Various Artists “Memphis Boys – The Story Of American Studios” (Ace CDCHD 1330)
By Pete Nickols
King Curtis ~ Memphis Soul Stew ~ Atco 6511; Dusty Springfield ~ Son Of A Preacher Man ~ Philips BF 1730; James & Bobby Purify ~ Shake A Tail Feather ~ Bell 669; The Box Tops ~ The Letter ~ Mala 565; Sandy Posey ~ Born A Woman ~ MGM 13501; James Carr ~ You’ve Got My Mind Messed Up ~ Goldwax 302; The Gentrys ~ Keep On Dancing ~ Youngstown 601; Joe Simon ~ Nine Pound Steel ~ Sound Stage 7 2589; Merrilee Rush ~ Angel Of The Morning ~ Bell 705; Wilson Pickett ~ I’m In Love ~ Atlantic 2448; Mark James ~ Suspicious Minds ~ Scepter 12221; B.J. Thomas ~ I’ve Been Down This Road Before ~ Scepter 12230; Arthur Conley ~ Funky Street ~ Atco 6563; Oscar Toney Jr. ~ For Your Precious Love ~ Bell 672; Solomon Burke ~ Shame On Me ~ Atlantic LP 8185; The Glories ~ Dark End Of The Street ~ Date 1647; Joe Tex ~ Skinny Legs And All ~ Dial 4063; Bobby Womack ~ More Than I Can Stand ~ Minit 32093; L.C. Cooke ~ Let’s Do It Over ~ Wand 1171; Spencer Wiggins ~ The Power Of A Woman ~ Goldwax 330; Clay Hammond ~ Suzy Do It Better Than You ~ UK Kent LP 081; Percy Milem ~ I Don’t Know What You’ve Got (But It’s Got Me) ~ Goldwax 326; Danny O’Keefe ~ Good Time Charlie’s Got The Blues ~ Signpost LP SP 8404; Elvis Presley ~ I’m Movin’ On ~ RCA LP LSP 4155.
As a tribute to one of the most significant southern studios of the 60’s (and very early 70’s) it would have been nice to have had a double-CD ala Ace/Kent’s recent fine Fame retrospective. However, that set reflects one label (for which Ace has reissue rights) as much as the studio itself, whereas this latest offering deals purely with a studio which, although its owner Chips Moman floated a few short-lived ‘house’ labels, chiefly cut records for other companies; and so to bring together even the 24 multi-label tracks on offer here must have taken quite a bit of license-organising by Ace.
The CD is offered as a companion to Roben Jones’ book of the same title, a book which is a well worthwhile read for southern soul fans but for me sticks almost too closely to the subjects of its title, namely those admittedly very fine American Studio musicians, the Memphis Boys. I just wish Jones had also felt able to give us more insight into the artists who recorded there and, in particular, the soul-related ones; however as someone who first became interested in the studio purely through the musicianship employed on some of its early pop recordings, this was perhaps never going to be an overly important consideration.
The CD reflects the mix of pop and soul that kept the studio busy, so this is hardly an important release for soul-only fans to own, especially as most of the soul sides have appeared on CD before. However, one soul gem new to me in this format is the fine Glories’ Date version of the much-covered Penn-Moman deepie “Dark End Of The Street”, with later Quiet Elegance helmswoman Frankie Gearing on lead vocals. Nice to hear a woman singing this essentially ‘male’ cheating song so well.
Of the already-on-CD soul items, there’s L.C.Cooke’s great, soulful Wand reading of Penn and Oldham’s “Let’s Do It Over” (most associated with Joe Simon), complete with Bobby Womack’s considerable vocal assistance. Spencer Wiggins’ Goldwax side “The Power Of A Woman” is one of the great man’s finest (and deepest) recordings, complete with some wonderful guitar-fills from the superb Reggie Young. Then there’s another very good Goldwax side in the shape of Percy Milem’s emotive ‘take’ on Don Covay’s song “I Don’t Know What You’ve Got (But It’s Got Me)”, which runs a close second to Little Richard’s dramatic two-part version cut for Vee Jay some two years earlier. From his “I Wish I Knew” album, we can also enjoy the lay-back country-soul of Solomon Burke’s Don Bryant and Willie Mitchell-penned “Shame On Me”, complete with its potent mid-track rap. Oscar Toney’s very impressive first Bell 45 “For Your Precious Love” came about almost as an after-thought at the ‘tale-end’ of an extremely long Papa Don Schroeder session for James & Bobby Purify’s “Shake A Tail Feather” (which you can also catch at Track 3). Equally impressive is Joe Simon’s genuinely beautiful interpretation of Dan Penn and Wayne Carson Thompson’s country-soul storyline piece “Nine Pound Steel”. And we couldn’t possibly omit mention of the Goldwax track that put James Carr on the hit-parade trail, his jaunty-rhythmed O.B. McClinton vehicle, “You’ve Got My Mind Messed Up”, with its occasional dramatic passages and power-vocal fade.
Also on offer is Wilson Pickett’s Womack-penned “I’m In Love”, which has never been one of my favourites by this great singer. A predominantly ‘smooth’ song, I feel it’s hardly suited to an upfront 1967-vintage ‘Wicked Pickett’; and I’m no more impressed with Womack’s own, almost sing-along mid-pacer, “More Than I Can Stand”. Clay Hammond has a great voice and the Sam Cooke-like, rhythmic “Suzy Do It Better Than You” is a strong side which remained unreleased until a 1988 UK Kent LP. Which, soulwise, leaves just two well-reissued uptempo offerings from Joe Tex and Arthur Conley.
Of the rest, I’ve always enjoyed Dusty’s “Son Of A Preacher Man”, although as much for its wonderful American rhythm track as for the later-added New York lead vocal. King Curtis’ “Memphis Soul Stew” is an understandable and likable inclusion; The Box Tops’ “The Letter” was Dan Penn’s opening shot as a producer at American, although, aurally, give me the later Joe Cocker version any time. Sandy Posey swapped her studio receptionist role for that of hit vocalist via “Born A Woman” and Washington D.C’s Merrilee Rush succeeded commercially where Evie Sands had earlier failed with “Angel Of The Morning”. That leaves just a Danny O’Keefe slice of country-pop; an unimpressive version by Elvis of Hank Snow’s “I’m Movin’ On”, which can’t hold a candle to Ray Charles’ much earlier ‘take’ on it; and Mark James’ self-penned pre-Presley cut of “Suspicious Minds”, James being better remembered as a songwriter who penned several songs for B.J. Thomas, including the storyline pop ballad that Thomas includes here, which also boasted Penn and Oldham as co-writers.
As a ‘first stab’ at a CD reflecting Chips Moman’s studio this does well enough but there’s clearly scope for more - licensing and commercial viability issues permitting, I suspect.