In sports terms, Memphis producer/engineer/musician Terry Manning is what you'd call a "glue guy." He's not flashy or famous, but his contributions are the things that often hold everything together.
In Manning's case, he's made a remarkable amount of great music stick to tape -- including albums by Isaac Hayes, the Staple Singers, Led Zeppelin and ZZ Top. Manning also played a quiet, but crucial role in the development of Ardent Studios and Big Star, two of the city's towering musical institutions.
For the past two decades, however, Manning has been a long way from Memphis. He's been living in a kind of island paradise, running the famed Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas, and attending to a superstar clientele that includes everyone from Mariah Carey to Lenny Kravitz.
Despite the exotic location, work remains very much the same for Manning. "I'm lucky in that I can look at the front door and see the ocean and smell the breeze but I'm still locked in the studio 16 hours a day," he says laughing.
This week, Manning, 60, returns to town to play his music and talk about his remarkable career behind the board. He will appear on Saturday at Ardent Studios for a discussion of his craft, and will perform at the Hi-Tone Café that night as part of the Memphis Pops Festival.
Born in Oklahoma and raised in Texas, Manning had an itinerant childhood. His father was a traveling minister in the Disciples of Christ Church. Though gospel was his first exposure to music, Manning's real conversion came in hearing rock and roll as a teen in El Paso. "I was 14, 15, listening to Elvis and whatever was blasting out of the radio," he says. "That's usually how the affliction strikes."
Before long it was time for Manning's father to be reassigned to another church, and he consulted the family on where they might prefer to move. "He had a few options -- and one of the choices was Memphis," says Manning. "Well, I remember buying 'Last Night' by the Mar-Keys on the Satellite label -- I loved that song, played it over and over. On the bottom of the record it had an address: '926 E. McLemore, Memphis, TN.' So I lobbied for Memphis -- because I knew there were records made there."
Manning's family did end up relocating to the Bluff City in 1963, where he began playing in a couple of bands at Central High. But it wasn't long before the fresh-faced Manning made his way to 926 E. McLemore, to what had become Stax Records.
"I took a bus over to Stax and took my guitar with me," recalls Manning. "The secretary at the front desk that day was Deanie Parker. She let me come in. Before long, Steve Cropper happened to walk by, saw my guitar case.... We talked and I told him what I wanted to do -- which was work at the studio. Steve was good enough to let me come in and copy tapes and sweep the floors and learn."
Aside from his unofficial internship at Stax, Manning had also fallen in with an East Memphis electronics whiz named John Fry, whose parents' house had become a recording studio and hub for aspiring musicians.
When Fry moved his home studio into a commercial building on National Street in 1966, Manning would become one of Ardent Studios' first paid employees.
Though Fry was not much older than Manning, he would play a crucial mentor role in his life. "John was the consummate technical engineer. Studied it, knew it, was into the science of it: how sound waves were propagated, where things came from, what types of mics were best. Being around John was like a class itself. And then, a lot of times I'd also just learn on the job."
Manning had ample opportunity to do just that, as Ardent soon became an auxiliary studio for Stax. "We were almost around the clock working on Stax (product) at that point," says Manning, who would record seminal efforts by Isaac Hayes, the Staple Singers, Booker T. & the MGs. He would also help mix many of Al Green's Hi Records hits with producer Willie Mitchell.
"Willie would be sitting next to me, guiding me as to what he wanted to hear. I noticed that his guidance was not based on technical things -- like, 'I want to hear more 10k EQ on the vocal.' He would guide me based on feel: 'I want the bass to thump a little more,' 'I want the bass to get up underneath that vocal and push me.' He used artistic or emotional terms."
"I got a full education," Manning says. "I learned the technical side from John Fry and the emotional aspects with someone like Willie Mitchell, and the music and in-between parts from people like Steve (Cropper) and Booker. T. (Jones). I could not have asked for any better school."
As much as he respected and revered his Memphis teachers, Manning -- a smart kid with a comic sense -- wasn't above poking a little light fun at the local scene and its players, which is how his one and only solo album, 1970's Home Sweet Home, came about.
The project was originally conceived as something of a lark: Manning had recorded a Led Zeppelin-ized take on the Box Tops' "Choo Choo Train," intended as an inside joke for his friends, band leader Alex Chilton and the song's author Eddie Hinton. "I did two or three more songs like that and started playing them for people. It was fun to sort of (spoof) the whole Memphis music scene and it sort of grew into this monster."
Stax vice president Al Bell heard the songs and encouraged Manning to make a full album in a similar vein for the company's Enterprise label. A mix of wigged-out originals (like the faux dance-craze number "Trashy Dog") and heavily stylized covers -- everything from Beatles gems to Jack Clement classics -- the album played as a cheeky musical homage.
"I've always thought something funny was almost better than something good," says Manning. "Maybe that's one of my failings." Serious or not, the album would go onto become a cult classic with rare vinyl copies fetching several hundred dollars these days.
While his brief solo career was a pleasant detour, Manning continued to grow his abilities in the studio. Beyond his work with Stax, and a few high-profile rock projects -- including Led Zeppelin's III, which Manning recorded at the insistence of his old friend Jimmy Page -- he also worked closely with a group of young Beatles-obsessed Memphians, including the members of Big Star.
Perhaps rock's quintessential cult band, the Alex-Chilton/Chris Bell-led outfit is, for Manning, a bittersweet subject. Despite its commercial failure at the time, the group's albums have gone on to be regarded among pop's greatest. "But it was very tough at the time. And part of that is borne out in the disillusionment of Chris Bell," says Manning of the musician who died in a car crash in 1978. "He just couldn't believe that something that was his heart and soul, that he worked so hard on, that we all knew was great, didn't just take the world by storm."
"It just tore his soul apart," says Manning. "He was never the same. I don't think any one of us were quite ever the same. But some of us said, okay let's move onto the next thing."
Through the '70s and '80s, Manning continued to thrive, establishing long and fruitful working relationships with acts like ZZ Top (engineering a succession of platinum and multi-platinum albums for the band) and George Thorogood.
In the mid-'80s Manning spent a year working out of London's famed Abbey Road studios. After returning from England, he continued to produce projects at Ardent's Midtown complex, and even launched his own facility called Studio 6.
In 1992, Island Records head and Compass Point Studio owner Chris Blackwell approached Manning about taking over and revitalizing the once-legendary studio, which had fallen into disrepair. "It had an incredible history and was a great place to live, of course. It seemed like a worthwhile challenge," says Manning.
For the past 17 years Manning and his wife, Sherrie, have operated and managed the studio, which continues to attract A-list stars from all over the world.
In recent years, Manning has also been revisiting his musical past. His Lucky 7 record label has released a number of archival CDs by Memphis acts he was involved with, including Big Star precursor Rock City, bluesman Furry Lewis, rockers Cargoe, and pop tunesmith Van Duren. Earlier this year, the U.K.'s Big Beat label put out a compilation called Thank You Friends: The Ardent Records Story. The two-disc set includes many of Manning's early songwriting and production credits. Even his lone solo effort, Home Sweet Home, has been released on CD in an expanded form.
Manning's decision to return to playing this past year has spawned two new projects. One is an album recorded with Nashville producer Keith Stegall (Alan Jackson, George Strait) under the name Rüme. The disc -- due out early next year -- is "eclectic" says Manning, running the gamut of rock styles. Also on tap is a group project that's in its early stages. Manning is mum on the details, except to say that the band will be fronted by "a very, very famous artist...a household name."
Meanwhile, this weekend's Memphis Pops appearance should be an interesting homecoming for Manning. He says his performance will include material from Home Sweet Home, versions of songs he's worked on for other artists, and debuts of several new numbers. In a sense, the set will trace his entire remarkable career, a journey that Manning himself still marvels at.
"You know, they once asked (Atlantic Records founder) Ahmet Ertegun what it was like being in the music business. So he closed his eyes, put his hands out like he was blind, and started feeling around. He said, 'I just stumble around in rooms full of creative people and I bump into them.' And that's how I feel," says Manning. "The people and places I've bumped into have been amazing. To have been in Stax, in Ardent, Abbey Road, Compass Point. I can't believe it sometimes. I'm just lucky, very lucky, to have done all that."
--Bob Mehr: 529-2517
Memphis Music Foundation presents: "A Conversation with Terry Manning" Saturday at 1 p.m. at Ardent Studios, 2000 Madison Ave. Admission is free.
Manning will perform Saturday night as part of the Memphis Pops Festival at the Hi-Tone Café, along with Roy Head, The Hombres and The Warble. Doors open at 9 p.m. Passes for the two-night festival cost $20. To purchase, log on to hitonememphis.com or call (800) 594-8499