by Edd Hurt
Born in LaGrange, Ga., in 1937, Moman went to Memphis in 1951, and began his career playing guitar for rockabilly singer Warren Smith, who is remembered today for his 1956 Sun Records single "Ubangi Stomp." Toward the end of the decade, Moman went to California with Johnny and Dorsey Burnette — the brothers had made noise as part of the famed Memphis rockabilly group The Rock 'n' Roll Trio — and honed his guitar and production skills while playing demos at such studios as Los Angeles’ Gold Star, which would gain fame in the next decade as the site of Phil Spector’s recording sessions.
Returning to Memphis in 1959, Moman began working with Jim Stewart and Stewart’s sister, Estelle Axton. Stewart and Axton had started recording in Brunswick, Tenn., and called their fledgling label Satellite Records. Moman co-wrote and played guitar on a song titled "Fool for Love," a 1959 Satellite single by The Veltones. When Satellite decided to move its operations to Memphis, Moman and songwriter Paul Richey scouted locations in black Memphis neighborhoods, and settled on the old Capitol Theater for its new base of operations.
Moman worked on early Satellite and, later, Stax hits by Rufus and Carla Thomas, William Bell and The Mar-Keys. But Moman left Stax in 1962 in circumstances that are still shrouded in controversy. He played guitar on Muscle Shoals soul sessions, and in his spare time, wrote "The Dark End of the Street" and "Do Right Man-Do Right Woman" with Dan Penn. Moman started another Memphis studio, American Sound Studios, where he would record The Gentrys, Sandy Posey, Merrilee Rush, Bobby Womack, The Box Tops and Elvis Presley.
Moving to Nashville, Moman co-wrote "Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love)," a 1977 hit for Waylon Jennings, and produced records by B. J. Thomas, Gary Stewart and Willie Nelson. He tried working again in Memphis in the mid-’80s, but abandoned the Bluff City for LaGrange. Moman lives there today, and his appearance tomorrow at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum — Moman is there participating in the museum’s series of programs marking the 35th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death — will be a rare chance to hear the great producer, guitarist and songwriter tell his story his way. Recovering from a successful hip-replacement operation, the laconic Moman spoke to the Cream from his West Georgia home turf. But if you want to hear Moman tell Elvis stories, you’ll have to make the trip to the Hall of Fame — whether it was the ghost of Elvis playing a trick on Chips, or just the phone line, the portion of the Cream’s interview that deals with Presley was completely inaudible.
Nashville Cream: Chips, let’s start at the beginning. What was it like to play with Warren Smith in the late '50s?
Chips Moman: I played shows in Arkansas, but I didn’t play any in Memphis. I was only with him for a short period of time. It was all new to me — I was so surprised to find a job playin’ guitar, and so I had a good time, I know that.
NC: When did you go to California with Dorsey and Johnny Burnette, and what was that experience like?
CM: I believe it was ‘57. It could’ve been ‘58, but I think it was ‘57. And when I got there, I had no idea how they made a record. I didn’t know anything, so it was really an eye-opener for me. I didn’t know people had more than one mic. I played some guitar for [rockabilly singer] Johnny Redd on some recordings. I would drive out to some of the publishers, and they would go in and out, with four or five different singers singin’ songs, and they did demos.
NC: You worked at Gold Star Studios, which became famous as the site of Phil Spector’s recording sessions. Did you ever meet Spector?
CM: I met Phil Spector, and that’s about all I can say: I met him, and it was a brief meeting.
NC: When you went back to Memphis and began working for Satellite, what were those sessions like?
CM: I worked on [Carla Thomas’] "Gee Whiz" — worked on it with Jim Stewart, that particular song. You had to get it right goin’ down, because there wasn’t no overdubbing.
NC: And you engineered William Bell’s single, "You Don’t Miss Your Water."
CM: I liked that one song. I didn’t do any of the other things he wrote.
NC: There have been accounts of an acrimonious split with Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton in 1962. What happened, Chips?
CM: Well, what happened was, I was gonna get a third of the Satellite label, which we had to change [the name of], because there was a place in California called Satellite. So we had to change it to Stax, which is from Stewart and Axton. Anyway, I also cut "Last Night" by The Mar-Keys, and we had two or three records goin’ at the same time. It started getting to be a madhouse. And I wrote one side of Carla Thomas’ "Gee Whiz," and I wrote one side of "Last Night." I never was paid a cent. And so, I asked Jim about my money, and he was sittin’ there with [future Stax executive] Al Bell and some guy with Al Bell, and he said, "Well, the only thing I can tell you, Chips, is I’m fucking you out of it." And I got several witnesses to that conversation.
NC: That sounds pretty harsh, Chips.
CM: Yeah, but that’s the old days of rock ‘n’ roll. I was a broke kid, and I couldn’t spell lawyer, much less go find one. Looking back, I would’ve done everything different. Most of my career, I was just hangin’ on. I got $3,000. A thousand of it went to a lawyer — they took a third, you know. Anyway, it’s a bad memory. It affected me all the way through.
NC: So you started up American, and your first real hit was The Gentrys’ "Keep on Dancing," which sold a million or thereabouts.
CM: Yeah, and the next one would’ve been [by] Sandy Posey.
NC: Going back to Stax for a second, we’d like to know what the Capitol Theater was like when you found it. Was it empty?
CM: It was just an empty theater. All the seats were still in it. It looked like they were showing a movie there, or could have if they wanted to. It had been closed down for a long time.
NC: The Stax studio was razed in 1988, and now the Stax Museum stands there. Have you ever visited the museum?
CM: No. I wouldn’t do that.
NC: We’ve read that you felt somewhat unappreciated in Memphis, even though you cut something like 120 charting songs at American. Did you feel unappreciated for your accomplishments?
CM: I think they were showing me their appreciation. I feel that way. But at the same time, I don’t feel like they stayed that way. What I think is that they expected too much. They expected it to happen overnight. And you know, you just don’t put together a music organization overnight.
NC: Well, the Bobby Womack records you cut at American are absolutely classic. "Arkansas State Prison" and "It’s Gonna Rain" are amazing tracks.
CM: Yeah. Did you hear [Womack’s] "Fly Me to the Moon"?
NC: Of course.
CM: I liked that record. I’m a fan of Bobby Womack — his guitar playing. Left-handed and upside-down. He is a super player.
NC: You also worked with The Box Tops, and Dusty Springfield recorded Dusty in Memphis at American, although you didn’t produce her album. What was it like to work with The Box Tops?
CM: Dan Penn cut them at first. I didn’t fool with The Box Tops until after Dan left. With Dusty Springfield, I was thankful for the time off. Studio rentals excited me, because that meant I could get off.
NC: How would you describe the American sound?
CM: I don’t know how I would describe it. Simple. Only way I would know how is to say, "Listen to this, and listen to that."
NC: What did the great American musicians — Reggie Young, Gene Chrisman, Tommy Cogbill and so on — bring to the recordings, and how did you work with the musicians on a typical session?
CM: They brought a lot of ideas. They developed a style. We’d all get together in the control room, and they’d get their pencils and paper, and I’d play the song that we was gonna do. And by the end, they would have all the numbers down. They were a quick band, too.
NC: When you came to Nashville, did you feel accepted?
CM: Well, I wasn’t perceived real well at first. But I did have a few friends in Nashville, you know. I was a writer for Tree Music at the same time Willie Nelson was, and my first hit was published by Tree. A song I wrote was a hit by Troy Shondell — [1961’s] "This Time." It was a big record.
NC: How did you come to write "Luckenbach, Texas"? Did you and Bobby Emmons tailor it specifically for Waylon Jennings?
CM: It was just a song. I’ll tell you how that happened: Susanna Clark and Guy Clark, they were kind of friends of mine, and they would come by the studio. They were just hangin’ out, and we sat there all night long talking in the studio. He was telling me about Hondo Crouch, and Hondo owned Luckenbach, and lived there. It was a pretty funny story, and I really wanted to meet Hondo. I never never did get to meet him — he passed away before that song happened. All it was, was this one old store, and one side of it was a post office. It was a pretty unique place. Guy and his wife and I sat up all night, talking and whatever. About 9 the next morning, Bobby Emmons showed up at the studio, and he came in the door, and I said, "Hey, Bobby, let’s go to Luckenbach, Texas." He sat down at the piano and I had my guitar, and we just sat there and wrote it. The studio was at 1111 17th Ave. South. Right next door to it was Waylon’s office.
NC: How do you feel about Nashville, Chips?
CM: I really love Nashville. It’ll always feel like home to me.
NC: More like home than Memphis?
NC: You recorded Gary Stewart’s Cactus and a Rose album in 1980. What was it like to work with Stewart?
CM: He was a hoot. It was real strange. He was real strange. One time I was in the studio, and I was gonna put a vocal down, and I kept turning his mic up, but I couldn’t get him. I couldn’t pick him up — it was muffled. I couldn’t figure out what it was. I went back there, and he was layin’ down in the floor. And that’s the way he was. That explains everything. He was just a funny guy.
NC: When you returned to Memphis in the mid-’80s, what happened?
CM: It was the same old city, and it was kinda like cuttin’ the same old song. Memphis still doesn’t have a clue about records. Sam Phillips broke through and sold some records, but I don’t know anybody else who really did, other than Stax. Living down in Memphis in the '50s, I saw that they didn’t know anything about how to go about getting a record out. I mean, getting a hit record was a big mystery. You’d hear 'em, but you wouldn’t know where they came from. We learned about music and its origins and everything. There’s still a lot more stories to be told. I’m tryin’ to think about those early times, and I can’t even think of nothing.