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Muscling In On The Memphis Sound

Highway 72 begins in the east in Chattanooga, runs through Alabama and Mississippi before reaching its western terminus in Memphis.  In fact, it is the only US highway to have both termini in the same state but pass through other states in between the end points.

W. C. Handy was born in Florence, Alabama, but he didn’t take that straight route of Highway 72 to Memphis, at least initially.  That meandering of his journeys to get here turned him from a Cornet player in a band to the father of the blues.  Memphis and the Shoals area of Alabama have been sharing parts of their musical heritage ever since.

Sam Phillips was born and raised in the Florence, Alabama area before his radio career brought him to Memphis.  After he established Sun Records, and his recordings set forth a revolution in music, he eventually owned radio stations in Memphis and Florence.

Highway 72 decidedly ran both ways.  When Stax Studio owner Jim Stewart tired of the strain Wilson Pickett was putting on his staff’s resources and time, Muscle Shoals was Pickett’s next stop.

After cutting “Midnight Hour,” “634-5789” and “Ninety-Nine And A Half (Won’t Do)” in Memphis, Pickett moved his show to Fame Studios.  That’s where “Land Of 1,000 Dances” and were created.

As a side note, courtesy of Roben James’ book Memphis Boys: The Story Of American Studios,  one important tune in particular from his Muscle Shoals session was resurrected from the ruins of a master tape eaten by the tape recorder.  Producer Tom Dowd picked up the thirty pieces of tape which were sent flying and painstaking reassembled them into “Mustang Sally” as we now know it.

Pensacola record producer “Papa Don” Schroeder brought cousins James Purify and Robert Lee Dickey to Fame to find their voices as individual acts.  It was while working out a song for James to record that Robert offered suggestions, and Schroeder heard them sing together.  That song had already been recorded thirteen times, but the fourteenth, in the hands of the newly christened duo of James And Bobby Purify would be the charm for “I’m Your Puppet.”  
Chips Moman was playing guitar on their album session, and told Schroeder about the band he was putting together at his new studio in Memphis.  

American Studio was so new that the wiring wasn’t totally completed, but Moman had great confidence that his house band could overcome any technical shortcomings they faced.  He promised that if Papa Don didn’t like what he heard, he wouldn’t have to pay for the session.  That sealed the deal, and Schroeder brought James And Bobby Purify to Memphis.  The tune they tackled was a cover of the Five Du-Tones’ 1963 single, “Shake A Tail Feather.”

Despite the bubbly up-tempo freshness the record displays, the recording went at snail’s pace.  They would record a take, then stop and wire the console, and repeat, in a process that covered close to 60 studio hours.  “Shake A Tail Feather” placed James And Bobby Purify on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at number 25 in 1967.  

And it was right about that time that a song which was born in Memphis would travel to Muscle Shoals to make a brief stopover, and finally find its fruition in New York.  This song would help make a singer born in Memphis but identified with Detroit a household name.

My heroes have always been disc jockeys. I especially admired the ones who could take the canvas of the fourteen-second intro of a teeny-bopper song and paint a masterpiece. From my youth, I strove to emulate them. I had the good fortune to walk in some of their footsteps, albeit a respectful pace behind.