Legendary producer and songwriter Chips Moman dies, aged 79

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He produced arguably Elvis’s best album, helped write some of soul music’s enduring classics, and won a Grammy for his country work

Legendary producer and songwriter Chips Moman dies, aged 79
Chips Moman … Hero of American music. Photograph: Fiona Hanson/PA

Lincoln “Chips” Moman – the producer, musician and songwriter who helped Elvis Presley engineer a musical comeback in the late 1960s and then moved to Nashville to record Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and other top country performers, as well as co-writing some of the best loved soul songs of all time – died on Monday in LaGrange, Georgia. He was 79.

Donny Turner, a family friend who spoke with his wife, Jane, said Moman died at a hospice facility after a lengthy struggle with lung disease.

A fixture for decades in the Southern music scene, Moman hitchhiked from Georgia to Memphis as a teenager and worked at the fledgling Stax Records in the 1950s. He produced some of first hits for the famous label, including Last Night by the Mar-Keys, Gee Whiz by Carla Thomas and You Don’t Miss Your Water by William Bell.

He started his own studio, American Sound Studio, and formed the Memphis Boys studio band, which helped define the funky, down-to-earth Memphis sound of the 1960s. He helped produce hits from the Gentrys, BJ Thomas and Neil Diamond. With Dan Penn, he co-wrote the soul classics Dark End of the Street, a hit for James Carr and Do Right Woman, Do Right Man, a hit for Aretha Franklin.

One of his most notable collaborations was with Presley. For much of the 60s, Elvis had turned out soundtrack albums as pallid as the movies they were derived from. But by the end of the decade, Presley was anxious to challenge himself and chose the American Sound Studio for his intended comeback, with Moman producing.

The result was a prolific and productive session, with Presley re-establishing his mastery of soul, gospel, country and blues and showing he could keep up with the latest sounds. The album From Elvis in Memphis, released in 1969, received some of the best reviews of his career and was followed a year later by Back in Memphis. Hit singles included Kentucky Rain, In the Ghetto and what became the signature song of the latter part of Presley’s career, the chart-topping Suspicious Minds.

Moman left Memphis in 1972 and tried to start again in Atlanta, but when that didn’t work out, he moved to Nashville. There, he continued his streak of musical success by writing and recording for country artists.

He earned a Grammy in 1976 for co-writing the country song (Hey Won’t You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song, a hit for BJ Thomas, and also wrote Luckenbach, Texas, recorded first by Waylon Jennings.

He produced Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow up to Be Cowboys for Jennings and Willie Nelson, Pancho and Lefty for Nelson and Merle Haggard, and persuaded Nelson to record a cover of You Were Always on My Mind, which became one of Nelson’s biggest hits and earned him a Grammy for country vocal performance of the year.

In 1985 Moman produced the first and most successful studio recordings of the country supergroup the Highwaymen, featuring Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, Jennings and Nelson.

He went back to Memphis in 1985 briefly, lured by the city’s mayor with financial incentives in the hope of revitalising the city’s music scene. There he produced the Class of ’55 recording sessions featuring Jerry Lee Lewis, Cash, Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison.

He is survived by his wife, his daughter Monique and son Casey.

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