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")
KING CURTIS: Today's special is Memphis soul stew. We sell so much of this people wonder what we put in it. We're going to tell you right now. Give me about a half a teacup of bass. Now I need a pound of fat back drums. Now give me four tablespoons of boiling Memphis guitar. This is going to taste all right.
Now just a little pinch of organ. Now give me a half a pint of horn.
ED WARD: King Curtis had it right on his hit "Memphis Soul Stew." Each one of the musicians he calls in to play had appeared on plenty of iconic Memphis-based hits recorded where this one was - at American Studios, 827 Thomas Street, a slouchy, windowless one-story building you'd probably walk right past.
It had been opened in 1964 by Chips Moman, a musician from Georgia who'd learned engineering and gone to work at Stax Records in its early days, only to lose his job before it really got going. Unlike Stax, Moman's studio wasn't connected to a record label; anyone was free to use it, which explains why the first hit to come out of American was by a local rock band.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KEEP ON DANCING")
THE GENTRYS: (Singing) I keep on dancing. Keep on. Keep on doing the jerk right now. Shake it, shake it baby. Come on and show me how you work. Now you're in motion. Keep on and do the locomotion, yeah. Don't wait. Shake it, shake it, baby. Yeah. Keep on. Keep on dancing and prancing. Keep on. Keep on dancing and prancing. Keep on. Keep on dancing and prancing. Keep on.
WARD: 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: (Singing) I said I wasn't gonna tell nobody but I just can't keep it, Lord, to myself now. For as long as I've been running around, I finally met a little girl that really got me down now. Baby, you got my mind messed up now. Little girl, little girl, you sure got my mind messed up now. I go to bed, Lord, and I can't sleep.
(Singing) Sit down at the table, oh Lord, I can't eat there. Somebody please, please help me now. Oh, oh, oh, oh.
WARD: 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")
DUSTY SPRINGFIELD: Billy Ray was a preacher's son and when his daddy would visit he'd come along. When they gathered around and started talking, that's when Billy would take me walking. Out through the back yard we'd go walking. Then he'd look into my eyes. Lord knows to my surprise.
(Singing) The only one who could ever reach me was the son of a preacher man. The only boy who could ever teach me was the son of a preacher man. Yes, he was. He was. Hmm, yes, he was. Being good isn't always easy, no matter how hard I try. When he started sweet talking to me, he'd come and tell me everything is all right. He'd kiss and tell me everything is all right.
(Singing) Can I get away again tonight? The only one who could ever reach me...
WARD: "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")
ELVIS PRESLEY: (Singing) That big eight-wheeler rolling down the track means your true loving daddy, he ain't coming back. He's moving on. He's a rolling on. You were flying too high for my little ol' sky so I'm moving on. But some day, baby, when you've had your play you're going to want your daddy but your daddy will say keep moving on. Keep rolling on. You were flying too high for my little ol' sky so I'm moving on. Come on, baby.
WARD: 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."