- by Joe Nolan
“Chips scratched and clawed for everything he got. Thirty years later, I asked Estelle Axton how long it took for the hard feelings between them to fade away. ‘I don’t think they ever did,’ she says. ‘I think Chips was going to prove that he could do it – and he did. There’s no doubt that he was talented.’” - Goin’ Back to Memphis, by Jim Dickerson
Although Chips was able to get his American Studios off the ground almost immediately, the grinding schedule that was required to keep it airborne was taking its toll. The crazy-making effects of it all began to reveal themselves in Moman’s increasingly erratic behavior.
In one oft-told tale, Moman insisted on going to New York to meet with a record executive who owed him money. Moman was greeted warmly and buttered-up like a warm slice of toasted bread. By the time the exec was done with his glad-handing and praise-singing, he not doubt expected Moman to forgive the tardy payment and head back to Memphis to wait for his money with his tail between his legs. Moman’s reaction was exactly the opposite.
Launching himself from the comfortable chair where he had suffered through a litany of cheery excuses from the smiling executive, Moman took hold of the man’s lapels and dragged him across the office to a window that afforded a beautiful view of Manhattan, near the top of a skyscraper.
“’You’ve finally pushed me to the point where I am willing to die for this,’ Chips says. He pressed the record executive against the window. ‘Is this something you are willing to die for?’ Chips left with his check. - Goin’ Back to Memphis by Jim Dickerson
Such behavior is clearly extreme, but Moman was always – ultimately - a volatile, sensitive artist, and his ability to consistently draw volcanic energy and a laser-like focus from his inner turmoil is what made Moman a true survivor ever since his dangerous days as a young boy living on the road. It’s what pulled him out of a two-year depression after he left Stax, and what made his second golden age possible.
While in between projects at American, Moman got a call from Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records asking him to play guitar on an Aretha Franklin session in the burgeoning music hot-spot of Muscle Shoals, Ala. Jim Stewart was souring on his recent dealings with Wexler and refused to host the session at Stax. For both Wexler and Moman, the date represented a chance to stick it to Stewart. As it turned out, the record is a milestone that marks Moman as a key player in the origins of Muscle Shoals, establishes Franklin as a popular icon, and solidifies Moman’s friendship with Memphis songwriter, Dan Penn.
The session was a knockout and resulted in the recording of classics like “I Never Loved a Man,” and the basic tracks for the Moman/Penn song, “Do Right Woman.” Wexler was so impressed he moved the American rhythm section up to New York to finish the project, completing the entire album in one week. Including “Natural Woman,” “Chain of Fools,” and Aretha’s version of “Respect,” the new project put Moman and his talented team back on the map in a big way.
Even though the session hadn’t been cut at American, Moman’s stamp was all over it and everyone in Memphis could see that it was Moman who was now carrying the musical torch for the city. If there were any doubts, they were laid to rest when Aretha’s version of “Respect” went to No. 1 on the national charts. Otis Redding, who had never cracked the top 20, was in shock. But the breakthrough success of “Respect,” which Redding had recorded earlier, was a very good omen indeed for the man from Macon, Ga. whose time had come.
Peter Guralnick’s Sweet Soul Music, Harper and Row, 1986
James Dickerson’s Goin’ Back to Memphis, Simon and Schuster Macmillan, 1996
Michael Haralambos’ Right on: From Blues to Soul in Black America, Drake Publishers, 1975
Respect Yourself: The Stax Story, documentary film, produced by Tremolo Productions,
Concord Music Group and Thirteen/WNET New York, for PBS’ Great Performances, 2007
Wikipedia Entry on Chips Moman
Biography Research Guide for Chips Moman
Georgia Rhythm Interview With Chips Moman
Joe Nolan is a poet, musician and freelance journalist in Nashville, TN. Nolan writes about visual art for the journal, Number, published by the University of Memphis. Find out more about his projects at www.joenolan.com.