Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Get Me Memphis, Tennessee: The Beatles, Stax Studios, and the Sessions That Weren't

Yesterday brought news of the upcoming auction sale of a letter written by George Harrison in May 1966 to Atlanta disc jockey Paul Drew. It’s not the biggest news in the world: Beatle letters are sold all the time, along with hand-dashed lyrics, napkin doodles, and other flotsam. But for fans, this particular letter holds a goodie. George confirms, in passing, a story long claimed as true—that the Beatles in their heyday sought, with some seriousness and deliberation, to make a record elsewhere than at Abbey Road. That “somewhere” was Stax Studios in Memphis—the same legendary set of soundrooms where in 1966 giants like Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Booker T and the MGs, Carla Thomas, Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge, and Don Covay were recording their deathless sides—and, like the Stones, Dylan, the Beach Boys, etc., doing their damnedest to match and challenge the Beatles’ front-running position in the pop market and pop world.

The strong suggestion, or at least scintillating rumor, of the Beatles’ desire to record in an American soul studio has been around a long time. Walter Everett’s essay “Detroit and Memphis: The Soul of Revolver”—found in the collection “Every Sound There Is”: The Beatles’ Revolver and the Transformation of Rock and Roll (2002)—connects the soul influences of the Beatles’ 1966 album, thought by many to be their best, to real-life reference points. “Reliable reports,” Everett writes, “have the Beatles initiating discussions from December 1965 through March 1966 aimed at recording some or all of their follow-up LP to Rubber Soul at either Detroit’s Motown studio, Memphis’s Stax studio, or New York’s Atlantic studio.” In 1977, in his book Soulsville U.S.A.: The Story of Stax Records, Rob Bowman excavated a press item syndicated to US and UK music papers in December 1965. It claimed the Beatles had written to Motown, asking if a couple of songs might be written specially for them by the ace team of Eddie Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Brian Holland, by then responsible for a few dozen Top 20 hits by the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Mary Wells, the Temptations, Martha and the Vandellas, and the Four Tops—among them the Tops’ “It’s the Same Old Song,” a lurching rendition of which was briefly assayed on the Beatles’ 1965 Christmas fan club disc, before being shut down by a copyright-conscious Ringo. (For the historical record, Holland-Dozier-Holland also wrote and produced, in 1964, an unreleased novelty by blue-eyed soulster R. Dean Taylor called “My Lady Bug, Stay Away from That Beatle”!) The Motown story strikes me as false: it would be utterly unlike Lennon and McCartney—highly competitive and self-confident, and by late 1965 set upon recording nothing but their own songs—to commission outside material, even from writer-producers as loved as these. That the press item in question was written by a Motown publicist does not buttress my belief. (Though it retains a shred of credibility, since it is echoed elsewhere—see the next paragraph.)

Holland-Dozier-Holland with The Supremes.

That the Beatles sent recording feelers to Stax was, on the apparent evidence, far more convincing than the Motown reach-out. Bowman’s research yielded a news story from the March 9, 1966, Memphis Press-Scimitar that had the Beatles hitting town on April 9, “slated to stay two weeks, recording one LP and one single.” A similar story appeared in England, with the arrival date changed to April 11 and the presumptive recording result being one single. Stax regulars interviewed by Bowman recalled Brian Epstein’s March visit to check out the operation and clear logistics; the rush among house writers to prepare new material for the Beatles, who according to reports “were intending to cover some contemporary rhythm and blues”; and the hope of MGs guitarist Steve Cropper, surely along with others, that the Beatles might ask him to play on or at least engineer a session. All we’ve ever lacked to confirm the Stax foray is affirmation from one of the Beatles themselves, or a deep insider. Now, I guess, we have it.

The scheme obviously didn’t come off, perhaps because Stax wanted too much money—the reason implied by Harrison in his May 7 letter to Drew. By that time, the Beatles were back at Abbey Road and deep into Revolver. They never made another serious move toward working in an American studio. So the Memphis chapter, unwritten as it is, remains tantalizing for a number of reasons. One is how it plays against the Beatles’ rich and troubled relationship to the city of Memphis—locus of a Chuck Berry song they’d often covered, and stronghold of their would-be assassins, the Ku Klux Klan. John Lennon had, early in 1966, been quoted saying the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus now”—and instantly two thousand Klan hands reached for a thousand Klan hoods, a thousand squeeze-tins of Klan kerosene. The band played two shows at the Mid-South Coliseum on August 19, with controversy still at full burn and a Klan spokesman promising retribution. The Stax sessions, had they occurred, would have written a paradigm-changing prelude to the Beatles’ tense descent below the Mason-Dixon, undermined the Klan negative with an interracial positive, destructive threat with creative collaboration. I.e., the KKK would have hated the Beatles even more when they came to Memphis, knowing they’d not only blasphemed the Lord but gotten funky with “the coloreds.”

The Beatles recording Revolver.

There’s also the speculation, so compelling it must be accepted as fact, that a sojourn at Stax—the real Southern deal, soul food around the corner, Albert King recording “Born Under a Bad Sign” in the next studio—would have stretched Revolver (or whatever it might have been titled) into something quite unrecognizable from the album we have. It’s well-nigh impossible to imagine the Beatles recording anywhere but Abbey Road, or to conceive of them producing the same work, let alone anything more lasting, in a less stable setting. But for the theoretical better-or-worse, that’s because they never subjected themselves to the challenge and freedom of making a record in a place where they didn’t run the show. They booked several key 1967-68 sessions at other hip London studios—Olympic, Trident, De Lane Lea—but these were homes away from home, neighboring fiefdoms in a kingdom they ruled. The same was true of Twickenham Film Studios and the Apple Corps headquarters on Saville Row, where they conducted (barely) the Get Back sessions of January 1969. The Rolling Stones, meanwhile, had logged any number of catch-as-catch-can sessions at US studios during their tours of 1964-66, stopping in at Chess in Chicago or RCA in Los Angeles; the Yardbirds, too, had made tracks on a trip to Memphis’s Sun Studios. How would the Beatles’ music have been different if they’d left the comfort zone of Abbey Road and London itself, taken the Stones’ tack and caught sessions on the transatlantic fly, working with US engineers and up-to-date equipment in strange physical atmospheres? Would they have produced work as bloodless and callow as some of the Stones’ Chess-recorded R&B, or as tough and pointed as the Yardbirds’ “Train Kept A-Rollin’” and “You’re a Better Man than I”? Would they have been defeated by the absence of creative continuity in an unchanging workspace, or would they have taken instability and alienness as a challenge—as they had when they faced down a bare-knuckle Hamburg club scene, endless provincial theater tours, the conquering of the continents? Would the Beatles have made something amazing from the phenomenon of cultural transplantation, as was their gift, or would they merely have grown older faster?

The Stax studio.
We ask these questions for the pleasure of being able to ask them, and for the utter impossibility of answering them. Among the Beatles, John Lennon, at least, went on asking. At a Get Back session, amid the maze-like dialogues about where and how and under what celestial lighting the band would or should perform its comeback concert, he bemoans their repeated failure to follow through on excited plans to use a modern American studio, instead always reverting to the “bloody castle” of Abbey Road or Twickenham. (But then Lennon was bitching about pretty much everything in those days.)

Another set of questions, or musings, raised by the Stax story involves the interchange between the Beatles and US soul music. The band had absorbed and integrated romantic Fifties and early Sixties soul (Arthur Alexander, Smokey Robinson) into their style early on, but a new, mid-Sixties swagger and thrust feeds right into “Day Tripper” and the bluer corners of Rubber Soul, especially the lead track, “Drive My Car.” The black influence is all over Revolver’s “Got to Get You into My Life”—and, going forward, the horns of Sgt. Pepper’s “Good Morning, Good Morning.” (Not to be forgotten here, much as we might wish it away, is “12-Bar Original,” the Beatles’ plodding grasp at Stax glory: recorded for Rubber Soul, it was tossed in the can and left there for over 30 years.) The influence running the other way—from the Beatles into mid-Sixties black soul—was a lot subtler, but it flared up in 1966, with both Otis Redding and Detroit’s J.J. Barnes recording hard-edged versions of “Day Tripper,” and remained high for the rest of the decade, with Beatle covers by Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, and others. (With the 1969 McLemore Avenue, Booker T and the MGs recreated, in Memphis style, the entirety of Abbey Road.) It can be argued that the Beatles’ ultimate influence on soul was more residual than immediate—that it paid off, truly paid off, in the late Sixties-early Seventies efflorescence of self-sustaining creators and singular crossovers like Sly Stone, Stevie Wonder, and Marvin Gaye, who’d integrated the Beatles’ subtleties so well that they seldom protruded in any obvious form, and were more innovative for that. Wonder’s “We Can Work It Out,” for instance—maybe the best Beatles cover of all—comes in as pure 1970 funk rock, pointing a way into the new decade.

Otis Redding at Stax.

But if the Beatles had gone to Memphis in early 1966, immersed themselves in the physical and musical environment of Stax for a week or a month, the mixing of bloods would have been much faster and far deeper than that. The Stax studio, carved out of an old movie-house and retaining the steep incline of the theater floor, was among the most unusual recording environments in the world: players literally leaned into the music and into each other, with the crazy slope coming up in the sound as a deep wallop, a meaty bottom. What would the Beatles have taken away from that sultry, slanted place? What would they have left behind? Just for a starting point, recall the history-making miscegenation that occurred in 1963, when on their second album, With the Beatles, they covered not just the expected Chuck Berry but the unexpected Smokey Robinson, Barrett Strong, Marvelettes, and Donays. Now imagine something like that same fusion occurring not secondhand, through ocean-crossing vinyl, but firsthand, in the studio, where players go head to head and you can smell what the other guy was drinking last night. Imagine that fusion happening not in 1963, but in 1966—stakes higher, atmosphere hotter, game raised on all fronts in a world where the black artists who’d helped bring out the Beatles’ voices are now listening, and singing, back.

That sound you hear is little parts of your brain popping at the possibilities.

– Devin McKinney is the author of Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History (2003), The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda (2012), and Jesusmania! The Bootleg Superstar of Gettysburg College (2016). Formerly a music columnist (The American Prospect), blogger (Hey Dullblog), and TV writer (The Food Network), he has appeared in numerous publications and contributes regularly to Critics at Large and the pop culture site HiLobrow. He is employed as an archivist at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where he lives with his wife and their three cats. His website is devinmckinney.com.

2 comments:

  1. there are a few Beatles songs that I would be curious to hear if they had been recorded at the the legendary Stax studio , however, unless it also meant the inclusion of sidemen such as the memphis horns , booker t jones, duck dunn, steve cropper and the human metronome Al Jackson then it would not have been as exciting as it could have been. The room would be heard but those players, wow, what they could bring to a session.so..I guess i`ll just keep spinning my Booker T. and the M.G.`s homage to Abbey road.."McLemore Avenue" and keep dreaming...

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