RANDOM RAMBLINGS OF THE MUSICAL MIND

A peak into the mind of John Hampton

Alex Chilton: The Inveterate Showman

When I hung the phone up, I had just finished going through my iPhoto pictures, trying vainly to categorize them for the thirty seventh time. I kept coming across one in particular that fit into 9 of my categories and I had to get it down to 1. It could be “Ardent Folk”, “Music folk”, “Family”, “Bizarre”, “Bigger that Life”, “Clients”… it was a picture of Alex with my first wife, before I had met either. Hmmmmm. When my phone rang, I answered it with my “EEEYELLOW”. Adam, my assistant, was telling me that Alex Chilton had just died. That was followed by that eerie silence. First I thought “he can’t be dead. I just saw him.” I guess it’s a weird form of shock. Adam was saying something about Fry – John Fry, our founder. Since I was going right by his house on my way home, I thought I would just drop by and check on him. His wife was at home, but then again, she wasn’t around in the day.

I first met Alex at Shoe Studios in Memphis when he was producing another friend, Tommy Hoehn. And Jon Tiven was there as pseudo executive producer. Tommy and Alex had written a song called “She Might Look My Way”, which someone said had missed the cut for Big Star’s Radio City record.

The drums weren’t quite the “vibe” and they needed a drummer. I got the gig. At Shoe, you couldn’t see into the control room. The usual glass ONLY through the headphones. Being the first time for me to ever play in ANY studio, it was … disconcerting at best. So I played as directed and the record was eventually released on Henry Loeb’s “Power Play” records which had also released the Scruffs first single. WOW! I had just played on my first record ever and Alex, the Big Star, had produced it. I was hot stuff, right? Well,considering I was just out of high school and already headed toward my goal-working in a recording studio. I was a happy dude. It was 1974.

March 17, 2010. As I headed down John’s street, I first looked the 1/4 mile to the garage to see if he had company. He did, but I drove up anyway. I called him from his driveway and when he answered, I asked him if everything was cool in there. He replied he was in the “shock bubble”, but assured me he was fine (for now). John had worked extensively on both of the Big Star records and had become very close with Alex, Chris Bell, Andy Hummell and Jody Stephens. They were his friends as well as his label’s pride. #1 record and Radio City were two of the most influential records ever made. But with distribution problems surrounding Stax… well, Big Star’s sales just never happened. I had heard rumors of Big Star’s records ending up in the soul music section of record stores, which I guess made sense in a weird sort of way. If the rumor is true, it would explain why such an influential band had such dismal sales. When you want to buy a rock record, you go to the rock section and if the record isn’t there, you usually buy something else instead of asking “Where are your Big Star records?” I tend to believe the story given the track record Stax had at the time.

Cut to 1977. A guy named Miles Copeland (as in IRS Records, as in Stewart as in The Police) had called to book time for a band he wanted Alex to produce called “The Cramps”. Alex asked if I could engineer the record. Since all I knew at the time was how to align a tape machine and repair faders, I was the perfect choice! Right?

We had a BALL doing that record. Lux Interior was always in character, Brian threw a cinder block at a pile of stuff we had built from folding chairs, flourescent tube lights, a couple of cymbals … and we recorded the subsequent chaos. Lux sang “Human Fly” and “Sunglasses After Dark”. It was NYU performance art becoming a validated rock music scene. Alex basically taught me how to make a rock-a-billy record, and we superimposed that methodology on the Cramps. NOW Alex had been there when I engineered my first record.

As luck would have it, I had inadvertently caused some distortion on the Cramps record. And Alex wanted remuneration for it. So Ardent gave him a week to fix the problem, which he used to record his record “Feudalist Tarts” (a cute little trick he had learned from HIS producer, Jim Dickinson) But wait! That’s cheating! No, I guess in Alex’s eyes, it was legit. I mean, Dickinson did it, so why can’t Alex? Jim always avowed that ‘you can’t have music without some element of crime’.

After that, I hadn’t seen Alex until it was time for him to produce a record on Tav Falco, who had just returned from Belgium where he was learning to Tango. That record, “Behind the Magnolia Curtain” was yet another cult fave, and Alex was now an underground super-star.

1968. Alex Chilton came out of the chute at 16 and within a couple of years had made a plane-load of money having his voice heard around the world. When the “Tops” were opening for the Beach Boys on tour, he stayed in drummer Dennis Wilson’s guest house with none other than Chuckie Manson! (Dennis had thought Charles was harmless enough, so Alex figures what the heck?)

After his ginormous success as the vocalist for the Box-Tops, as in The Letter, Soul Deep, Neon Rainbow, Cry Like a Baby, … a rock-pile of SMASH hits … he met Icewater’s Jody Stephens and Chris Bell (more on Chris soon) and rocket scientist Andy Hummell. Alex and Chris were fairly confident they could make a PowerPop band ala Raspberries, Byrds, Badfinger; PowerPop wis music largely influenced by ’60s British Music: Todd Rundgren’s “Runt” LP, Raspberries single “Go all the way”, Badfinger’s “Baby Blue” and “No Matter What” (a song Paul wrote for the Beatles), Dwight Twilley, Matthew Sweet … that was PowerPop. It’s a long list. And Alex was standing right in the middle of it’s birth. Had it not been for the demise of their distributor, Stax, I’m convinced they would have been the hottest thing since sunburn. “Back of a Car”, “September Gurls”, “Thirteen” … come on. Tell me that isn’t some of the best music you’ve EVER heard.

Though Alex could be cantankerous, i.e. kicking his Fender Twin at the famed and packed Antenna Club or slapping my hand away from the e.q. on a mix, I’m convinced THAT was the inveterate showman he was. Because he really was a great dude. I told him my birthday once around 1976. One day in 1997 at Ardent, he walked up to join me and a friend at 7 card stud, and out of nowhere, he looked up at me , kind of gazing through me, and said “November …(pause) … seventeenth.” Uncanny.

1986. When we started the Replacements “Pleased to Meet Me”, I was listening to their demos-soon-to-be-masters they had recorded the week before, and I thought to myself, “Paul sure sounds like Alex”. Again in 1988, as we heard Tommy Keene’s demos for “Based on Happy Times”, I thought to myself, “Tommy sure sounds like Alex”. Influenced.

Alex made an indelible mark on music. A BIG one. Anyone who is highly influenced by this artform, call me. I LOVE recording PowerPop. Just ask Gin Blossoms.

R I P Alex. We love you. God loves you. We’ll miss you.

No questions, please.

Hearts Off to Haiti

Aiding Haiti with Love and a Melody    

When my management approached me with an offer to help Larry Dodson (from the fabulous Bar-Kays) put together a record that the Bar-Kays and others were doing, my eyes lit up. ALL of the profit from the sales was going directly to someone in quake-ravaged Haiti who was honest to a fault and would get the money wherever it would do the most good. I just said “Sure. When? Where?” But I wasn’t sure WHY I had volunteered so quickly.In July 7, 1977, the first day I worked at Ardent Recording Studio, ZZ Top was in studio A, and the fabulous Bar-Kays were in studio B. There had to be at least 12 people in there, with the speakers turned up to 11, and every fifteen minutes or so, a Bar-Kay would come out to attend to his beeswax, always loud and laughing, and to the casual onlooker, one would think a hoedown was on rather than a record. But boy … they had fun and it was all over the place. I cottoned to this place and these people like a flea cottons to a dog. Good luck getting rid of me, folks. I’m home.

On the day we cranked up this session, Larry and their tech/roadie/remote recordist Markus came in with the production they had done so far, in some secret laboratory. Now WE were going to add more people and more voices, singing a song written to the unfortunate Haitian population that were desperately trying to restore their country that laid in ruin by a natural disaster of the ugliest kind.It seems a lot of people look at Haiti like the movie “Serpent and the Rainbow”, with it’s Black Magic and people coming to life AFTER being officially pronounced dead. But what was coming in on the net, in the news, and through the radio described something much different and even more horrifying once it sinks in that it’s REAL.

But you know, that’s when Americans and the world, do what we do best. We help. We comfort. We give what we can, hoping … what? That if we are ever in that shape, they would return the favor? No, I don’t think so. I think it’s because it just feels good to help a fellow human being in distress. It’s just in our blood.

The record was growing. Maurice White is coming, and Kirk Whalum is slaying us with the most soulful sax this side of, hmmmmm, this side of China.

J. Blackfoot is just plain old testifying, loudly, if I may. Many red lights, mon! Eric Gales is tearing up both a guitar and an amplifier as he blazes a brain boggling blur of fingers and arms and strings, all becoming just white hot! This is fantastic. Then, the almost winner of last year’s Americam Idol, (we call her) Lil Rounds. I wept.

And over the next few days, so many people came in that the production team was simply overwhelmed and we were just saying “GO! We’ll sort it out later”. When you add it up, we spent six days putting more and more and more on this record. Yes, the production was becoming a nightmare. But YES! You could NOT hold back the people who wanted to get involved. There was a couple from Spain, taking a tour of the studio. Larry asked them if they could sing. They came in and sang beeeeautifully … as if to say to say “Haiti, we in Spain care too!” It was all Un Be friggin lieveable!!! We were completely burnt after six days of that. Break!

I did the math. Assuming average promotion, and average airplay. Nationally, of course. Assume a CD with 2 different versions. Or 3. Heck,we could really make about 50 versions! Let’s assume a $5.99 retail. Say 100,000 people hear it, like it and buy it. In America. After the extremely minimal costs incurred are paid, it leaves you with about … it’s easily around a half a mil. What if 300,000 people buy it? Now we’re over a mil. For 6+ days work, we could send the Haitian people over a million BUCKS! A MILLION BUCKS!!  so …

All you have to do to help the Haitian people is buy the record! It’s not lining my pocket one cent. Nor Larry’s. Nor Maurice’s or Kirks or Eric or even Li’l Rounds!! The love shared in that room during the recording of that song made us ALL a little more humble, a little more aware to the devastation that Mother Nature, on a bad day, can cause. This reality check was our payment. And we ALL learned again that LOVE alone (with a little cash) can help even the worst situations.

And as we rounded the corner into the home stretch, Larry and I both realized that we had just been moved a little closer to each other, both on a personal level and a cultural level. One of the greatest things about the music business is that we all share a bond that supersedes race, religion, and just about anything that COULD come between us. It is a spirit that at times becomes the Great equalizer of mankind. It can be humbling. And, like anything spiritual, in the wrong hands, it can wreak havoc. Today, the Hatian peopkle were in good hands. Can I get an AMEN on that, J. Blackfoot?

And very soon, the Haitian people will become a part of it, too.

Next question …

two woRds

I am forever confused by a 2 words on every movie ever made….

PRODUCED BY:

Are you wondering what that means? I am. I know what a Record Producer does. He does EVERYTHING! He is a babysitter, a chauffeur,  friend, a teacher AND learner. In fact, Bill Leen, Blossoms’ bassist, asked “Why doesn’t my bass get louder when I PLaY louDer?” I was in error putting a NO LOUDER on his bass. (I learned volume was a major part of their performance.)  He decides what songs are going to be on the record. He, hopefully, has or develops soon after the record starts, a big picture of how the artist will “come off” when the public hears it. In short, that’s what I do. Here’s an example:

At the end of the Tora Tora record, I, as a producer, went to Phoenix, remember, (at Brian Huttenhower’s request … AND expense), and heard Gin Blossoms. They were doing a live show that first night, and I went to meet the band before the show. Although they had a million questions concerning how I would make their first real record, for A&M, I told them I have no comment until I see, with my own eyes, what their live show is all about. I want to know what the strong points and not so strong points were, when it came to performance. Plus, I wanted to see some college girls.

That night at Chuey’s, a U of AZ hot spot in Tempe, they went on at 9PM. And they really did start at 9PM! That’s a good sign. They take it seriously. I watched the crowd to see how they reacted to the band’s performance as well, because these people in the audience ARE the general public, the real record buyers, and I bet that their reaction is directly proportional to sales. If they sing along with the band, those songs are the potential “hits” that eventually the whole world would sing along with. If they went to get another beer during a song, that song had a problem, like bad lyric, too slow, weighty arrangement , etc. It could be used as filler … or on the cutting room floor. Unless the producer can envision it as something else, like faster, in another key, … or on the cutting room floor. Overall, the crowd LOVED the Gin Blossoms. And I think I did , too.

The next day, I met with the band, and now, when they start asking their million questions, I have answers. What songs did you like? Should we even bother cutting this or that? Song X , the one that no one likes , should we try a different arrangement? These were great questions and I gave my responses. We ended up with ten songs that we should cut for sure, and five more that we should try a different approach on. and 2 that were bye-bye. (we say “next record”)

I HAD to get them away from Tempe to cut them. Way too many distractions. So we came to Memphis and just had a lot of fun cutting and singing, and just hanging around. I took them to see Poppa Willie , and they were awed. We went to Graceland. And as usual, they kind of snickered under their breath about Elvis’ style of living, but we ALL fell to our knees (metaphorically) upon entering the trophy room My goodness, Elvis was a god to the entire planet! We all gained a boxcar load of respect by the time we left.

In a nutshell, we had fun, cut a record, and the fun stuck to the tape. And the record buyers of the world sensed that fun, and bought it so that they could have fun with us. And I had just PRODUCED my first multi platinum record. Of course, I could fill a room with this story, and I plan on revisiting these sessions in the future. But for now, that’s enough to digest.

But there’s still ONE burning question. What does a movie producer do? It’s not what I do, according to wikipedia. In fact, I hereby launch my quest to change records from reading PRODUCED BY to DIRECTED BY. The director’s job is almost exactly what I do.

And so far I have done that for Jimmy Vaughan, Robert Cray, Audio Adrenaline, John Kilzer, Big Tent Revival, … a LOT of artists. and I love it!

Next question …

Tora Tora’s walking shoes take them to “Wild America”

When Brian Huttenhower from A &M Records came into my “office” (a couch in the hallway ) at the studio that day, the last thing I expected was his question. Tora Tora, the  first band we had signed to our production company, was nearing the end of another wearying tour, and, unlike most rock bands’ first tours, it seems to have done amazingly well. Their three certifiable mini-hits, “Walkin’Shoes”, “Phantom Rider”, and “Guilty” had indeed seen the light of day, and there were probably a few more in the hat. They had seen a boatload of cities, and they made me privvy to some road stories about groupies getting the royal treatment back-stage, with one special story about a deli-tray and bonus points for hitting certain body parts; a veritable backpack of backstage stories, which I thought were surely just rumors. Surely.

This degree of success at this early part of the boys’ career is what made Brian’s question such a surprise: “So Hampton, you want to do their next record?” My response was one of curiosity, since I thought their last record sounded great. “Why? Not enough low-end for mainstream rock radio?”

Now HE looked surprised, “No, stupid! (Brian and I were close enough that he knew he could get away with that.) PRODUCE their next record!”. Now I WAS taken aback. I was sure he was talking about my sonic abilities, not my song/concept musings. Hence the bass reference.

Produce them? Where I come from, if a record does as well as this had, it was unusual to change horses midstreamlike this. But then again, Brian wasn’t known for playing it safe. (A.D.D. moment– Brian had come in the studio that day wearing a pair of Nike athletic shoes that were probably called Atomic Air Supremacy Deluxe, Special Edition Quantum Accelerator GOLDS. After staring at them a minute, I looked at Brian and asked, “Brian, exactly what kind of shoes ARE those?” Brian looked at the shoes, which added a full inch plus to his height, then he looked at me, then the shoes again, and responded,”Whaddaya mean?” Eight seconds of dead silence. Then, as serious as cancer he looked up and replied, “Bitchin’!” THAT was classic Brian.

So why me to produce their next record? The first one did O.K. didn’t it?

“It did allright, I just wanted to try something different.” Brian could hear hit songs a mile away. He had signed Soundgarden, Temple of the Dog, Extreme, Tora Tora, and now Gin Blossoms? Plus he was looking at a couple of other bands. Brian is talented. So talented in fact, that if he wanted me, he had me. “Sure!”

Well, it seems that the band would also glad if I would agree to do it, I found out later. Whatever had led these guys to this decision was one question I didn’t care to ask. They liked me, I liked them … let’s go.

What I liked most about Tora was that right when you thought you were getting any hair-band USA, you got something much deeper, though it wasn’t obvious at first glimpse. They were yet another clash of cultures that yielded a unique artform. This time, it was LA big-hair-big-sound pretentiousness in a real, delta based soul package, complete with mud and mosquitos. “Phantom Rider” had always sounded like a Skynyrd hit, and “Walking Shoes” was a riff-rock powerhouse from the same tree. A story of a man who had been jilted for the last time, so he broke out the walkin’ shoes. If THAT wasn’t a common blues phrase, I nominate it. Along side “I hear my back door slam”, “left home for a brown-eyed man”, “down on the killin’ floor”, and of course “Who Let the Dogs Out”.         (a joke, son)

So this was the key to the band I had decided to keep to the forefront as we made their second record. They wrote, and we hammered the songs out in an unused building a block from the studio. The Pink House we called it. It had been the big, string and horn recording studio owned by a jingle mill named Pepper-Tanner, well known in advertising music. Pepper-Tanner also made a sound effects library, (sorry, another ADD moment) and one infamous entry in this library was a sound-bite entitled “Man shoots pig”.

Over the next few months we recorded, wrote, rehearsed, recorded, wrote, and rehearsed. Suddenly one day I looked up and there were 2 overdubs left until we were done. Everything else on our production chart had been marked through. WOW! Time flies when you are having fun. So, I called Brian and he showed up a couple days later.

In a pecan shell, Brian wanted more. Where we thought it was a ten, Brian wanted eleven. Now I was in a pickle. I had committed to start Gin Blossoms (also for Brian) in about two weeks, but I can never blame a person who wants more, as long as he is paying for it.

So I went to Phoenix to start Gin Blossoms first record, which was later named “New Miserable Experience”, and Brian had a guy come in to cut some more on Tora Tora. I knew it was headed for huge success. But we all failed to foresee the effect that a new type of music that was boiling just under the surface would have on bands such as Tora Tora, who was NOT another any hair-band USA. The danger I saw was that they could possibly be “thrown out with the bath water.” Only time would tell, but my favorite, “Nowhere to Go But Down” was already becoming a favorite with people at the label, which was re-assuring. I didn’t want to leave these children in a lurch, and Brian spoke highly of the incoming guy, but alarms sounded when it got around that his biggest claim to fame was Ratt, so I had a little sit-down with him to get my two cents worth in. And I left it in his “capable hands” as I headed out for Gin Blossom land.

On my return from Phoenix a couple weeks later, I asked my co-producer how it had been going. Turns out he wore a toupee and the guys had been having a ball with him, putting duct tape across the doorway right at head level, just waiting to catch that furry thing in it’s stickum! I laughed until I was aching. They said it was going okay, but he was trying to make them into a Poison meets Motley Crüe meets Slaughter thing, and they’d had been a few “rock moments”, but otherwise, all was well. Good. I had actually missed these guys, and we were becoming good friends.

Next time Brian came in to town, we all sat and listened. Wild America was born. And now, New Miserable Experience was in it’s second trimester. Two radically types of music heading to radioland at about the same time. When I first heard the genius of  Kurt Cobain’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit’, I began to wonder if the listening/buying public would equally embrace this musical expanse. Ah, just put it out and see what happens. Right?

Next question … yes, you … in the toupee …

Have you heard “The News”?

“It’s hard to go wrong borrowing from “The Memphis Songbook,” as I call it, when you’re crafting a record. One thing about Memphis’ music is how the listener can wrap him/herself up in the pain of the writer, or in the joy of being rescued from that pain. Whether it’s discovering a new love or letting go of an old one, the trials and triumphs of life are the intangible places where that lyric gets born. So who better to relate to these trials and triumphs than veteran songster Huey Lewis, Hughie Louis, or even Hugh Anthony Cregg III (all the same person), who has written a truckload of hits himself!

“When Jim Gaines, who has made records from Journey to Santana, Steve Miller to Tower of Power, Stevie Ray Vaughan to George Thorogood, … asked my involvement with his upcoming Huey Lewis record, I immediately started hearing “The Heart of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” “I Want a New Drug,” “If This is It,” and even having visions of Marty McFly and Doc Brown in Back to the Future, a movie forever interlocked to Huey and vice versa in 1985, when “The Power of Love” became HLN’s first #1 single, and “Sports,” their third album, started it’s slow burn to the #1 Billboard spot. It eventually ruled there for a bit, and Huey and the News had made it to the top of the pile. Before it was over, and it still ain’t, the record had sold over 10 million copies in the US alone and spawned nine top 30 hits, 4 bound for the top ten, and some of those for the #1 spot.

“In their career, Huey Lewis and the News has sold 19 million records worldwide… and counting. Wow.

“So how do you follow an act like that? You kick back and do whatever you want, that’s how! And Huey wants to take a dip in the river of the Memphis Songbook. But you better watch it, because that magic book has been known to launch new careers! And re-invent to established careers. Just ask The Black Crows about “Hard to Handle;” Toots and the Maytalls about one of their big ones, “Take me to the River,” or any other on his Toots in Memphis record. Or ask ZZ Top if “I Thank You” helped them along. And how many danced to Amii Stewart’s version of “Knock on Wood” … the list goes on. These timeless pieces, just like the American Songbook, refuse to be “bagged.” They fight category. And the Memphis Songbook feels like it has always been and always will be.

Just exactly like Huey Lewis and the News. Oh! And I hear Huey is a mean harmonica player.

Transcending the Hair Band, Tora Tora Rocks … Again!

Tora Tora is playing this week in Memphis at Minglewood Hall on March 6th at 8PM and a splendid time is guaranteed for all. Once again, Anthony “Ant-Man” Corder will be singing, Patrick Frances will be playing the bass, Keith Douglas will be highly entertaining with his eeeelectric guitar, and the mighty John Patterson will provide the rock solid rhythmic foundation for Tora Tora. And when you’re standing there listening, try to remember …

That is not a hair band you hear.

Next question …