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Memphis Struggles To Revive Its Music Industry

March 16, 1987

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) _ The once-thriving Sun Records studio has become a tourist stop. Soul-music powerhouse Stax Records went bankrupt 10 years ago. Elvis is dead.

But some boosters hope to bring Memphis back into the music industry, which may explain why a newspaper column calling ex-Beatle Ringo Starr ″yesterday’s news″ touched a raw nerve.

Record producer Chips Moman, who led 50 demonstrators on a protest march Tuesday, said the column in The Commercial Appeal could hurt the city’s recording business.

The column contrasted the frenzy of ″Beatlemania″ with the less-than- specta cular stir created by a recent Starr visit to Memphis to make an album with Moman.

It also drew complaints from Mayor Dick Hackett, and the city council passed a resolution inviting Starr back to town.

″This city is going to happen,″ Moman says.

Memphis already has hit plenty of high notes.

It’s where W.C. Handy wrote the blues, where Presley helped create rock ‘n’ roll, where Otis Redding and many others left musical tracks.

Moman ran a major recording studio here but left it in the 1970s for Nashville. He returned to Memphis two years ago.

″People came from all over the country″ to record at Moman’s American Studio, said Peter Guralnick, author of ″Sweet Soul Music″ and other books on American music.

Moman’s departure helped cool one of the city’s hottest musical periods. His much-ballyhooed return came amid glowing predictions of a comeback. And the city has a stake in his success.

For $1 a year, the city rented him an old fire station to make into a studio. There was a property tax freeze and a $720,000 low-interest loan backed by tax-free bonds.

The studio opened about six months ago, and Moman said he is pleased with the work he’s done so far, with Starr and with a local rock group called Reba And The Portables.

He said he has also booked recording sessions this year with B.B. King, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard.

But Moman says some people may be expecting more than he can deliver.

″All of a sudden Memphis looked at me to pull rabbits out of a hat, and I can’t do that,″ he said recently.

Record producer John Fry agrees.

″One producer is not going to make a record industry,″ said Fry, who has run Ardent Recording in Memphis for the past 20 years.

Moman’s first major project since coming back to Memphis was ″Class of ’55,″ featuring Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and Carl Perkins.

The album hasn’t sold as well as expected, and Moman has pulled out of American Records, the company he helped form to promote the project, said Gary Belz, a partner in the venture.

Fry, whose studio records the group ZZ Top, said the Memphis recording industry is a shadow of what it once was, but business has been improving for several years.

″I’m very encouraged,″ he said.

The recording industry in Memphis fell apart in the early 1970s when Stax Records went bankrupt and Moman headed to Nashville, Guralnick said.

Hi Records, another major player, folded about the same time when its star, singer Al Green, decided to switch from soul to gospel.

Stax and Hi produced numerous hits with artists like The Box Tops, Isaac Hayes, Sam and Dave and Booker T. and the MG’s. They attracted business from throughout the country and what they couldn’t handle spilled over to smaller studios.

″If someone like Chips Moman can get things going again with his studio where he discovers new talent and attracts talent to come in, then you’ve got a recording industry going again,″ Guralnick said in an interview from his residence in West Newburg, Mass.

The Memphis recording scene has always been dominated by independent operators, unlike cities like Nashville where major recording companies set the pace, he said.

″The independent spirit in Memphis can lead to factionalism,″ Guralnick said, ″but it can also lead to fantastic individual success.″