Happy Birthday, Chips Moman

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Elvis Presley and producer Chips Moman, American Sound Studio, Memphis, 1969

Great music producer, songwriter, and American Sound studio owner Chips Moman was an essential part of the thrilling warp-and-weft of the Memphis music scene from the 1960s on. His work at Stax resulted in hits. He could be a visionary. He was very tough, very dedicated to what he saw, and how to bring it about. He did not want to coast on an artist’s established reputation. He wanted to move into uncharted waters. He encouraged risk-taking. One of his specialties was providing an injection of new energy for an artist whose career was coasting or flat-lining. One of Moman’s gifts as a producer was strolling into the established career of an already-developed artist and revolutionizing them and their art. He created a space where artists – fearful of losing a toehold – took risks, moved into new and bold directions. Dusty Springfield’s legendary album Dusty in Memphis, produced by Jerry Wexler, Arif Mardin and Tom Dowd, was recorded at Moman’s American Sound. Not a coincidence. Moman created an electric atmosphere of possibility and risk.

More after the jump.

 
 

Chips Moman is probably most famous for his work with Elvis Presley in a marathon 12-day session in 1969 (the only time they worked together). In 12 days at Chips’ American Sound Studio, Elvis recorded 36 tracks. Yes, you heard right. The tracks are intricate and beautiful, diverse and complex, with amazing orchestration and arrangements. It was nothing short of a revolution, especially coming at the tail-end of a decade where Presley’s music was dominated by the soundtracks.

Chips Moman ushered (pushed, really) Elvis into a modern sound. An adult male sound. A guy with responsibilities, a daughter, a marriage, a social conscience, an awareness of the outside world, and relatable human problems (of which “Suspicious Minds” is probably the best example).

Elvis’ songs up until “Suspicious Minds” often existed in a generic world of puppy-love and horndog-lust. His performances made these songs unique. “Suspicious Minds,” though, is complicated, dark, ambivalent …grown up, in other words. Perhaps inadvertently, the song tapped into the spiky anxiety of the late 60s – which ended up having real resonance in the 70s, with Watergate and social unrest and Kent State. Suspicion everywhere.

But all of the tracks crackle with relevance and freshness, as well as a sense of the risks being taken. It was a big big deal that Elvis put himself into a newcomer’s hands. This was “not done”, the Colonel hated/feared/resented outside influence, feared the impact of Chips Moman – who was so different from all the “Yes Men” around Elvis. Moman PUSHED Elvis. Once you know all that, the tracks sound even more revolutionary. Elvis tossed off the chains that bind. You can HEAR it happening.

And so it is no surprise that some of Elvis’ greatest hits – ever – were recorded during those 12 days. Elvis’ earliest hits – “Hound Dog”, “Don’t Be Cruel”, “My Baby Left Me” “Baby, Let’s Play House”, etc. – are in the history books for cracking apart the culture’s pruderies and hypocrisies, letting in a tsunami of the New. But when you turn on the radio today, you’re far more likely to hear “Suspicious Minds” than “Hound Dog.”

In the late 60s, Elvis was perceived as a has-been. People still had affection for him, but The Beatles and The Stones had arrived, the world was changing, and Elvis was trapped in his movie contract, not touring, and his songs – many of them excellent – were buried on a mishmash of albums. He was no longer an “event”. He put out a gospel album that sold a bazillion copies, but he wasn’t at the forefront of the culture. It drove him crazy, although publicly he was a good sport about it.

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The 1968 “comeback special” on NBC was an important signifier of what was to come, and, in that particular situation, producer Steve Binder played a similar role that Chips Moman was to play a year later: Binder showed Elvis how much of a “has-been” he really was – or, at least, that that was the perception, and perception is reality. Steve Binder made Elvis go stand outside with him on Sunset Boulevard. Nobody mobbed them. Nobody even stopped. This freaked Elvis OUT. As Dave Marsh said so beautifully in his book, if there was one thing that Elvis wanted, more than anything else, from the very beginning, it was to be “an unignorable man.” After the Sunset Boulevard debacle, Elvis was like, “Oh hell to the NO” and proceeded to blow the roof off with his performance. Binder took that risk of alienating Elvis and it paid off.

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Elvis Presley during what is now known as the “comeback special,” 1968.

Similarly, just a couple of months later, Chips Moman barged into Elvis’ enforced complacency, which was already shattered at that point by the comeback special. Moman wanted Elvis to move into the modern world, with new tracks, new songwriters, a new sound. Moman would choose the sound, not Elvis, not the Colonel, not movie people financially invested in Elvis doing “same ol’ same ol.” Moman was a producer, and he was not about to be bossed around. HE was in charge of the sessions, not Elvis, not the Colonel, and definitely not Elvis’ entourage. This took some balls, Moman went up against the rigid monolith of the Elvis industry, as well as the way Elvis normally worked. Elvis was so talented he took it easy. Even when “taking it easy” he was better than most. But when he was pushed? Like Sam Phillips did at Sun? Like Steve Binder did with the television special? Like Chips Moman did in 1969? He moved MOUNTAINS.

The list of songs Elvis recorded at American Sound, under the guidance of Chips Moman, is, frankly, astonishing. Those 12 days resulted in two full albums, the main one being From Elvis in Memphis (voted #190 on Rolling Stone’s list of 500 greatest albums of all time) with tracks to spare.

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A short list of tracks on these albums:

“Long Black Limousine”
“Kentucky Rain”
“Power of My Love”
“True Love Travels on a Gravel Road”
“Any Day Now”
“Stranger In My Hometown”
“From a Jack to a King”
“You’ll Think Of Me”
“The Fair’s Moving On”
“Without Love (I Have Nothing)”
“Rubberneckin'”
“Suspicious Minds”
“In the Ghetto”

12 days. Remember that.

There have been reams of commentary about those sessions. How Chips worked. How he helped Elvis to focus. How he banished the “entourage” from the room. How he got push-back about all of this. He then insisted: He could not work this way with all of Elvis’ friends on the periphery. And Elvis – interestingly enough – was not one of the ones who pushed back. Elvis was an Alpha Dog. He was the #1 Guy in any room he walked into. The musicians at American Sound felt it, and all testify that that was the case. These guys played for everybody and even they were blown away by what Elvis brought, just by walking into a room. But what comes along with true Alpha Dog status is that you RECOGNIZE other Alpha Dogs. And Elvis recognized Chips Moman as the Leader. It took about 20 minutes for Elvis to get it, to realize: “Oh. Okay. This guy is the Alpha here, I’m the Beta, and I’ll save the Alpha Dog stuff for my performances.” Elvis did just that, and – in collaboration with Chips Moman – ushered in yet ANOTHER revolution in Elvis’ revolutionary career.

A small sample of what happened in those twelve days:


One of Elvis’ sexiest and dirtiest tracks. And that’s saying something.


I have written about this track before and how moving I find it, how essential this track is to understanding Elvis and what he “brought.” In Gillian Welch’s song “Elvis Presley Blues,” she writes that when Elvis went onstage his “soul was at stake.” That’s true in the grinding-sex songs, it’s true in the gospel, and it’s also true in the ballads, like this one. Stunning performance.


Magnificent. Coming a year after Martin Luther King’s assassination – in Memphis, an event which devastated Elvis – it still carries such depth, such eerie depth


Moman pushed Elvis into the future, into new and funkier worlds. Just listen to this. This doesn’t sound like any other Elvis track to date. Elvis is on fire.


“The Fair’s Moving On” is the kind of song that drives Elvis fans who only love it when Elvis ROCKS crazy. It’s a ballad with a build. It’s melodramatic. But these qualities are as organic to Elvis as raunchy sex drive and rebellion. This is such a good performance.


A huge hit. Elvis rarely addressed politics or controversial issues in his music. Not because he didn’t have political convictions and opinions – he did – but because he didn’t see it as his role in the world. At a press conference before his Madison Square Garden performances, he was asked by a female journalist about his attitude towards “women’s lib” and Elvis replied, simply but firmly, “Honey, I’m an entertainer.” lol He was asked about the Vietnam War and his answer was the same. “I’m not going to talk about that.” He was asked about the controversial situation in the songwriter community, with songwriters pulling their songs out of the publishing companies – a development that hamstrung people like Elvis who didn’t write his own stuff. In answer to that question, Elvis lied smoothly, saying he hadn’t heard about it – when he most certainly had, and he was extremely concerned about it. But his answer was classic: “I don’t know anything about that. I’ve been in Hawaii workin’ on my suntan.” Oh, Elvis. THAT’S a rock star. But here in “In the Ghetto”: he addressed cyclical poverty and racism. Having someone like Elvis sing a song about such a topic was extremely radical – especially in 1969, when America was on fire. Go to YouTube and put in “In the Ghetto reaction” to see people today hearing the song for the first time. “In the Ghetto” has reached “the kids” as they say, and they are blown away.

This is so sexy. But sexy in a different way from young horny Elvis who made it big in 1956. Of course it’s different because Elvis was a man now. At the same time, there’s a message in the song, too, and the Colonel had always steered Elvis away from any message-y songs. With the women singing behind him – such a different sound than the old Elvis-Jordannaires sound – this is Elvis moving into the 70s, accepting the 70s, leaving the past behind. As traditional a man as Elvis could be, artistically he always looked forward. Chips Moman made that looking-forward manifest in the sound. It’s funky as hell.

Chips Moman’s impact was incalculable.

His star on Beale Street:

 
 
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18 Responses to Happy Birthday, Chips Moman

  1. Todd Hensley says:

    If only these recording sessions had been filmed.

  2. John Ross says:

    I always thought the greatest thing you could say about Chips was that he named his studio “American” and then made music that lived up to the name. I mean calling an airline that is one thing….

    Just FYI: I wrote a piece on “In the Ghetto” some years ago where I pushed back on the idea of the song being, as you say here “naive” and, as Peter Guralnick wrote, “vapid” coming at it from the perspective of having lived through the times in the Deep South. I hope you’ll check it out if you get a chance.

    https://theroundplaceinthemiddle.com/?p=451

    As always, be well!

    • sheila says:

      yes – I love the name of the studio too. Bold!

      Not sure where I say the song is naive.

      • John Ross says:

        Oh wow. My deepest apologies. I was either hallucinating or got this mixed up with someone else.

        • sheila says:

          Yeah, nowhere do I say it’s naive. I say the opposite. I recommend all the YouTube reactors – one of which I link to here. Go to YouTube and search for “In the Ghetto reactions.” The song has been unfairly maligned for 40 years now – but the kids – as they say – have discovered it and it is blowing their minds.

          • John Ross says:

            I agree completely and once more apologize for my mistake.

          • sheila says:

            oh gosh, please no worries!

            I do hope you check out the YouTube kids reacting to the song – think you might enjoy their reactions – they take the song so to heart and can’t believe someone like Elvis cared or saw.

        • sheila says:

          the current version (2017) of “In the Ghetto” – from an artist who has a lot in common with EP:

          https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=56KYMMGudcU

  3. John Ross says:

    I’ve been following those “first reaction” videos on YouTube for a while and yes they’re amazing (not to mention heartening in these bleak times)…You’ve probably seen it but my favorite is the guy who stops “In the Ghetto” and says “This is happening NOW!”…My second favorite is one on the Righteous Brothers where the guy starts going “This is a WHITE guy?” Just more proof we should put more emphasis on listening and less on letting our eyesight blind us.

    • sheila says:

      yes the “this is happening NOW” guy (Cigar Ralph) is the one I linked to in the post. I’ve watched all his videos – he’s terrific! Totally my favorite. I also appreciated Pink Metal Head’s reaction – she was in tears – but she also took the time to remind her commenters who often “dis” hip-hop – “This is music that comes FROM the ghetto. This is the music that comes FROM everything Elvis is talking about.”

      Maybe she “got through” to some of those obnoxious people who refuse to even listen to hip-hop, or reject it out of hand.

      It was so fun watching The Righteous Brothers sweep through the reactor sub-culture.

  4. Harry Boon says:

    Wonderful stuff .Chips Moman was a legend .as,a musician engineer and producer .Along with Rick Hall he was a master of the Art .His work will. live forever .

    • sheila says:

      Harry – thanks for reading and commenting!

      Yes – he really was a master, a bold master who took risks and helped others take risks. A major figure.

  5. Bill Wolfe says:

    I love the songs Chips co-wrote with Dan Penn, starting with the transcendent “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” for Aretha Franklin.

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