TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Memphis has been a music town ever since anyone can remember, and it's had places to record that music ever since there have been records. Some of its recording studios - Sun, Stax and Hi - are well-known, but American Studios, which produced its share of hits, remains obscure. Rock historian Ed Ward has its story.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MEMPHIS SOUL STEW")
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KEEP ON DANCING")
: The Gentrys' "Keep on Dancing" managed to hit Number Four on the national pop charts in 1965, even though - or maybe because - the lyrics were incomprehensible and the sound was awful. The next year, Moman and his guitarist friend Tommy Cogbill were tapped for a session in Muscle Shoals, and met Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham, who were not only studio musicians but songwriters looking for people to record their songs.
Word was getting out that American had some top-notch players, all of whom were white, oddly enough, and this was attracting artists, so Penn and Oldham started hanging around. They must have been paying attention when Goldwax Records' Quinton Claunch brought his latest discovery in.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU'VE GOT MY MIND MESSED UP")
: James Carr's "You've Got My Mind Messed Up" established him, although today he's best remembered for "Dark End of the Street," which Penn and Oldham not only wrote, but Penn sang harmony on. Up in New York, Atlantic Records took notice. They had an uneasy relationship with Stax and were always looking for other Southern studios to record in.
In 1967 and '68, most of their top soul stars were at American, and so was another of their artists who was trying to change direction.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "SON OF A PREACHER MAN")
: "Son of a Preacher Man" was Dusty Springfield's debut on Atlantic, and it - and the entire album it was on, "Dusty in Memphis" - was recorded at American.
The list of hits cut at American during this period is astonishing. "The Letter" by the Box Tops, "Angel of the Morning" by Merilee Rush, "Hooked on a Feeling" by BJ Thomas, "Skinny Legs and All" by Joe Tex, and "I'm in Love" by Wilson Pickett are just a few.
But the local seal of approval came in January and February of 1969, when Memphis' biggest hitmaker, in serious need of continuing the career revival he'd had with his 1968 television special, rented the studio and the Memphis Boys, and had Chips Moman produce an album for him.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M MOVING ON")
: Chips Moman always insisted he wasn't a businessman, and by 1972 he'd proven it to everyone's satisfaction. The final blow came when Atlantic didn't renew its contract with American, and Moman sold the place. He and a lot of the amazing crew of musicians he'd worked with wound up in Nashville, where they all became indispensable to stars like Waylon Jennings. But American Studios was history.
GROSS: Ed Ward lives in France. The music he played is from the Ace CD "Memphis Boys: The Story of American Studios."