Saturday, July 26, 2014

July 26 - Poplar Marker For The Boys

The 2014 edition of Elvis Week (Aug. 8-17) is fast approaching. The calendar of Presley-related events is packed, as ever, with concerts, panels, film screenings and celebrations of all kinds. And while the King will be the focus of most of the proceedings, another set of Memphis icons will also be given the spotlight.

On Wednesday, August 13, Chips Moman and the American Studios band will finally get some long-overdue recognition with the unveiling of a Shelby County Historical Marker near 827 Thomas Street. The address — at Thomas and Chelsea Avenue — is the site of the former American Recording Studio, the place where Moman and the band cut Elvis’ crucial 1969 “comeback” sessions, and recorded dozens and dozens (roughly 120, depending on the source) of chart hits between 1962 and 1972.

Moman — who’d also been a catalyst in helping develop Stax Records — wooed members of the staff bands at Hi Records and Phillips to form the classic American Studios group: guitarist Reggie Young, drummer Gene Chrisman, pianist Bobby Wood, organist Bobby Emmons and bassists Mike Leech and Tommy Cogbill. Mostly with Moman at the helm, that unit — known variously as the 827 Thomas Street Band, the American Group, and, later, the Memphis Boys — would help sire a succession of hits for artists such as Dusty Springfield (“Son of a Preacher Man”), Neil Diamond (“Sweet Caroline), Merrilee Rush (“Angel of the Morning”), B.J. Thomas (“Hooked on a Feeling”), Joe Tex (“I Gotcha”), Bobby Womack (“Fly Me To The Moon”) and, most famously, Presley (“Suspicious Minds”).

The push to honor Moman and his musicians has been an organic and collaborative effort among a group of fans, educators and civic-minded Memphians. This contingent includes WEVL radio hosts Eddie Hankins and Chuck Porter and program director Brian Craig, attorney Eric Plumley, deejay Kenny Bosak, former Rhodes fellow Charles Hughes, and John Bass, head of Rhodes’ Mike Curb Institute for Music.

“We felt somebody needed to not just speak up, but to do something concrete to honor the legacy of Chips and the studio,” says Hankins, who wrote a long 2007 feature for Memphis magazine on American and has helped spearhead the campaign.

“At the time when there were so many great Memphis studios, American drew artists, not just from the South or solely from the R&B world, but from everywhere and every genre,” says Hankins. “You think about Dusty Springfield coming from England to record and record successfully. And there are so many songs that people would recognize immediately but wouldn’t necessarily associate with Memphis that were recorded at the studio. ‘Sweet Caroline’ — everyone knows it, but no one thinks of American. ‘Angel of the Morning’ — people don’t associate that with American. ‘Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues.’ All these hits were cut at that studio. The fact that those musicians were so versatile … they could cut soul songs, pop songs, rock songs, R&B, little bit of country, they even had a No. 1 jazz album — those musicians could play anything. They were musical chameleons under Chips’ guidance; he steered them to the right sound for so many artists and created this incredible body of work.”

Hankins and his fellow American enthusiasts had been congregating on a Facebook page run by Erick Crews, son of American studio partner Don Crews, when the marker effort took shape.

“It had come up on the page a few times, like ‘Oh, it’s a shame there’s not a marker.’ It was something we had thought and talked about for a while,” says Hankins. “It sort of seemed like our group came together naturally and that everybody was interested enough to really follow through.”

With the help of local historian Jimmy Ogle, the American marker initiative was shepherded through the Shelby County Historical Commission office and finally approved late last year.

The original American Studios building was razed in the late ’80s with little fanfare. A new building — used as an auto-parts store and later a day care center — took its place. Another more recent structure replaced that one, and currently houses a Family Dollar store, where the marker will be placed (officially at 831 Thomas Street).

The Aug. 13 unveiling event will take place at 2 p.m. Memphis television personality Dave Brown will serve as emcee, and various guests are scheduled to attend. Among those tentatively slated to appear are Moman and American band members Young, Wood, Emmons and Chrisman. Relatives of the late Tommy Cogbill will also be there. Don Crews, longtime studio manager Marty Lacker, American writers/artists Johnny Christopher and Mark James, along with author Roben Jones, who wore the definitive biography of the studio, “The Memphis Boys,” are also expected.

The Memphis Boys will be playing a concert at Graceland that night as well. 

This coming January is, hopefully, the dedication for the Poplar Tunes marker on Poplar Avenue.

(Source: Commercial Appeal / ElvisMatters)