|Chips Moman gives a little more conversation
on Elvis' 1969 creative rebirth
By Bob Mehr, GoMemphis.com
By any standard, Chips Moman has an impressive résumé. As a songwriter, Moman is responsible for several true classics, from "Dark
End of the Street" to "Luckenbach Texas (Back to the Basics of Love)." As a producer, he helped define Stax Records during its early
years before going on to sire a succession of hits at his American Sound Studio.
But, perhaps more than any aspect of his storied career, Moman will be remembered as the man who helped midwife Elvis Presley's
creative rebirth in 1969.
By 1969, with his movie commitments over and the famed "Comeback Special" behind him, Elvis was ready to get back to serious
recording. As it happened, the hottest band, producer and studio in the world were right in Presley's backyard.
Over the years, Moman and his American Sound Studio -- located on Thomas Street in North Memphis -- had grown into a monster.
Moman had recruited a crack unit of players from the house bands at Hi Records and Phillips Records to form the American Studio group:
guitarist Reggie Young, drummer Gene Chrisman, pianist Bobby Wood, organist Bobby Emmons and bassists Mike Leech and Tommy
The lineup, mostly with Moman behind the board, would become a hit-making machine in the latter half of the '60s, working up a series of
chart smashes for artists like the Box Tops ("The Letter''), Dusty Springfield ("Son of a Preacher Man''), Neil Diamond ("Sweet Caroline''),
B.J. Thomas ("Hooked on a Feeling'') and Bobby Womack ("Fly Me To The Moon") .
Given the firm grip of Elvis' manager, Col. Tom Parker, his label RCA, and song pluggers at Hill and
Range Music Publishers, getting Elvis into Moman's studio proved a challenge. It was Marty Lacker --
onetime foreman for Presley, who'd gone to work for Moman -- who brought the project in through the
"Marty was working for me and he was still in close with Elvis," says Moman. "So Marty was talking to
me about Elvis and talking to Elvis about me and slowly bringing us together. He's really the one that
got that album to take place."
The sessions, which took place in January and February of 1969, began with a bit of turbulence, as Moman was forced to take charge,
clearing the studio of Presley's pals and business associates, and setting the tone for the record he wanted to make.
"There was a big entourage and there were these publishers in town and they were pushing the kind of songs that Elvis had been cutting,
and I wanted to change that," says Moman. "See, we all liked Elvis, but we all liked Elvis in the old days. And so we were really excited
about cutting him because we thought that we could do something real special."
For Moman, the secret of the sessions was finding the right material for Presley. A gifted songwriter himself, Moman always had an ear
out for the next hit tune. "People were sending me songs all the time. People who write songs, they knew I would listen. I always stayed in
touch with a lot of songwriters and I would constantly be calling them and asking them for new things."
Among those who provided songs for the Presley sessions were young writers like Mac Davis ("In the Ghetto"), Mark James ("Suspicious
Minds"), and Eddie Rabbitt ("Kentucky Rain"). Combining the fresh material with a mix of old country, R&B and rock favorites, Presley was
able to showcase his range and interpretive gifts.
For Moman, the sessions with Presley were not unique from a musical standpoint -- "we did exactly what we normally did" he says -- but
Presley, who was being pushed in the studio for the first time in more than a decade, was performing with a newfound energy and
"He came in there and he was on fire, man. He really was," says Moman. "He was excited about this session. I think he liked the
strangeness of it, 'cause it was so different from his sessions that he'd been doing."
"He hit it off with everybody too. He was in a good mood and always joking. And it was always funny. He could tell a joke and even if it was
a bad joke, everybody would laugh," says Moman, chuckling. The collaboration between Elvis and Moman would result in Presley's return
to the charts, and the King's musical resurgence, which continued with his return to live performing later that year.
Though Presley did not return to record at American, another album, Back in Memphis, containing leftovers from the American sessions,
was released in 1970, much to Moman's chagrin.
On Saturday, Moman will be back in the Bluff City for a rare public appearance and an even rarer
conversation about the King. He'll be here, along with the members of his famed American Studio
band, to mark the 40th anniversary their work on the landmark From Elvis in Memphis album. Moman
and company will be interviewed on Saturday in a panel discussion at the Cannon Center for the
Performing Arts, part of the Elvis Week festivities.
For Moman, his relationship with Elvis predates the 1969 sessions -- and actually began on a Ferris
wheel. "See, I used to go out to the fairgrounds whenever Elvis would rent it out, and I would go out
and hang out with him and ride the rides," says Moman.
"The fact is they took the culls, the throwaways, that I had and made an album out of it and released
it, too. That was all outtakes. The guys from RCA, they took every tape in the world that they thought
had Elvis on it. And that's how they got that other album." (A remastered version of both Memphis
albums was reissued by Sony/Legacy as a two-disc package last week.)
For Moman, who's been reclusive in recent years, Saturday's Elvis interview will be a rare opportunity
to hear him talk about his most famous charge. "Ordinarily I just don't do any interviews about Elvis.
The thing of it is, man, I just get wore out of people asking me about Elvis," he says, with a laugh.
"This is the first time I'm doing something like this, but I think it will be great to be with the (American
Band) and just reminisce."
The interview will also be the first public appearance for Moman since suffering a stroke last year. He's slowly been recovering, and
getting back to the things he loves most. "I'm doing better, but I'm having to really work with my left hand a lot because the stroke messed
it up. I haven't been able to play the guitar very well but I'm trying. I'm starting to play my guitar a bit and write some more songs," says
"Might be another hit left in there yet."
Conversations on Elvis: "The American Studio Session"
Chips Moman and the American Studio Band in conversation with Ernst Jorgensen and host Tom Brown. Saturday, 10 a.m. at the Cannon
Center for the Performing Arts, 255 North Main St. Tickets are $19. To purchase, or for more information, call Ticketmaster at