News Column

The Man ; behind the board

June 2, 2013

YellowBrix

By Bob Mehr

In the world of Memphis recording, he's like air and water: an essential element.

During his 79-plus years, he has been called many things: Jerry Lee Lewis dubbed him "Roland Boy"; Bob Dylan addressed him deferentially as "Mr. Janes." Others refer to him with a simple, fitting sobriquet: the Godhead.

With his shiny pate and expansive frame, Roland Janes does resemble a kind of wise hillbilly Buddha. To those who have worked with him, he's the living embodiment of Memphis music, the last direct connection to the city's great golden past. Janes was at Jerry Lee Lewis' side during the Killer's greatest triumphs in the '50s, served as the linchpin for the Sun house band through the early '60s, and played a crucial role in town through the '70s with his own Sonic studio. Since 1982, he has been the resident sage, engineer and producer at the Sam Phillips Recording Service.

A few blocks away, at the old Sun Studio, tourists line up to pay homage to history. Meanwhile, Janes continues to make it, arriving faithfully at Phillips each day in his big Lincoln Town Car.

Artists come from down the street and across the ocean for the chance to work with him. His production wizardry comprises a mix of psychological tricks, dry wisecracks and Zen koans. In the studio, he's a teacher, a kidder, an experimentalist and a pragmatist. He's also the crucial, if largely unknown, figure binding much of the Bluff City's musical legacy. He was there for the big bang of rock and roll, helped usher in the garage band era, and even aided in the flowering of the local rap scene.

He'll balk at any hint of his importance. More likely, he'll make a joke at his own expense, in a thick, cottony drawl.

"He's a funny, gentle character, but it would be a bad idea to mistake that easygoing-ness for something else Roland is smart as hell," says Bay Area guitarist/singer Chuck Prophet, one of many musicians to benefit from the Janes experience. "Here's a guy who witnessed the actual birthing of rock and roll: Jerry Lee and scores of greats, lesser greats and total unknowns. He knew, he understood that music, that making records, maybe even a hit record, could be created by anybody at any time. He cares about what you're doing. And that can't help but make you care about what you're doing."

To Knox Phillips, who grew up watching Janes through the glass at his father's Sun Studio and brought him back to the family business 30 years ago, there's no mistaking his significance and continued relevance. "There isn't a single person in Memphis that has been here active and effective in every decade the way Roland has since the '50s," Phillips says. "He still has the respect and love of every young person that works with him. You wanna talk about the 'last man standing' he's the only one left still making records, still showing up at the studio every day. He's probably there right now!"

You'd be hard-pressed to find an important contemporary Memphis artist who hasn't directly or indirectly been impacted by Janes' work to some degree. "I've only met him a couple times, but I think that Roland Janes, as much as anybody, has influenced me musically," says Greg Cartwright, leader of latter-day garage rock institutions the Oblivians and the Reigning Sound. "At first, I didn't even know how much. But when you look at what all he was involved in from the Sun stuff to the Travis Wammack records, the Ken Williams records, to all the garage bands in the '60s his importance was huge for someone like me, who learned by sifting through all this old Memphis music."

For three generations of local artists, Janes has also been a personal mentor and guide. The late producer Jim Dickinson entrusted his bands and his children to Janes, sending them all off to study at the University of Roland. "When I started writing tunes, we were just kids, and Dad took us to Phillips," recalls North Mississippi Allstars guitarist Luther Dickinson. "We'd go over there and cut demos and rehearse with Roland. Him helping you with arrangements, teaching you about recording that's an integral part of the Memphis experience. What can you say? He's encouraged all of us all these years. He's a saint."

Godhead, saint these are the absolute last things Roland Janes would claim of himself. Self-effacing to a fault, he has strenuously avoided the spotlight. A few years ago, when the Recording Academy wanted to present Janes with a series of citations for having played on multiple Grammy Hall of Fame songs, representatives had to lie in wait and surprise him at the studio to give him the awards. He has rarely talked about his achievements or his years at Sun, and always downplays his own role whenever he does. But make no mistake, Janes was there for all of it, and then some.

As he approaches his 80th birthday, Janes remains part of the very fabric of Memphis music, the thread in the lives of so many of its artists.

A few weeks ago, guitarist Steve Selvidge went to Phillips to record with Janes. It was the first time he'd played music since the death of his father, Memphis folk-blues singer Sid Selvidge. As everyone was posing for pictures with Janes after the session, a funny realization hit Selvidge: "You know, I cut my very first session with Roland," he said. "Come to think of it, so did my dad."

Music is made, children are born, songs are sung, fathers pass on, and Roland Janes is there though it all the man behind the board, tying the sounds and memories together.

'He Was the glue'

Brookings, Ark., doesn't turn up on most maps. A former wilderness located along the Black River, it's where Roland Janes was born in 1933, the sixth of seven kids. His father was a timber cutter, a Pentecostal preacher and a sometimes musician; much of Janes' family played, though never professionally.

"They were all more talented than me. I was just smarter," Janes says with the timing of a born comedian, "or dumber, take your pick."

Janes' parents divorced before he was 10, and for a time he ended up shuttling between his mother in St. Louis and his father in Arkansas. He began playing music, mandolin at first, and then guitar. He was weaned on country music while in the South, pop sounds from the radio stations up North, and gospel in church. Whatever the genre, Janes was always first and foremost a fan of a good songs. "I just like songs and songwriters sometimes the songs more than the writers," he says.

After high school and a stint in the Marines, Janes settled in Memphis in 1955 and started playing music professionally, just as rock and roll was beginning to percolate in the Bluff City. He soon hooked up with a fellow ex-Marine, Jack Clement, and his truck driver partner, Slim Wallace. The pair had started the Fernwood label in a South Memphis garage. They cut a couple of tracks by a flashy young singer named Billy Lee Riley, with Janes on guitar. Clement took the tapes to Sam Phillips over at Sun Records so he could master a single. Impressed by what he heard, Phillips ended up hiring Clement to work for him, signed Riley to the label, and brought Janes into the fold.

Janes says it wasn't just talent, but fate and Sam Phillips, that brought everything together so perfectly. "There's talent everywhere, but Memphis was one of those few places that actually had an outlet for the talent. You could walk into Sun and if you had anything at all, Sam would listen to you," Janes says. "In other cities, people rode around on their high horse, thinking they're too good to talk to you. You could go to towns like Nashville, and you couldn't get in the door. And even if you did, the first thing they'd try and do was change you. Sam would take you as you were. So you were a little raw, so you didn't play it like everyone else well, that's what he wanted: 'This guy's got something different.'"

Janes delivered an opening lick for the ages on Riley's 1957 single "Flyin' Saucers Rock & Roll" a rockabilly rave-up inspired by the era's UFO mania that would propel the song onto the charts and give the band its name: the Little Green Men. The group which included Janes, Riley and drummer J.M. Van Eaton would become the de facto house band at Sun, providing backing for the likes of Roy Orbison, Charlie Rich, Bill Justis and Barbara Pittman, among others.

As a session player, Janes' dry wit and easy demeanor would become his greatest assets. He had the ability to soothe an impatient, highly sensitive talent like Rich, or bluff his way through a track with the formally trained Justis. "(Justis) would put sheet music in front of us sometimes. Hell, I can't read music I can barely spell m-u-s-i-c," Janes says. "But I'd improvise my way through the song, and he'd usually love it. Making records is just about being able to work with all them different kinds of personalities. "

Just a kid then, Sam Phillips' oldest boy, Knox, would visit his father in the studio, keen to watch the guitarist with the knowing eyes and jet-black hair. "Roland was just this guy that everybody gravitated to," Knox says. "The secret to the band that cut all those magnificent records at Sun was Roland. Every member was important, but Roland was the glue. He was the glue on everything he played on or was involved in. And it's still true today."

Although their production styles and personalities were markedly different, Janes learned many key lessons at the foot of Sam Phillips. "The one thing I admired most about Sam was that he went strictly for the 'feel'," says Janes. "If there was a mistake on the track, he would let that work to his advantage like with Elvis on 'That's Alright Mama' where he forgets the lyrics and just starts humming: da-da-da-de-de-de ... Anybody else would have said, 'Let's cut it again.' Not Sam. He took a negative and looked at it as a positive. He was that way about a lot of things. He was a smart man."

The respect and affection between Janes and Sam Phillips ran both ways. "From the moment Sam first met him, he had an understanding and admiration for Roland that I heard about many times over the years," says Knox Phillips. "Roland is a lot like Sam: He's a philosopher; he's an 'originalist.' He's someone that created his own sound. Like Sam, Roland is a person who has his own way of thinking. You never know where his mind is going or what he might say, but it's always bound to be helpful to you."

'You've Heard Me'

Janes' most famous association at Sun, however, started in the fall of 1956 when Jerry Lee Lewis arrived at the studio. Over the next seven years, Janes rode shotgun as Lewis rose, fell and rose again, like some boogie-woogie phoenix. Janes played on Lewis' epochal recordings of "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" and "Great Balls of Fire"; toured with him during that first furious flush of fame and appeared on nearly every side the pianist cut until he finally left Sun in 1963.

The low-key Janes proved the perfect foil for Lewis. As Sam Phillips recalled in 2000: "I knew I had to have a certain type of guitar player for Jerry Lee. The worst thing that you could have done is got in Jerry Lee Lewis' way. The guy that I knew would fit perfectly was Roland Janes. Roland wasn't trying to be a star; he wasn't trying to show off. ... He never was exactly comfortable. He would never enjoy the sessions, but he will never forget as long as he lives that we didn't do sessions without Roland!"

Somehow, Janes managed to survive those chaotic early years working and touring with the Killer. "Playing with Jerry Lee was just like playing with anybody else almost," says Janes, grinning. "He had a little different personality, but hell, who don't? We always got along OK."

While his time with Sun and Lewis has always been celebrated, Janes' guitar playing had been somewhat overlooked. Even now, his work the wild double string action and whammy bar manipulations of "Flyin' Saucers Rock & Roll," the driving rhythms that girded Lewis' fiery sides, or his later solo instrumentals like "Guitarville" remain vibrant and inventive. These days, however, Janes says he no longer plays the guitar. "Nah, I gave it up," he says. "If you don't play all the time, you lose a little edge, and I don't want to embarrass myself. Let someone else embarrass themselves."

Janes has long had a stock answer for anyone who tells him they'd love to hear him play: "You've heard me play." It's not bragging; it's true. Pretty much every human being in the Western Hemisphere has heard Roland Janes play guitar.

By 1959, after nearly three years of touring with Lewis, Janes began to tire of the grind. "I was on the road probably 300 days a year or more," he recalls. "One city today, another city tomorrow; sometimes we'd play two towns in one day. There was always a big crowd, but you didn't even get a chance to tune up your instrument.

"One time, I got kinda frustrated on stage. The kids was screaming, and none of us knew if we were in tune or not, and nobody seemed to care. So I just banged the hell out of the guitar, making an awful racket, and the crowd went crazy. I thought, 'Man, this isn't what I practice for.' That was it for me. Being on the road was like being in the Marine Corps: I'm glad I did it, but I wouldn't want to do it twice."

By the end of the decade, Janes had married his wife, Betty, a union that would produce two sons and a daughter. He was ready to settle down and make the studio his home.

'Ground Zero'

Although he would continue to play sessions for Sam Phillips for a few more years, by the early '60s, it was obvious the golden era of Sun was coming to an end.

"We had a run of about five years where we could do no wrong," Janes recalls. "What shot us out of the saddle was the (radio) payola scandal. All those records that used to be you could get played, you couldn't get played anymore. In other words, the big labels took control of the business again. Although they were as guilty of payola as anybody, in a way they made them little independent labels look like they were the bad guys, and it got harder and harder to get anything going."

Sam Phillips was already busy planning the construction of a new modern studio on Madison and expanding into the radio business. Janes and Billy Lee Riley tried to get Phillips to lease them the old Sun space at 706 Union. "We wanted to keep it open and record in there and give him the product. Sam said, 'Let me think about that.' But he never did get back with us. That's the reason why we formed our own record label, Rita Records."

Janes' short-lived Rita Records was a story of musical success and financial failure. The label released 16 singles in 1960 and 1961, including five chart records and a smash in Harold Dorman's "Mountain of Love" (later covered and made an even bigger hit by Johnny Rivers). But Janes and his partners got shorted on the profits from their distributors. Expecting money that never materialized, Janes even had to abandon the construction of his own studio halfway through.

Dejected, Janes left Memphis for a time and moved to Missouri. "I thought, 'Man, I don't know about this record business,'" Janes recalls with a chuckle. "I've had five chart records, one Top 10, and I had to leave town. If I'd had a sixth one, I'd probably had to commit suicide."

After a few months, he returned to the Bluff City and finally opened his own place, Sonic Recording at 1692 Madison. He established a series of indie labels (ARA, Renay, Rolando) and scored hits with the wild instrumental "Scratchy" by the studio's teenage house guitarist, Travis Wammack and Matt Lucas' frantic reworking of Hank Snow's "I'm Moving On."

Janes' success was short-lived, however. In November 1963, the Beatles hit the U.S. charts, and for the next year no one could get an American record played on the radio. "And I'm still mad at 'em," he says.

Janes soon shifted his focus completely to the studio. In a sense, Sonic became a spiritual extension of the old Sun. Charging just $10 an hour and $3 for tape, Janes had an open-door policy, willing to take a chance on anyone with a spark of talent or a good idea.

Over the next decade, Janes and his studio would help write the history of Memphis garage rock: Practically every teen band of the time was baptized into the recording world at Sonic. Many of them like the Castels, Jades and Mudmen conceived their classic works there as well. Local groups would regularly record tracks with Janes, then mime to them on George Klein's WHBQ "Talent Party" TV show. As future Box Tops guitarist Gary Talley would note, for a generation of kids in the '60s, recording with Janes was "a rite of passage."

"Roland was a big part of Sun and played guitar on all those famous records, but to me, Sonic studio was his shining moment," says Greg Cartwright, a collector and historian of the local garage scene. "His studio was the ground zero for all these different things to congeal. Outside of Memphis, people talk about Sun, but a lot of them don't know about Sonic studios, and don't know what that place meant to Memphis music, especially Memphis teenagers. It wasn't just the older, seasoned people who were Roland's age making records, but a whole new generation of kids that were cutting their first demos and making their first records at Sonic."

Janes, always a friend to songwriters, also turned Sonic into a launching pad for a series of successful tunesmiths, including George Jackson (author of "Old Time Rock 'n' Roll" and "One Bad Apple") and Bill Rice, who penned country hits for Hank Williams Jr. and Charley Pride.

While the rest of the studios in town followed the technological advancements of the '70s, moving from one- to two- to four- and eventually eight-track boards, Janes continued working in mono, mixing as he recorded, leaving little room for doubt or error.

If Sam Phillips was the Van Gogh of mono recording, then Janes was its Gauguin, mastering the nuances of the medium. "One thing about recording in mono is that you learn to work and mix defensively," Janes says. "You learn to bring the good parts out, and you learn to hide the bad parts, at least to where they're not damaging the recording as a whole."

Janes would continue gigging around town into the '70s, often as part of a combo with Little Green Men alum J.M Van Eaton. But his own musical aspirations took a backseat to running Sonic. By 1974, after more than decade laboring as a one-man operation, the studio business had become a drain.

"When you own the studio, you got to worry about the rent, the taxes and the equipment," Janes says. "Plus, you end up using some of your best ideas on someone else's song, just to get through it and it's probably gonna be a crummy record anyway. I was making a living, but I was working myself to death. I got discouraged and sold the studio. Sad story, ain't it?"

'Eye For Talent'

Janes then spent a couple of years engineering at the Sounds of Memphis before he made a left turn, becoming a recording instructor at Kansas Vo Tech a predominantly black vocational school in South Memphis. For the next five years, Janes taught classes five days and two nights a week. Kansas Vo Tech often sent its most troublesome, rambunctious students to Janes. Somehow, he managed to get them to learn, using the same jokes and laid-back manner that had charmed and calmed the likes of Jerry Lee and Charlie Rich.

The experience would serve Janes well in the late '80s and early '90s, when a generation of young African-American rappers began calling on him to make their first records. At a time when few places in town would even consider recording rap acts, Janes did what he'd always done: He threw open the studio doors.

Author Robert Gordon, who wrote the 1995 underground history "It Came From Memphis" recalls hanging around the Phillips studio and seeing Janes' democratic approach in action.

"I'd be over there talking to Roland, and he'd take every call, treat every person with respect," Gordon says. "At that point, Roland had been in the business for decades; he had every reason in the world to be be jaded, but he's never been that way. It didn't matter if it was some young unknown rapper; he viewed everyone like they had the potential to be a star, to be the next Jerry Lee Lewis coming in off the street. Roland has a natural eye for talent and was always interested and welcoming of whoever and whatever came through the door. That's a big reason why he's thrived for so long."

Through the studio's relationship with rap merchants Select-O- Hits (a record distribution company owned by another branch of the Phillips family) Janes would record acts like Three 6 Mafia, Skinny Pimp, Gangsta Pat and Al Kapone, making a connection with a new genre of artists. "You'd think there would be some big generation or cultural gap, but these guys would come in and Roland would do what he always does start joking with them and having a ball," says Select-O-Hits head Johnny Phillips. "That's the thing: everybody who meets Roland falls in love with him."

"I can remember some times down there with Roland," Kapone says. "I got my first engineering skills from working with him. I ain't gonna lie: coming (into Phillips) I felt a little intimidated, like 'Man, I'm walking in the steps of history here.' But it was real easy 'cause Roland was one of the coolest dudes. He passed on some gems to me about recording, and I soaked it up. I still use some of those techniques."

From rockabilly to crunk, from "Great Balls of Fire" to "Whoop That Trick," the music may have morphed, but Janes' impact has remained unchanged.

'16 on a good day'

When it opened officially in September 1960, the Phillips Recording Services seemed like some strange, magnificent dream: a mlange of jet-age technology, pyramid faades and pastel-colored walls sprung from Sam Phillips' fevered imagination. During its first two decades, the studio produced seminal recordings by the likes of Sam the Sham, the Cramps and Alex Chilton, to name a few. For much of the '70s and into the '80s, Phillips' son Knox, along with his brother Jerry, had helped oversee the studio for their father. In the fall of 1982, the family asked Roland Janes to run things. He accepted and has been at Phillips pretty much every day for the last 30 years.

Janes has spent decades cultivating the sound at Phillips. By contemporary recording standards, his setup is almost counterintuitive. The whole studio is carpeted, and there's a permanent house drum kit set up in a burlap-strewn plywood booth (if you want to move it, you can, but you'll have to put it back yourself). Janes' microphone placement isn't strictly regimented; you won't find him on all fours on the studio floor with a tape measure. He'll usually put a modicum of mics wherever it "feels" right. On paper, none of it should work, but all of it does: The sounds Janes gets are utterly singular and beautiful.

It isn't just the sound that makes the studio special; it's also Janes himself. Ask Chuck Prophet, and he'll tell you: An encounter with the man can be a life- and career-changing experience. Back in 1988, Prophet was the lead guitarist for California roots-rockers Green on Red. The band was on its third label deal and its last legs, having effectively imploded on tour in Europe. Emerging from the wreckage, Prophet and singer Dan Stuart limped into Memphis to try to salvage the band with the help of producer Jim Dickinson, who promptly took them over to Phillips.

"We were supposed to make demos and we had no songs. Nothing. We were just scraping around making stuff up and Roland was recording it," recalls Prophet. "I tried to make conversation. I was like, 'Oh, hi, how many tracks do we have here?' He looked up and gestured toward the 16-track machine, which had tracks pulled out with their wires and capacitors and guts exposed. He said, 'Well, we've got 16 on a good day. ... We got 14 today.'"

The demos Prophet and Stuart cut with Janes would form the basis of Green on Red's 1989 classic Here Comes the Snakes. "That record gave us a second lease on life, really," Prophet says. "We were pretty lost at that point, and there we were just thrashing around reaching for something. And Roland was real patient with us. Let me say this: He never made us feel bad about what we were doing and some of what we were doing was pretty bad."

Over the years, other artists like Robert Plant and Phil Collins have made pilgrimages to Memphis, seeking Phillips' sound and Janes' touch. "Actually, I think it's more them wanting to be associated with something having to do with Sam Phillips, than anything to do with me," Janes protests.

A couple of years ago, a certain touring musician, who was in town to perform at Mud Island Amphitheater, called at the last minute asking if he could cut a session with Janes. The next day, the singer ambled in to the studio. "Mr. Janes, my name's Bob Dylan," he said, extending a hand. "I've been fan of your work all my life."

"Well, Bob, it's nice to meet you," Janes replied. "I've been listening to you for a long time, too."

Dylan wasn't merely paying lip service. He'd long been an admirer of Janes' one-time partner and foil Billy Lee Riley, covering his songs and inviting him out on tour. In fact, in 1978, when Dylan was going through a costly divorce, one of his most impassioned live performances was of an obscure Riley song, written by Janes, called "Repossession Blues."

That day at Phillips, as the story goes, when Dylan was through cutting his track, he asked Janes for his opinion.

"I tell you, Bob," said the ever-truthful Janes. "It's a good song, but I think it's just got too many verses."

'The Human Element'

About a decade ago, the Phillips family had to make a decision: Update the studio's equipment and go with the emerging digital technology, or remain committed to analog tape recording. They decided to stick with the latter, and it's proved to be the right choice, as big true analog studios like Phillips have become increasingly scarce and in demand.

For Janes, there was never any doubt what his preference was. "Working with digital, you're sitting looking at squiggly lines on a (computer) screen. That'd put me to sleep," he says. "You're looking at a screen and not even thinking about the damn music. To me, the music is much more important than that. It's not about all this gear anyway. Some of the biggest hits I've ever heard in my life were cut on some real sloppy equipment."

The current pop music landscape is anathema to Janes, as the recording process increasingly has become slave to technology like Auto-Tune, drum fixing, and the relentless manicuring of tracks. "It's senseless to strive for perfection," Janes says. "It's like people ask me: 'Do you use a click track?' No if the drummer ain't good enough to play without the damn click track, he don't need to be playing to start with. Look, I don't mind the tempo changing; that's the human element. Humans are not perfect, and their music don't need to be perfect; it just needs to be good."

That philosophy is exactly what so many have come to prize in Janes. "I don't want to come off all new age or whatever, but Roland is the kind of guy who gives you faith in yourself," Prophet says. "Nowadays, it's hard to find people who are as pure. Some people just want to get in there and fix your mistakes. Some people just don't get it. Why would they? They've never taken a ride on the Flying Saucer of Rock and Roll, and they probably never will."

'Gotta make a living'

It's a gray March day as John Paul Keith and his band work through a session at the Sam Phillips Recording Service.

Roland Janes is directing the action on the studio floor and fiddling with an old tape machine that's acting up. Though he walks slowly "got bad knees," he says his hands move swiftly across the console, and his wit, proffered over a talkback mic, is lighting quick.

Keith is working on his third solo album for the Mississippi label Big Legal Mess. A 37-year-old from Knoxville, he has had a roller-coaster career: He earned a pair of ill-fated major-label deals before he turned 20 and then slogged it out for a decade, only to see his dreams dashed after stints in New York City and Nashville. Keith actually quit music for a time before rediscovering his muse in Memphis. A soulful singer, songwriter and guitarist, equally versed in honky-tonk, rock and pop, he's a throwback to the days of Sun triple threats like Carl Perkins and Billy Lee Riley.

"This kid's really talented," Janes beams, as Keith leads the band on a catchy swamp-flavored number called "We Got All Night." "He's got a brand on him."

Keith hadn't met Janes before asking him to record the band. "The first thing I picked up on in talking to him was that he clearly had no interest in doing a nostalgia or vanity project," Keith says. "He still considers himself in the game and in the music business and is very much concerned with how all that relates to what he does. I remember after he agreed to do the record, he shook my hand and said: 'Let's cut some hits.'"

Keith initially was worried about the terms Janes had set: He'd work only from noon to 6 p.m. each day, and he preferred the band use the house drum kit. "Well, we get in there and it takes Roland about five minutes to get the drum sound totally nailed," Keith says. "I hadn't even poured myself a drink and we were ready to record. Most places you go, it takes hours and hours just to get the drums. We were cutting pretty much right away."

The process for making each track from the first rundown to the odd overdub to the finished recording takes an economical three hours. Keith and company complete 14 songs in less than nine days; nearly all the music and more than half of the vocals were tracked live.

"It's the fastest project I've ever worked on," Keith says. "And we were all buzzing about it. It sounded incredible. That's all down to Roland. The speed at which he works is part of the process. Nowadays, everybody likes to ... spend all their time and energy messing with (digital recording program) ProTools, and because of the technology, you can tinker forever. But working that way you won't get even a fraction of the results that Roland gets in a six- hour live session. The way he works forces you to be decisive."

As Keith and his group take another pass at the song, the musicians longtime local band veterans Al Gamble on organ, John Argroves on drums and Mark E. Stuart on bass are clearly relishing Janes' banter and ribbing. Janes chides Gamble for texting in between takes ("Al, you should get two phones and double-fist it"). Later, Gamble is fretting over the final note he played on another track, insisting he can do it even better. "Al," Janes drawls, "if they don't like the song by the last note, it's too late."

"Roland always has the right perspective," Keith says. "You never get bogged down; you're never chasing your own tail with him. He really does what a producer should do, which is facilitate creativity."

And, of course, if there's a call for employing an old Sun-era recording technique, who better than Janes to impart those secrets? "Well, he knows how all that stuff is done 'cause he helped invent it in the first place," Keith says.

Although Janes will turn 80 in August, retirement hasn't really entered his thoughts. "Well, I gotta make a living. That's always No. 1 on the agenda," he says. "And, second, I still love it. I've got the same fire I always had. I get just as big a kick out of working with someone like John Paul, or someone that's got talent, as if it was my own session."

The late Jim Dickinson used to say that Knox Phillips would keep the family studio going until it fell over in a heap. Today, Knox allows that the studio's long-term future may be as a museum, a repository for Sam Phillips' legacy.

"But for now," says Knox, "we're still making great records."

Janes remains the catalyst for all that even if he admits that he has occasional thoughts about walking away. "There's no facet of recording that I don't enjoy; there's also no facet of it that I don't hate," he says. "People ask: 'You ever think about quitting?' I tell 'em, 'Yeah, every damn day. But, I still come back."

Sure enough, tomorrow morning, just as the sun will rise and the Mississippi River will flow, Roland Janes will pull his big car alongside the entrance to the Phillips studio, jingle his keys, unlock the door and open for business. He'll make his way up the steps and take his place behind the board, ready to cut some hits.

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Originally published by Bob Mehr mehr@commercialappeal.com 901-529-2517 .

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