Most backing musicians never get to be the stars. Don't tell that to the American Sound Studios band, who filled the New Daisy Theatre Saturday night for a hit-laden trip down memory lane. Affectionately known as the "Memphis Boys," the quintet of sessions pros -- guitarist Reggie Young, pianist Bobby Wood, organist Bobby Emmons, bassist Mike Leech and drummer Gene Chrisman -- played on more than 100 hit records between 1967-1971 while serving as the house band at Chips Moman's American recording facility. Classic songs by Dusty Springfield, Neil Diamond, the Box Tops, B.J. Thomas and others were largely defined by the American players' approach, a finessed blend of soul, country and pop that brought out the best of many a famous performer, even Elvis.
At the Daisy, the American band focused on its legendary 1969 recordings with Presley on what would have been his 70th birthday. Some 700 fans attended, nearly all from Europe including Norway, Sweden, Germany, France, Denmark and the U.K. "His music is still phenomenal," said Elvis diehard Rita Pook, 61, of
Southampton, England, one of 600 English fan club members visiting Memphis for birth week. Staged by Danish fanzine Elvis Unlimited in its first U.S. show, the concert featured three European singers standing in the big E's shoes: Norwegian country artist Stephen Ackles, Bobo Moreno of Denmark and Maarten Jansen of the Netherlands. Thankfully, nobody went the impersonator route. As evidenced by the numerous standing ovations, the trio made the material their tasteful, impressive own. Though such archetypally Elvis tunes as "Kentucky Rain," "Don't Cry Daddy" and back-to-back encores "In the Ghetto" and "Suspicious Minds" were deftly covered in the 18-song revue, less obvious choices proved the real highlight. Moreno, who looked like a young Tom Jones, manhandled the blistering blues "Power of My Love," while Ackles found the gospel heart on "Without Love (There Is Nothing)" and the great "Long Black Limousine." Maarten, who got dibs on the novelty gem "Rubberneckin'," was the most Elvis-like in his delivery, with a vibrato that seemingly had its own chest hair.
Yet to paraphrase one above tune, without the American band, there was nothing. Accompanied by a horn section that included trombonist Jackie Thomas, who played on the original sessions, the American pros showed plenty of the smooth magic they once sent to the tops of the record charts. With a masterly use of economy, the quintet -- from Young's hunka hunka burnin' guitar to Wood's eloquent piano and Emmons's colorful organ fills to the in-pocket pulse of Leech and Chrisman -- made each tune the ideal of pop song arranging. While the TCB band and Scotty Moore and D.J. Fontana tend to play annually in town for Presley-related events, it's odd that Graceland hasn't asked the American band to do the same. Not only are these veteran players one of the most important chapters in Elvis history, they still play with the wit, class and fire of four decades ago. Come to think of it, these Memphis Boys need another permanent gig in Cleveland, Ohio. It's called the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.