BOOK REVIEW (January 2021)
Considering his contributions in producing, engineering, playing, composing and running recording studios and subsequent success, Chips Moman is not as well-known and acknowledged as one would think. He wasn’t a spotlight person - on the contrary, he preferred working behind the scenes - but the legacy of his work in music business mainly in Memphis and Nashville is vast. Unfortunately, mishaps and dishonesty from his partners prevented him from reaching the status of a household name.
James L. Dickerson’s book Chips Moman, subtitled The Record Producer Whose Genius Changed American Music (350 pages, ISBN 978-1-7341033-8-0), tells the story of this underrated maestro of music. For this book James has interviewed 43 persons, and there are 46 black and white photos, but no index (https://www.sartorisliterary.com/). James is a freelance writer for many magazines. His earlier books have dealt with Elvis and Colonel Parker, and soul music fans may remember his Goin’ Back to Memphis (1996).
Lincoln Wayne Moman was born in LaGrange, Georgia, in 1937, and after a stroke and respiratory problems, he also passed there in 2016.
Nicknamed “Chips”, he left for Memphis in 1951, and two years later wrote his first song, This Time, which turned into a hit by Troy Shondell, but only eight years later in 1961. In 1958 he moved to Los Angeles, toured with Gene Vincent and worked as a session guitarist at the Gold Star studios. A year later he however returned to Memphis, started working with Jim Stewart for his Satellite Records and cut his own debut record, Thank You for Calling. In addition to playing guitar, Chips also co-wrote and produced the Veltones’ tender pop ballad called Fool in Love in 1959.
From Satellite to Stax, Chips kept on writing and producing for Carla and Rufus Thomas (Gee Whiz), the Mar-Keys, William Bell, Booker T. etc., but in the summer of 1962 Chips left Stax after Jim Stewart refused to give him the 25 percent share he had promised earlier. Chips co-launched the American Sound Studio in 1963, and soon Tommy Cogbill (bass, guitar), Mike Leach (bass), Bobby Wood (piano), Bobby Emmons (B3 organ), Gene Chrisman (drums) and Reggie Young (guitar) became his session key players. They were called The 827 Thomas Street Band, but later they were better known as the the Memphis Boys. Here I strongly recommend Roben Jones’ book Memphis Boys: The Story of American Studios (https://www.soulexpress.net/deep110.htm#memphisboys). Published in 2010, it is by far the most profound and detailed book on the subject. When Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham left Fame and came to Memphis, Chips started collaborating with them as well, especially with Dan. Chips and Dan co-wrote the immortal The Dark End of the Street.
In Memphis at American Chips wrote, co-wrote and produced many pop and soul hits in the 1960s for such artists as Sandy Posey (Born a Woman), the Box Tops (The Letter), Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Bobby Womack, B.J. Thomas, Dusty Springfield, Dionne Warwick and the Sweet Inspirations. The most successful, however, were the two sessions and 35 songs with Elvis in 1969. There could have been more had Colonel Tom Parker not demanded half of the copyright. Still after those sessions Chips had such visitors as Neil Diamond, Brenda Lee, Petula Clark, Bill Medley and Jackie DeShannon, to name a few.
For soul music aficionados the second half of the book isn’t as interesting as the beginning simply because Chips concentrated more and more on country and pop artists. He left Memphis in 1972, moved first to Atlanta and then to Nashville for over ten years, where he produced albums for Waylon Jenkins, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash, among others.
There’s also another point, which may be slightly disturbing to some readers: from fact-based writing and being an objective observer the author moves more into literary style and concentrates a lot on personal things. He writes at length about incidents that he had witnessed and scenes that he took part in - be it interviews, recording sessions or tours. There’s nothing wrong with that, but at times reminiscing about those personal experiences reaches almost gossipy level. It’s a strange transition from the matter-of-fact writing at the beginning. Furthermore, there were several spelling mistakes in names and years.
Chips returned to Memphis in 1985 and met with more success during those last decades of the past century, but there were a lot of disappointments as well. There were difficulties with his Class of ‘55 project with Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and Carl Perkins. There was an unfavourable agreement with the city of Memphis, which eventually led to Chips losing his studio and going to jail for a short period. He had misfortunes in establishing record labels of his own and keeping his marriages working, which meant two divorces. There was also one crucial article in Memphis Flyer, which was against the law of libel, and even a court case with Ringo Starr.
Although a bit unbalanced, this book is an easy read and enlightens Chips Moman’s character and career from several angles.
© Heikki Suosalo
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