound up in Nashville, where they all became indispensable to stars like Waylon Jennings. But American Studios was history.

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