Eric Wolfson on the contested history of “The Memphis Boys”
Elvis Presley recorded From Elvis in Memphis at one of the most unheralded sites in rock and roll history, American Sound Studio.
The studio was founded by a maverick guitarist/songwriter/producer named Lincoln “Chips” Moman (his nickname came from a love for gambling), who helped launch Stax Records, scouted its now-famous location, and produced its first hit (Carla Thomas’s “Gee Whiz” in 1960), before splitting because he felt like getting ripped off by the studio’s founders.
Chips formed his own studio, spending the next five years working with a shifting group of young and versatile musicians, settling on a core team by the late ’60s: Reggie Young (guitar), Tommy Cogbill (bass), Mike Leech (bass), Gene Chrisman (drums), Bobby Wood (piano), and Bobby Emmons (organ). Cogbill also served as a sort of second-in-command to Chips, acting as bandleader on the studio floor and stepping in as producer when needed. The band never had a name, but they received one in hindsight when ’70s Nashville studio musicians began referring to them as “The Memphis Boys.”
All seven of these men should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And yet, not one of them is.
Perhaps the main reason why they were not better known is because unlike Sun, Motown, and Stax, American Sound never successfully functioned as a record label—these were studio musicians who largely played for artists on other labels. As a result, the Memphis Boys never had a strict sound; they were musical chameleons who could adapt to any artist or sound. Their versatility in the ’60s contributes to their anonymity today. But everyone knows the hits: The gritty pop-rock of the Box Tops’ “The Letter,” hard funk of Joe Tex’s “Skinny Legs and All,” wistful balladry of Marrilee Rush’s “Angel of the Morning,” smooth pop of B.J. Thomas’s “Hooked on a Feeling,” and sexy soul of Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man.” All of these songs reached the Billboard Top 10 by the time Elvis walked into the studio.
And there were lots more hits. If you ever start reading about American Sound Studio, you will come across a statistic that at one point in the 1960s, 25% of the songs on the Billboard charts featured the Memphis Boys. With the countless Internet pages rehashing this factoid like a game of telephone, I wanted to get to a hard source. The first reputable one I found was in Robert Gordon’s 1995 book It Came from Memphis:
“American Sound Studio…would become a major force in pop music. Between November 1967 and January 1971, American landed 120 records on the Billboard charts. One week, over a quarter of Billboard’s top 100 not only came from the same studio but featured the same core band backing a variety of artists—black, white, male, female.”
I contacted Gordon to see where he had gotten these statistics, and he said he first saw it in Peter Gurlanick’s 1986 book Sweet Soul Music. Sure enough, the kernel of the fact could be found in this passage:
That was the way things went for the most part, lots of laughs, lots of hits (120, approximately, between November 1967 and January 1971; at one time there were 28 records on the Billboard charts in the same week, Chips boasts, all with the same musicians playing on them), lots of competition.
Well, at least it seemed like the statistic came from Chips himself. Unless it didn’t. When I further asked Robert Gordon about it, he explained:
“Since then, I’ve seen it contested elsewhere, and I know Peter and I talked about it at one point, some years back. It might require hypnosis for me to recall, but we knew who created that statistic; I think it was the wife of Bobby Woods or one of the guys. And I also think the statistic warrants investigation.”
Facts are stubborn things, but if they’re out there and based on some sort of concrete permanent record (like a Billboard magazine listing), you can theoretically prove them. I wanted to dig deeper, so I went through every consecutive weekly Billboard chart from November 26, 1966 through October 9, 1971, during which they had at least one hit on the Hot 100—and usually several more.
There were 13 weeks in all that had eight or more hits; of those, two of them had nine hits and one had ten. Not coincidentally, these two weeks of nine (May 18, 1968 and May 25, 1968) and one week of ten fell consecutively. This means that the week with the most hits on the Billboard Hot 100 with the Memphis Boys that I could find was: June 1, 1968.
They were, in descending order: Wilson Pickett’s “She’s Lookin’ Good” (#15); The Box Tops’ “Cry Like a Baby” (#27); Merrilee Rush’s “Angel of the Morning (#30); Sweet Inspirations’ “Sweet Inspiration” (#33); Arthur Conley’s “Funky Street” (#37); Joe Simon’s “(You Keep Me) Hangin’ on” (#41); Joe Tex’s “I’ll Never Do You Wrong (#61); the Box Tops’ “Choo Choo Train” (#62); James & Bobby Purify’s “I Can Remember” (#67), and Solomon Burke’s “I Wish I Knew (How It Would Feel to Be Free)” (#74).
So, as far as I can tell, the Memphis Boys never had more than 10% of the Billboard Hot 100. However, it is said that the Memphis Boys played on so many tracks in this period, both in live sessions with the artist and backing sessions that were sent out to be used by other artists on other labels, that they aren’t even aware of all the hits they played on.
Well, if they don’t know, then neither do we.
Either way, it seems that the 25% statistic, while plausible, is likely a myth. But I would love to be proven wrong.
For a deeper dive into the history of Elvis and American rock n’ roll, grab a copy of Eric’s book!