Saturday, September 25, 2010

Electric Sitar (bonus cuts)

Here's another thing about "Cry Like a Baby" and "Hooked on a Feeling": both were produced by Chips Moman, the Memphis musician who founded American Studios after he split from Stax. He pretty much defined the collision of pop and soul: American is where "Dusty in Memphis" was recorded, and Chips is the man behind "From Elvis in Memphis" and "Suspicious Minds," which has to be the best mash-up of deep-fried beats and rococo melody ever. At American, Moman recorded everyone from Dionne Warwick and Neil Diamond to Wilson Pickett and Joe Tex. Did Herbie Mann record there? Yes, he did. (Thanks, Wikipedia.)

Moman was at Stax at the very start, in 1957 when it was still in a garage and called Satellite Records (because it was the year of Sputnik and satellites were big), and he was at Muscle Shoals at the start as well. But I've barely ever read a thing about him. In Peter Guarlnick's "Sweet Soul Music," he turns up mostly in stories narrated by his songwriting partner Dan Penn (they wrote "Dark End of the Street" together -- this guy has a lot of claims to fame, which, come to think of it, was the name of the Muscle Shoals recording studio: Fame Studios). Before he moved to Memphis, Moman put in studio time at Gold Star in LA, home to Phil Spector and later the Beach Boys. (You could argue that Moman's masterstroke was blending the layering and sweetness of LA recording with the gut bucket immediacy of Memphis -- or you could listen to Elvis' "Stranger in My Own Home Town," which makes the argument itself. Schmaltz funk! And also: electric sitar.) In the '70s, Moman founded a studio in Atlanta (didn't take) before moving to Nashville. His career maps a huge portion of the sound of American pop.

About the electric sitar: As mentioned, it turns up on the Elvis American Studio recordings. Moman clearly loved it. I suspect its appeal (besides the fact that, like satellites in 1957, it was new) was the way it updated and brightened the mournful slide of pedal steel guitar. Also it sounded freakin' cool. You can hear it on "Eyes of a New York Woman," the B.J. Thomas single that preceded "Hooked on a Feeling." (Thomas has a surprising number of great singles -- don't even get me started on "Rock & Roll Lullabye" -- but I'll leave it to to Tom to tell us more about him, which I hope he will.)


  1. Excellent post. I have a hard time keeping track of all those behind-the-scenes Memphis guys, and can generally only reckon the ones who broke out with solo careers, like Isaac Hayes.

    I can't believe you made it through this post without mentioning the name "Spooner Oldham."

  2. Well, you quickly rectified that problem.

    I also didn't mention that Moman actually got his start playing rockabilly, with Warren Smith, the guy who cut "Ubangi Stomp" for Sun. Moman: "He walked into Smart's Drug Store where I was sitting there playing this boy's guitar. And he asked me if I wanted a job and I said, 'Doing what?'" Amazing!

    After Smith's band, he went to California with Johnny Burnette, did studio work, and ended up playing for Gene Vincent. It was after getting in a car wreck with Vincent that he moved back to Memphis to recuperate and the sessions that started Stax took off. Just incredible how much music this guy was a part of.

    I knew he'd played with Burnette and Vincent, but the other details come from a great interview with Moman on