Superstar, R&B aficionado, and all-around nice guy Huey Lewis came to Ardent this month to start work on a new record. And yes – he brought the News. Together they were working on a Stax tribute record – yet to be titled – and felt that Memphis and Ardent were the way to go for just such a project. Says Lewis of the record: “…we’re trying to do it right, and I think if you’re down here you’re a little bit more careful.”
Ardent engineer John Hampton shared engineering duties with Jim Gaines, with Curry Weber as assistant and Lydia Gilman as 2nd. Here’s what Hampton had to say about the experience:
“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.”
That last line is in reference to Huey’s impromptu guest harmonica appearance on Devon Allman’s new record. While Huey and the News were in studio A, Allman was in studio C tracking his new record (feature story coming soon). They met at the coffee machine, and the rest is history. In the words of studio owner John Fry, “Good things happen here.”
In the picture, L to R: Ralph Arista, drummer Bill Gibson, guitarist/saxophonist Johnny Colla, engineer Jim Gaines, 2nd assistant Lydia Gilman (seated), Huey Lewis, assistant Curry Weber, and keyboardist Sean Hopper.
Mark Jordan’s article on Huey and Devon Allman in the Go Memphis section of the Commercial Appeal can be found here.
Huey Lewis and the News’ back catalogue can be found on Amazon.com.
From Rhino Handmade’s I Am the Cosmos (Deluxe) page:
Chris Bell was an immensely gifted songwriter, performer and producer. As a founding member of Big Star and as a solo artist he struggled to have his songs heard. Sadly, the Memphis-born artist did not live long enough to see the enormous impact his music – both with Big Star and as a solo artist – would have on future generations. Bell’s influential legacy grows thanks to the release of his solo album I AM THE COSMOS – DELUXE EDITION, and Rhino Records’ September 15 release of KEEP AN EYE ON THE SKY, the definitive Big Star anthology. The two-disc deluxe edition of I AM THE COSMOS contains more than a dozen unreleased recordings. As a special bonus, the first 1,000 orders will receive a free 7″ single of “I Am The Cosmos” b/w “You And Your Sister.”
I AM THE COSMOS – DELUXE EDITION contains a remastered version of the original 1992 Ryko compilation on one disc, plus a second disc of rare and unreleased music recorded between 1970 and 1976. On the second disc, all but two of the 15 tracks are previously unreleased. Among the wealth of unissued recordings are eight alternate versions and mixes of album tracks, including “You And Your Sister” with Mellotron in place of the original’s string arrangement, and a later version of “Get Away” featuring Big Star’s Alex Chilton on guitar, Ken Woodley on bass and Richard Rosebrough on drums (Again, it is only available at Rhino Handmade and Rhino’s affiliated International sites).
Revisiting the original 1992 release of I AM THE COSMOS, Rhino Handmade’s deluxe edition includes the previously released acoustic version of “You And Your Sister.” The original also featured a “Slow Version” of the title track, which is heard in its entirety for the first time on this double-disc set. This is actually the original 8 track recording of “I AM THE COSMOS” which was done in asible night. Chris later transferred it to 16 track, added additional overdubs, and mixed it with Geoff Emerick at George Martin’s AIR STUDIOS in London in 1974. Bell sped up the song in mastering to produce the version on the 1978 Car Records 45.
The collection also gathers up a number of unreleased songs Bell recorded that did not appear on I AM THE COSMOS, including two songs by Icewater (a precursor to Big Star); collaborations with Memphis songwriter Keith Sykes (“Stay With Me”) and singer Nancy Bryan (“In My Darkest Hour”); and “Clacton Rag,” an instrumental recorded in 1976 that features Bell solo on guitar.
The beginnings of I AM THE COSMOS can be traced back to 1972, 1973 when Bell left Big Star, the seminal power-pop he helped found. After helping Big Star write and record a few songs for RADIO CITY, the band’s follow-up, Bell left for France in 1974. While there, he recorded several demos at Hérouville Studios for a planned solo album.
Bell was back in the UK in 1975 and returned home to Memphis, where he recorded more songs with a revolving cast of Memphis musicians. In 1978, Car Records released a single featuring Bell’s “I Am The Cosmos” b/w “You And Your Sister.” Encouraged by the positive reaction to single, Bell was planning a return to music when he was killed in a car accident in 1978, two days after Christmas. His music remained unreleased until 1992, when several of his recordings were released posthumously as I AM THE COSMOS by RYKO.
32 page booklet with new liner notes and unreleased photos
1. I Am The Cosmos
2. Better Save Yourself
3. Speed Of Sound
4. Get Away
5. You And Your Sister
6. I Got Kinda Lost
7. Look Up
8. Make A Scene
9. There Was A Light
10. I Don’t Know
11. Fight At The Table
12. Though I Know She Lies
1. Looking Forward* – Icewater
2. Sunshine* – Icewater
3. My Life Is Right – Rock City
4. I Don’t Know (Alternate Version)*
5. You And Your Sister (Alternate Version)*
6. I Am The Cosmos (Extended Alternate Version)*
7. Speed Of Sound (Alternate Version)*
8. Fight At The Table (Alternate Mix)*
9. Make A Scene (Alternate Mix)*
10. Better Save Yourself (Alternate Mix)*
11. Get Away (Alternate Version)*
12. You And Your Sister (Acoustic Version)
13. Stay With Me* (With Keith Sykes)
14. In My Darkest Hour* (With Nancy Bryan)
15. Clacton Rag (Instrumental)*
The important things to note about this reissue are:
1) This is a new release – not just a remastered version of the 1993 I Am the Cosmos CD released by Ryko.
2) This release is only available through Rhino Handmade’s Web site and their affiliate international sites:
Rhino.co.uk / (UK)
Rhinorecords.ca / (Canada)
wmg.jp/wmlife/kami / (Japan)
Platekompaniet.no / (Nordic)
I AM THE COSMOS (DELUXE EDITION) PRESS
Pitchfork – The second disc…helps expand the history of Bell and Big Star. Yes, the bulk comprises alternate versions and mixes (including a version of “Get Away” featuring Chilton on guitar), but as with the rarities on Big Star’s box, the different perspective proves an invaluable annex to the band’s limited catalog (just as fleeting captures of Bell’s slow, Southern drawl of a speaking voice proves a fascinating contrast to his sharp, British Invasion-inflected singing voice). Fleshing out the still oddly incomplete Big Star portrait are a few tracks from Bell’s pre-Big Star bands Icewater and Rock City (whose early version of “My Life Is Right”, essentially the same as Big Star’s version, underscores Bell’s talents), subsequent collaborations with Memphis scene fixtures Keith Sykes and Nancy Byran, and a sleepy solo instrumental, “Clacton Rag”.
BLURT – For many reasons…Bell has never quite gotten the credit he deserves in shaping the so-called Big Star sound…More than just a fitting coda to the towering Keep An Eye In The Sky set, Rhino’s two-disc deluxe edition treatment of I Am The Cosmos reaffirms Bell as every bit Chilton’s equal. The de-facto album is certainly deserving of its separate re-release, but with Chilton present on a few tracks and many mutual Big Star associates in on the sessions, I Am The Cosmos is inseparable from the Big Star mythos.
Billboard – “Children by the millions/Worship Alex Chilton,” so goes the Replacements song, but only thousands know about Chris Bell, his bandmate in Big Star’s first incarnation. Bell helped shape Big Star’s take on British Invasion rock, then left after its first album to tackle personal demons and record as a solo artist…During the ’80s and ’90s, as Big Star gained critical respect as one of the greatest bands that never had a hit, Bell finally got props as its studio craftsman, the underappreciated artist in an underdog band. And his legend grows still. The album “I Am the Cosmos” wasn’t released until 1992. Now, to mark the long-awaited release of its Big Star boxed set, Rhino is releasing a deluxe version with a second disc of early work and alternate versions. Almost all of it lives up to the legend.
Record Collector – Bell’s part in Big Star’s vibrant distillations of their anglophilic pop fixation is well known and well-represented on tracks such as I Don’t Know and My Life Is Right, both here in alternate versions. His main strength, however, was in beautiful, soul-baring ballads such as the incandescent Speed Of Sound, achingly vulnerable You & Your Sister (here in three versions), cathartic There Was A Light and several more, whose aching poignancy heighten the tragedy of this life and major talent cut short.
We also wanted to give an update on some of the Best Of 2009 Chris Bell “I Am The Cosmos (Deluxe Edition)” mentions…
Everyone here at Ardent is sorry to hear the news of the passing of Willie “Pops” Mitchell on January 5th, 2010. Mitchell was a key figure in the history of Memphis music, starting as a trumpet player and moving his way to engineer, producer, talent scout and label executive at Hi Records. He championed the careers of Ann Peebles, Otis Clay and Al Green, to name a few. Some words from Ardent Studios’ founder and owner John Fry on his memories of Pops:
“My early memories of Willie Mitchell are of those occasions that he would bring something to the old Ardent Studio on National Street for me to mix. I was a 22 year-old kid, but I quickly picked up on the idea that this signaled danger. If he brought me something, there was a problem; otherwise he would have mixed it himself. He would usually be accompanied by Joe Cuoghi , one of the owners of HI Records and Poplar Tunes Record Shop.
Joe and Willie would sit at the back of the control room; Joe smoking cigars and drinking coffee that looked like asphalt.
The material was always 4 track, or in some cases 3 track, analog.
On the fateful day, they showed up with an Al Green tape. I think it was Let’s Stay Together, but I’m not certain. When I played it there was this beautiful vocal performance which just pinned the VU meter and was totally distorted.
I glanced around at Willie and Joe and thought “Oh my God, these people think I am going to fix that”.
Then I had one of my few good thoughts. My Scully tape machine was different than Willie’s Ampex. On the Scully, the playback level alignment control was the very first thing in the circuit before the signal on tape ever reached any amplifiers. Suppose the recording was not total distortion, and the Ampex just could not handle the elevated level on playback.
So I said forget “proper” alignment, put my little screwdriver on the control for the vocal track, and turned it down. The distortion magically went away, and the beautiful vocal performance remained. Everyone left with smiles on their faces.
Over almost four decades, we did a number sessions with “Pops” at Ardent, and everyone one of them was fun. He was a kind and gracious man and is sorely missed.”
Heart of Soul: Music Mourns R&B Innovator Willie Mitchell (by Bob Mehr, from The Commercial Appeal)
R.I.P. Soul Producer Willie Mitchell – (pitchfork.com)
In the picture: Willie Mitchell works on horn arrangements at Royal Studios c. 1998.