Terry Manning: On the way to Big Star
introduction and interview by Daniel Coston
While countless people now state themselves as Big Star fans, there were only a handfull of those that can say they were there from the beginning. Terry Manning is one of those people. Along with an amazing producing and engineering career (which we’ll cover in a forhtcoming article), Terry was part of the late 1960s Memphis scene that created their own sound at Ardent Studios. This included Manning, Chris Bell, Jody Stephens, and Andy Hummel, and a couple of others. When Alex Chilton joined Bell, Stephens and Hummel in 1971 to form Big Star, Manning was there to see it all happen, and how their first two albums came together.
While this interview with Manning was done before Chilton’s recent passing, what still comes through is the love and respect that Manning and others still have in the music, and for the music they were a part of.
Tangents: Chris Bell played with you on a couple of singles for different bands, and on your Home Sweet Home album. How did that come about, and describe playing with Chris at this time.
Manning: In addition to my band Lawson and Four More that I played and recorded with, I also played music often with some guys in my neighborhood. And in fact, my good friend Steve Rhea lived right across the street from me. Steve played drums, and we would play along with albums, write songs, record on little home tape recorders. I went to Central High School at the time, but Steve went out East to MUS ,a private boy's school. One of his classmates there was Chris Bell, and before long we had all hooked up to practice and play together.
It's pretty well known now that Chris had what we called the "Back House" on the property that his parents had built a large new home on. Steve and me and Chris and a few other guys would hang out there and practice. We could play as loud as we wanted to without disturbing anyone, and also had a darkroom that we could use for our photography any time of the day or night.
Chris was VERY interested in the fact that my "real band" had been recording at Ardent and other studios, and he of course knew that I was working at Ardent and Stax, engineering recordings by professional artists. He would always ask me to take him over there, show him the equipment, etc..
I was constantly recording my own things in Ardent, and occasionally in Stax, when other things weren't already happening in there, and Chris was very interested in this. He would bring me songs he was writing for input on how he was doing. So when I wanted some guitar playing on these recordings that would be better than what I felt that I could do myself, it was natural to have Chris come in to play. He was thrilled, and very excited to be in "the real big time studio."
I first got him to do first very short harmony guitar in a Beatles' song I was working on (One After 909), but then the "big thing" which became his first professional appearance on a released record was getting him to play on a few of the tracks on an album that I got to record for, and license to, Stax Records with me as artist. This became the Home Sweet Home release.
Tangents: Describe working with Alex Chilton on his solo album (later released as 1970) Did Chris and Alex ever run into each other at that time?
Manning: Alex and I had become friends when I was an engineer (and sometimes player) on The Box Tops' recordings. Alex had become disillusioned over time with Producer Dan Penn and Executive Producer Chips Moman, feeling that they were mostly just telling him what to do, rather than ever giving him much of a chance to be creative himself. I recall on a couple of the vocal overdub sessions that Alex was constantly making faces behind Dan's back, and he started talking to me about wanting to do his own thing, rather than just be The Box Top Guy for his whole life. Remember, he was barely past 15 when the band had broken with "The Letter." I commiserated with Alex, listened to his songs, and agreed that he should be trying some new things. So we finally decided to just do it, and started recording the album that later became "1970" (I had actually named it the much better "1969," but it got changed when some people were worried about the timing of these recordings, relative to the official exit from The Box Tops).
We recorded pretty much on our own, under a veil of secrecy to the outside world (as if anyone would have cared). The whole thing was done with very few outside people. The fabulous Richard Rosebrough played drums, and Alex and I did most of the rest. He played guitars and did lead vocals, I did bass and keys and harmony vocals, and then we got in Paul Cannon to do a solo or two, and a great steel player from Nashville, Jeff Newman, to do a couple of crazy rock and roll steel guitar leads.
We had talked to Brian and Carl Wilson, and had a plan to release this on their Brother Records label, but then we changed plans, and took it to Jerry Wexler at Atlantic in New York. Jerry loved it, but was afraid to release an album first, wanting to start out with "Free Again" as a single to test the waters. This angered me and Alex, as we were looking to be album artists, not single artists, and he thought he saw "Box Tops Syndrome" starting up again with the record labels. So we just didn't completely finish the album (there would have been a few other overdubs like horns and maybe a bit of strings, and a couple of more guitars), ad put it away in a box. Never even made real mixes at the time.
And pretty soon, we would be moving ahead to Big Star anyway, so there was no need to pursue this album further. I don't strictly recall Chris being around for these recordings, I think maybe he was away at his first year of University in Knoxville maybe, or maybe he did come by a bit. Not sure exactly, but I don't remember him being at all involved in this.
Tangents: What was your impression of the Big Star formation? And describe the recording sessions for Number 1 record. Did you do some engineering on the overdubs, as I’ve heard elsewhere?
Manning: Big Star, as has been written elsewhere, was an extension of a couple of other groups that Chris and I, as well as Jody and Tm Eubanks, and a couple of other guys, had been messing with, mixed with Alex after the 1969/1970 sessions doing his own thing...really just the Ardent Crew of the time. The very earliest recordings that became part of Bg Star were several of us just continuing on with the same things we were doing already. So the "first impression" of BS to any of us was more of the same, moving ahead.
On #1 Record, Chris became the main motivator after a bit. I was working on several things (had a Day Job at Ardent and Stax), and by this time Chris had learned a good bit of engineering and production technique from John Fry and me, and his own studio experiences. I engineered some of the tracking and overdubs, Chris did a good bit, and of course John was doing some (later on the mix, John was in complete control, with Chris' wishes at hand). I had played keys and bass on 2-3 tracks previously, and then Andy re-overdubbed the bass parts ion those, but we kept the keyboards. The #1 sessions went on over a long period, none of it was "just played.” It was carefully crafted, with many overdubs. Chris was a perfectionist, and would do and re-do things until he felt it was right.
Tangents: You sang backup on several songs on number one record. How did that come about?
Manning: That was just from our previous studio relationships. When Chris wanted a certain vocal sound (and later Alex), we just all sang together. The backing harmony vocals were pretty intricate, and very much a necessary part of the sound, so more voices were a good thing. I don't recall Jody singing much in the early days, nor Andy as well, I suppose, so it just seemed the best thing to do to have the three of us do most of it.
Tangents: You also played the Moog on “Give Me Another Chance,” and “Feel,” I’ve heard, is from an Icewater track, which you played on.
Manning: Yes, I had gone to Robert Moog in Trumansburg, New York, and had bought a Moog IIIC synthesiser (in fact, with George Harrison's former keyboard, the one he actually used on some Beatles recordings). I had played this on a bunch of recordings, including Leon Russell's "Stranger In A Strange Land," and Chris had been fascinated by the Moog. In fact, we had done a recording together of his composition "I Created A Monster" for a school class he took in music. So he asked me to put "stringy" sounds into "Give me Another Chance" with the Moog. The only thing I think slightly negative about it all now is that the Moog is awfully loud in the mix. But in the day, it seemed important!
Yes, "Feel" was tracked first by Chris and me and Tom and Jody as the band Icewater...the same band track with most of the instruments (bass replaced by Andy), and with a new lead vocal was included on #1 as Big Star.
Tangents: I saw you sing “When My Baby’s Beside Me” at SXSW with Big Star. How was that experience?
Manning: That was a lot of fun. Alex and I sang that together on the original recording, but hadn't sung it together since until that show! On the "Radio City" sessions, Alex had asked me to sing "second lead" on "When My Baby's Beside Me" because he said I sounded a lot like Carl Wilson, and that's the tone he wanted. He sang the first verse alone, and then we come in together on dual lead in the first chorus. After that, we are both in there in varying degrees, but always in the chorus equally.
To repeat this 30 years later at SXSW was a real treat, and it's always good to play or sing with Jody, who just really pounds the beat live!
Tangents: At SXSW in 2004, you told the story about how you switched the master tapes to Number 1 record, so that Chris wouldn’t destroy them. Why did he want to do that? Do you stil have the tapes?
Manning: Chris had decided, being the perfectionist that he was, that #1 wasn't good enough. He had "performance anxiety," in my current opinion. Plus he had probably gotten mad at John, or at me, or at both, over some perceived wrong (something that happened from time to time). He actually did do away with the multitrack masters (eight tracks). They do not exist today. I got word that he was coming up to Ardent to destroy the stereo mix masters, so I beat him there, and changed them to a different box. When he destroyed "the tapes" they were really something else that didn't matter. It turned out that there were probably a couple of "copies" anyway. An original, and a safety, so the album might well have been OK anyway. But I do still have that original stereo tape. I recently transferred it to high quality DSD 5.6 digital tape.
Tangents: What was your involvement, albeit limited, with the band during the Radio City, Third period? I’ve heard that you sang back-up on “September Gurls.”
Manning: Not as much involvement as on #1 of course, but a bit. Sort of like Chris himself, who ostensibly had left the group, but was "included" without any credit in a place or two. I sang co-lead on “When My Baby's Beside Me" as mentioned previously, and yes, did also sing some of the harmony on "September Gurls." Alex wanted to keep some of the "sound" of the first album on that one. There was a piano part or two I recall that I played, but I would have to listen back directly to remember what that was.
Tangents: What comes to mind when you think of Big Star, and those records?
Manning: For many years (over 25) I did not listen to those records at all, ever. The very first emotion I always have is sadness. Sadness primarily about how it ended for Chris, but also that the world did not "get it" for so long.
There was a lot of emotion involved in the day, a lot of conflict. Conflict amongst band members, between Chris and me at times, Chris and Alex, Chris and John, Alex and John, as well as all the good times.
But I can also now listen with joy, joy because of the quality of the songs, performances, recordings, and spirit, and that the world did finally "get it." And that everyone did really appreciate and love each other.