In a city filled with record producers creating unique sounds, Chips Moman was one of the most innovative, combining his melancholy vision and his strong talents as musician, sound engineer, and songwriter, with the talents of his studio band the Memphis Boys, to become one of the most important creators of Memphis music in the 1960s.

He was born on June 12, 1935, and brought up on a farm near LaGrange, Georgia. From an early age he wanted to be a musician, and at fourteen he left school and came to Memphis to live with relatives, supporting himself by day labor jobs and playing local clubs at night.

Eventually he joined the band of Dorsey and Johnny Burnette and accompanied them to California. Several sessions at Gold Star Studios interested him in record production, and restlessness brought him back to Memphis.

Shortly thereafter an aspiring record-label owner named Jim Stewart hired Chips to play guitar on a session; Chips continued working for Stewart and became an indispensable part of the early Stax organization. He found the movie theater on McLemore Avenue that became famous as Stax headquarters, and produced the label’s first three hits: “Last Night” by the Mar-Keys, “Gee Whiz” by Carla Thomas, and “You Don’t Miss Your Water” by William Bell, whom he brought to the label.

Moman and Ringo Starr playing in Memphis, 1987 - © Center for Southern Folklore Archives

American Sound Studio

In a city filled with record producers creating unique sounds, Chips Moman was one of the most innovative, combining his melancholy vision and his strong talents as musician, sound engineer, and songwriter, with the talents of his studio band the Memphis Boys, to become one of the most important creators of Memphis music in the 1960s.

Beginning the following year with the studio’s first big hit, “Keep On Dancin’” by the Gentrys, over the next seven years Chips produced a total of over 120 chart records in the Billboard Top 100. He produced, often engineered, and directed a group of studio musicians eventually known as the Memphis Boys. He also wrote songs, including two collaborations with his associate Dan Penn that became immediate standards: “Dark End of The Street” (a 1966 hit for James Carr) and “Do Right Woman”, a success for Aretha Franklin in 1967.

The hits Chips produced at American Studios include “Born A Woman” by the studio’s former secretary Sandy Posey in 1966, “Single Girl” (Sandy Posey, 1967), “Hooked On A Feeling” and “Eyes of a New York Woman” (B. J. Thomas, 1968), “Rings” (Cymarron, 1971), and in collaboration with Tommy Cogbill “Angel of the Morning” (Merrilee Rush, 1968), “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show” (Neil Diamond, 1969), and “Soul Deep” (The Box Tops, 1969). He engineered “Shake A Tail Feather” (James and Bobby Purify, 1967) and “Skinny Legs and All” (Joe Tex, 1967). He also produced recordings for Bill Medley, Petula Clark, Jackie DeShannon, Carla Thomas, The Masqueraders, Dionne Warwick, Brenda Lee, and Bobby Womack.

Moman’s American Sound Studio, 831 Thomas St. in Memphis

George Klein, Elvis Presley, Roy Hamilton, and Moman in the studio - Chad Mann Personal Collection

Makin’ a Comeback

In January 1969 Elvis Presley, seeking a comeback, chose American Studios at the behest of his friend Marty Lacker and recorded forty songs over a total of two week-long sessions, all produced by Chips. The resulting two albums, From Elvis In Memphis and Back In Memphis, revitalized Elvis’ career and gave him his final number one single, “Suspicious Minds”.

By 1972 the Memphis music scene was declining. Several of Chips’ musicians had left for studio work elsewhere, and Chips closed down American and moved the operation to Atlanta, where he saw a city full of untapped talent. The move didn’t work out, but it paved the way for Chips and his musicians to resettle in Nashville, where Chips opened another studio and began a second run at the charts that was as successful as his first. Chips’ reputation for unpretentiousness and lack of reverence for record executives brought him to the attention of the “out law” musicians, and for them his studio became a creative laboratory.

In Nashville, Chips produced “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys” (Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, 1978), “Pancho and Lefty” (Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson, 1983), and “You Were Always On My Mind” (Willie Nelson, 1982), which won Song of the Year for two years in a row at the CMAs (1982 and 1983) and Song of the Year at the Grammy Awards in 1983. With his featured keyboardist Bobby Emmons, Chips also wrote the hits “Luckenbach, Texas” (a hit for Waylon Jennings in 1976), and with Larry Butler he wrote “Hey Won’t You Play Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song”, a comeback hit for B. J. Thomas in 1975. Chips produced both these records as well as others during the seventies and mid-eighties for Townes Van Zandt, Jessi Colter, Johnny Cash, Tommy Roe, Kris Kristofferson, Petula Clark, Billy Joe Royal, as well as the four-voice “Highwaymen” album with Cash, Nelson, Jennings, and Kristofferson.

This period culminated in his return to Memphis and reopening of American for the “Class of ‘55" sessions featuring Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison. For several years, he remained in Memphis, but again the plans did not work out and he returned to Nashville and from there to a farm in Georgia, where he raised horses until his health no longer permitted. American Studios in Memphis was torn down in 1998, but its site was honored with a plaque from the Shelby County Historical Society on August 13, 2014. Chips passed away in June 2016.

Chips’ productions have a unifying theme: hard times, hard choices in life, sorrow, and uncomplaining suffering. The recordings feature a strong bass and drum sound, surpassing dynamics, melodic beauty and depth, and hard stoic truth in the lyrics; music for grownups. Memphis has always been known as a tough city, and the work of Chips Moman gave Memphis and the world some of its toughest, most uncompromising music.

Moman attends the unveiling of the American Sound Studio historical marker at 831 Thomas St. in Memphis, August 2014 - The Commercial Appeal

What Others are Saying

  1. Chips Moman is my mothers first cousin. I enjoyed reading & learning about him. I wish I had known him. I am a music lover. Would love to know more about him. God Bless.

    Nancy Davis Crawford
  2. Thanks for making all of this music, Memphis! It kept us going here in the UK. I hope you hear my music someday, it’s online and on record. -Richard CJ

    richard Conway jones
  3. Wonderful musician-produced some of the greatest records ever made. His contribution to Stax was immense and he has never received the true recognition he deserved. RIP to my musical hero.

    Harry Boon
  4. I loved reading the book, “The Memphis Boys” and the exceptional musicians, song writers, and producers whose talent all came to life at “American Studios” in Memphis, TN . How great it would be to have a movie based on the book and all those talented artist. I like many wished the studio could be replicated and toured like Graceland. Memphis deserves the recognition ……

    Mary Sue Moman
  5. He was a legend who is missed. He left a legacy that will stand forever!

    Charles Fox

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