Interview with Roben Jones, Author of The Memphis Boys
By Megan M. Murphy
Tell us about the book.
My book, ''Memphis Boys'', is about the lives and work of the musicians at Chips Moman's American Studios,the Memphis studio that gave the world so many important recordings, including Elvis' famous comeback session in 1969. The book begins around 1964,when the musicians first began working together,and ends in 1972, when Chips moved the studio to Atlanta.
What was the inspiration behind the book?
That can be answered in several ways.The impetus behind my writing it was a conversation with the group's bassist,Mike Leech. Mike knew I loved the group's work and had collected it for years, so he suggested I try documenting their history. It was an honor just to be asked,and certainly the honor of my life to do it.I'd been inspired to collect American Studios recordings in the first place because of the great productions and playing done by Tommy Cogbill. So really it goes all the way back to hearing Tommy's productions on the radio when I was fourteen. Tommy inspired me just as much as he did everyone who knew him and worked with him. So it could be said that the book was sort of produced by Mike and posthumously co-produced by Tommy. I wanted to write the kind of book he would be proud of.I hope I have.
What kind of music do you personally enjoy?
All kinds! I listen to everything from Mozart and Strauss to the Beatles and Taylor Swift. Among my favorite types of music are the big bands,1920s and early Thirties jazz,Paul Mauriat, the American group of course,anything from Muscle Shoals,the original Nashville A-Team. They've all done work that I love.
I understand your first trip to Memphis was for our show,what was that like?
Like a dream come true, in so many ways. Of course, I had always wanted to see Memphis, and to be there and hear the musicians whose work I've admired for so long was even more incredible. The whole experience was one of the highlights of my life.
How did you do all the research without being in Memphis?
I'd researched Memphis for years before I did the book.When I was very young and had first gotten interested in what was happening there, I used to study maps,read everything I could about Memphis history and music,look at old photographs..and then in talking to everyone as extensively as I did,it was easy to place everything and see where and how it all happened.
Did you get a lot of support from the musicians?
Absolutely. They were wonderful. They were one hundred percent behind what I was doing. They spent many hours helping me put the story together. Their patience and graciousness throughout was remarkable. Without them, there would be no book, really.
Was this your first book?
Completely mine, yes.I'd been published in a poetry anthlogy before, in 2000,and that was my first appearance in a book,but this is the first book with my own by-line.
Tell us about the Elvis part of your book.
There is an entire chapter--Chapter Seventeen,specifically---devoted to Elvis' famous comeback session in 1969. No other sessions at the studio were given an entire chapter .But those sessions were such a turning point in Elvis' life,and in the life of that studio.They put Elvis back on the map, and he put them on the map.
When I began the chapter, I was wondering what could possibly be said about those sessions that everyone hadn't said before. But it turned out there was much new ground to cover. There hadn't been much detail about how the famous photos were taken at the session, for example. That had not often happened at Elvis sessions before,and was due to the songwriter Dan Penn's presence there. Dan was kind of the official photographer. That's just one of the small tidbits about the sessions I found.
Are you an Elvis fan?
Always have been. My mother and my older cousin, who lived with us, were both devoted Elvis fans,so I became one by osmosis. I grew up with his music and his American sessions, obviously, were keystones of my listening and my life. I also loved most of his seventies work done in Nashville. Some critics shrug off that phase of his career, but he did many amazing records during that time, some of them with the Memphis Boys again.
My regard for Elvis is also based on what he meant to working-class Southerners like me and my family-- who, as Eddy Arnold wonderfully phrased it, ''were one of those people who were not supposed to make it.'' Elvis showed the world how much soul and feeling could come from lives that were in many ways very hard, with no luck and no money---but that had a lot of character.That was the message the Memphis Boys conveyed in their music also, so Elvis and they were a perfect combination.
What has the overall response been to your book from the musicians?
They are pleased with it, by and large. Most of those I interviewed for the book have let me know. It's gratifying to think that I've told their story as it should be told.
What's your next project?
I'm working on a biography of Grady Martin,the Nashville session guitarist who later became a member of Willie Nelson's band. Grady was another example of a session player the public knew little about, but who contributed so much behind the scenes.He was one of the cornerstones of the Nashville Sound,and his solos---for instance, on Marty Robbin's ''El Paso''---are influencing guitarists to this day.
Anything you want to say?
Thanks Megan for giving me this chance to talk about the book and to send my regards to Elvis fans everywhere. I hope that people will read my book and like it.
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