The true Rock Gods are those who created the rock’n’ roll universe. Roland Janes is a Rock God - an influential, yet almost invisible force that shaped rock’n’roll.
The typical image of a Rock God is that of a skinny white guy in spandex with scruffy long hair wailing away on a guitar. However, these are Rock Idols at best. The true Rock Gods are those who created the rock and roll universe … and Roland Janes is a Rock God. To carry the metaphor further, he is an almost invisible force in Memphis that has shaped and inspired the city’s music for over 50 years.
When Elvis and Sam kicked open the door at 706 Union Avenue in Memphis, Roland and others walked right in. Many of them have become household names: Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Charlie Rich, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis. However, Janes and some lesser known artists played as large a role in creating the world in which we play and listen to music.
In the 1950s, Janes was a member both of Jerry Lee Lewis’ group, which recorded hits like Great Balls of Fire and Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’, and Billy Lee Riley’s legendary band, The Little Green Men. His legacy as a guitarist, engineer and producer, however, is not limited to the studio work he did as a member in these two seminal rock bands or in the de facto house band at Sun Records.
Born in Brookings, Arkansas in 1933, Roland Janes split his youth between Brookings and St. Louis. He came to Memphis to stay in 1955 after his time in the Marine Corps. His early musical education came by playing with family in a casual non-professional setting.
Asked why he moved to Memphis instead of returning to St. Louis when discharged from the Marines, he said,
“I don't know. I really don't know. It just seemed to be something pulling me to Memphis. I don't know what it was.”
Pressed further as to whether he wanted to be a professional musician at that time, Janes replied, “No, not really. I didn't really even know anyone in Memphis. Actually, when I got . . . when I came back to Memphis I actually enrolled in a diesel mechanic school.”
But things changed quickly for him as he became ingratiated into the local music scene. He had already heard Elvis Presley before moving to Memphis.
“The first time I heard Elvis was when I got out of the Marine Corps and I was driving back to Memphis and I heard him on the radio in Texas. And when I first heard him, I thought ‘That's the wildest thing I've ever heard in my life.’ And Scotty Moore was playing the guitar.”
“My first impression of Scotty was that he was trying to imitate Chet Atkins, the finger style. And I thought ‘He's not doing a very good job of it.’ But the more I listened, I realized that he had his own interpretation - his own style and I really, really liked it. I loved it.”
Janes began his recording career with a little known producer named J.P. “Doc” McQueen who recorded in his house on Cooper Street in Memphis. From there he went to a small label called Fernwood run by Jack Clements and Slim Wallace. As he tells it, “Jack and Slim were building a little studio in Slim's garage at his house on Fernwood Street in South Memphis.”
“Jack said, ‘Oh, you play guitar huh?’ And I said, ‘Well, yeah, I'm . . . somewhat.’ And he said, ‘Well bring your guitar in and let me hear ya' play somethin'.’ So I did and we played around a while and he said, ‘We're trying to get together to cut this little record on this . . . guy named Billy Riley. You think you might be interested in helpin' us on that?’”
“Of course I jumped at the chance. It tickled me to death. I said, ‘Sure, I'd love to.’ So that's how I got into the music thing around here.”
Clements took the finished tapes to Sam Phillips at Sun Records to master and walked out with a job. Phillips was so impressed, he hired Clements and signed Billy Lee Riley to his label. Roland Janes came over and began playing sessions for Sun Records acts that needed studio musicians.Background: Roland & Jerry performing in Jerry Lee Lewis' band
Historians sometimes disagree about the origins of rock and roll but most place the birth at Sam Phillips studio in Memphis. Memphis Music Hall of Famer Sam Phillips had a profound influence on Roland Janes.
“He was the type of guy, he wasn't afraid for a mistake being on a record and I got my first taste of that one time when we cut a record. And I made a mistake on the record ... I was shy back then and didn't talk very much so I said ‘Mr. Phillips, I hit a wrong note on that solo.’ He said, ‘Don't worry about it, that's got the feel, that's the feel I want, no one will ever hear that.’
I learned a lot from that one thing... that's when I learned what he was looking for was the overall sound and the overall feel and delivery.”
“The little side things, like Elvis forgetting the words and starting to hiccup or something, Sam immediately saw something in that where most people, I'd say 99% of the people in the business back then, would stop the tape, correct it and make sure he was right on pitch and all that kind of thing. Then there wouldn't have been an Elvis Presley.”
Over the next seven years, Roland Janes and J. M. Van Eaton recorded and played with Lewis in addition to their time with Billy Lee Riley and his Little Green Men. Riley’s hit Flying Saucers Rock and Roll was the inspiration for his band’s name and he enjoyed great regional success.
Other musicians that recorded as session players during those years included Riley, Slim Wallace, Charlie Rich, a high school student named J.M. Van Eaton and occasionally a young Jerry Lee Lewis who was signed as an artist to the Sun label. Jack Clements was charged with cutting tracks on Lewis and included Roland on the sessions. When Janes met Lewis he thought he “was as unique as Elvis's records were. When I first met him he had a little goatee, which was unusual back then, you know. Jerry had a little pointed goatee and he was very . . . I don't want to use the word arrogant, I don't mean that… but boisterous and really into what he was doin'.”
“So we came in, set up our instruments and he went on and started playing the piano. And you know, immediately I said, ‘Man this guy is great.’”
But Jerry Lee Lewis’ career took an international flight with hits including Whole Lot Of Shakin’ Goin’ On, Great Balls of Fire, High School Confidential, Crazy Arms and Breathless. These records and others from tiny Sun Studios at 706 Union Avenue would help define rock and roll for generations to come.
“I think our record with Jerry Lee had a lot to do with the switchin' out of the rockabilly into the rock'n'roll,” according to Janes, “Cause you see when you think about it, Elvis's first records were just … basically almost a two piece band. We came on the scene when Jerry was a little more rambunctious; we had a heavier beat. So we were kinda the transition point from rockabilly into rock'n'roll, I think.”
“Carl Perkins, was… rockabilly was a good strong beat,” Janes continued. “But, I think Jerry Lee and maybe Riley were the turning point going more into what you called rock and roll as opposed to rockabilly, or what have you, because we had a heavier beat and more rhythm. We played it a little louder. So, I think that was kind of the beginning of our rock and roll era.”
“And of course Elvis too - he picked up the drums and went on with it.”
Ready to strike out on his own, Janes founded Rita Records with some partners in the early 1960s. With modest success and financial pressures, Rita closed and he moved to Missouri for a few months.
When he returned, he opened his own studio called Sonic Recording and set up a few independent labels. His biggest hit was an instrumental by a young guitarist named Travis Wammack called Scratchy. But success was short lived.
In 1963 the Beatles lead the British invasion of music and American independent rock was dead. Roland adapted and used the studio as a rental house for local musicians who needed a low cost recording facility to hone their skills.
Sonic served as a first recording experience for swarms of young local bands looking to gain exposure to rock stardom. One such avenue to local fame was through disc jockey and television personality George Klein’s Talent Party, which was a Memphis answer to Dick Clark’s American Bandstand.
“George had a local TV show, a dance party-type thing, and he would let little bands come on there and pantomime tapes. And so, he needed a place that they could cut their tapes real inexpensive.”
“So, he'd send the bands down there to me,” Janes recalls, “You know, I'd bring them in and in an hour or so, we'd cut four songs. And, I would time them and prepare them and everything, and pick out the two I thought was best and circle those. And then, they'd take the tape over the George and he'd review it.”
“And, if he agreed with me, then he'd let these little bands pantomime their tapes on his TV show. And, down there, I guess we cut every band in the world -- the Gentrys and everybody else. A lot of guys cut their first tapes there for that particular reason. A lot of guys that are better-known musicians around here now.”
Sonic Recording closed in 1974 but not before it had become an institution for the so called garage band phenomenon of the 1960s and early 1970s. Roland Janes returned to recording sessions around town including many at Sounds of Memphis studio. He then taught recording engineering for five years at Kansas Vo-Tech High School located in South Memphis.
In 1982, Roland went back to work for the Phillips family running their studio at 639 Madison. He could be found there most days, recording rock, rap, country and blues and working with younger musicians.
J. M. Van Eaton, Roland Janes’ friend and band mate, succinctly put it as follows - “We just happened to be the pioneers of this racial… you know, it happened all at one time, so they made a big deal out of it.
And, probably, if you want to really get down to it, music probably did more for integration, than anything that Congress could ever do.”
Janes continued to report to the studio every day until his death on October 18, 2013. Janes sums it up thusly: “Once music gets in your blood, it never gets out, totally, no matter how much you want it to. People asked me, ‘Have you ever thought about quitting music?’ I say, ‘Yeah, every day.’”