Grammy-winning songwriter, producer and guitarist Lincoln Wayne “Chips” Moman, who wrote and produced hits for Elvis Presley, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, B.J. Thomas, Dusty Springfield and many others, died at a hospice facility in his hometown of LaGrange, Georgia, on Monday, one day after his 79th birthday.
Long regarded as the “fifth Highwayman” for his role in producing the country supergroup that included Jennings, Nelson, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson, Moman also co-wrote Jennings’ 1977 crossover hit, “Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love),” and in 1982 produced Nelson’s CMA Award-winning smash, “Always on My Mind.” Along with Larry Butler, Moman earned a 1976 Grammy for writing the B.J. Thomas pop-country hit, “(Hey, Won’t You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song).”
As a teenager, Moman hitchhiked to Memphis and was heard playing guitar by Sun Records’ artist Warren Smith. Soon, he was playing rockabilly guitar in the touring bands of Johnny Burnette and Gene Vincent. The budding musician then relocated to Los Angeles where he worked as a session guitarist and became interested in record producing. After his return to Memphis to work as an engineer for Satellite Records, the struggling label would soon rewrite music history as Stax Records. Moman produced the label’s first hit, “Gee Whiz (Look at His Eyes),” for Carla Thomas.
Moman left Stax in 1962 and opened his own recording facility in Memphis. American Sound Studio became a music powerhouse, where the boss produced hits for Aretha Franklin, Neil Diamond, Joe Tex, the Box Tops, and many others. The sessions were played by the house band, the Memphis Boys. Moman also continued to write songs, including the soul classic, “The Dark End of the Street” and “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man.”
Early in 1969, Moman produced the Mac Davis-penned “In the Ghetto,” for Elvis Presley. The socially conscious lyrics and Presley’s momentum from his recent “comeback” concert gave the King his first Top 10 hit in four years. From 1967 to 1971, American Sound Studio placed more than 120 hits on the charts, notching nearly more than one-quarter of the Billboard Hot 100 chart hits in a single week.
In the mid-Seventies, Moman left Memphis for Atlanta, then Nashville, where his “Luckenbach, Texas” (co-written with keyboard legend Bobby Emmons) would become country music’s second platinum-selling single. He would go to on to produce and perform on records by Ronnie Milsap, Merle Haggard, Tammy Wynette, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis and Willie Nelson, among others, before moving back to Memphis and then West Point, near La Grange.
Mickey Raphael, Willie Nelson’s longtime harmonica player who worked with Moman during several sessions, including those for the Highwayman recordings, recalls him as someone who could handle all aspects of the recording process, but who let the songs and the players dictate what those sessions would yield.
“I knew his history as a producer, having done Elvis’s ‘In the Ghetto’ and ‘Suspicious Minds,'” Raphael tells Rolling Stone Country. “As famous as the artists that he was producing were the band members that he used, the session guys: Reggie Young, Bobby Woods, Bobby Emmons, the Memphis Boys. He was a quadruple-threat. He was a great musician, a great songwriter. He knew players and he knew how to pick a great song even if he didn’t write it. When he put the players together he knew what he wanted to hear because he could do all of it.”
During rehearsals for a Highwaymen tour, Raphael witnessed Moman’s approach to taking the songs from the studio to the record to the concert stage.
“Like a true bandleader, he said, ‘If you didn’t play it on the record, don’t play it here,’ meaning let’s stick to the arrangements on the record,” Raphael recalls. “There was an 11-piece band and everyone in that band was a star, but there were no egos. Everybody was there to serve the song. That’s great producing. He gave you enough room to be yourself, and you knew he was listening.”
Moman was elected into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in 1990 and Memphis Music Hall of Fame in 2014. He is survived by his wife Jane, daughter Monique and son Casey.