Ben Vaughn may have been born in New Jersey, but Memphis certainly feels like his second home.
The host of WEVL's "The Many Moods of Ben Vaughn," the singer, songwriter, producer, and TV and film composer, has been a local habitué for nearly 30 years. Friday, Vaughn returns to town to perform as part of WEVL's benefit concert at Otherlands, along with his longtime friend, Dan Montgomery.
Vaughn's show, "The Many Moods of Ben Vaughn" — an eclectic mix of music that he tapes and sends in each week from his home in California — began airing on WEVL in 2006 and went into syndication two years ago.
"It's kind of old school what I'm doing," says Vaughn. "Instead of aiming for satellite syndication, I've been trying to build relationships with stations one at a time, going into each local affiliate. I enjoy that process and, also, I'm a romantic when it comes to the way radio used to be."
Aside from airing on WEVL, Vaughn's "Many Moods" can be heard on stations stretching from Philadelphia to Catalina Island ("I picture people floating around in boats listening"), the entire state of North Dakota ("I feel like I'm doing a therapeutic service for those people in the winter months") to Joshua Tree in the Mojave Desert, near where Vaughn now resides.
"I'm working on all the weird places first," says Vaughn, who is in talks to add his show to stations in Alaska as well.
The radio program is a product of Vaughn's long relationship with the Bluff City. He first came to Memphis in the mid-1980s, fronting his group, the Ben Vaughn Combo.
An East Coast native, he was intrigued by the rich musical history of the region. "Seemed like every record I liked as a kid was recorded in Memphis. (Rockabilly pioneer) Charlie Feathers was probably the main reason I came down. He sounded like he was from another planet and I thought that maybe Memphis might be another planet — which it was," says Vaughn, laughing.
"First time I played Memphis was during a bad rainstorm. Seven people came to the show; now at least a hundred claim they were there," he says, chuckling. "But I had such a good time I kept coming back as often as I could, for weeks at a time, to hang out and hear music."
Throughout the '80s and early '90s Vaughn continued making adventurous and conceptual solo records, including Rambler '65, which was recorded in the back of his car. He also worked with a variety of Southern music notables, producing albums for Feathers and soul singer Arthur Alexander, and cutting a collaborative LP with Memphis pop legend Alex Chilton.
In the mid-90s, Vaughn shifted gears, and began a long career working in film and television, scoring music for network sitcoms like "Third Rock from the Sun" and "That 70s Show." The latter program would famously feature "In the Street,' a song by Chilton's '70s cult band Big Star, as its theme.
Vaughn managed to convince the producers to use the song — which was later re-cut by Cheap Trick — and its placement introduced the music of Big Star to the masses and made Chilton a nice living. "He was really happy about it,' says Vaughn. "He would call me up and say, 'How's our show doing?'"
When "That 70s Show" ended its run in 2006, Vaughn decided to leave Hollywood work behind him. "The experience was wonderful. But the intensity of it and what it does to the writers and producers of those shows was an energy that was very different than the record business," says Vaughn.
"I had to find out what Zen detachment really meant; I had to practice real hard. Everyone on the studio lot wants to drag you into their nervous breakdown, and they're offended if you don't share it with them. So I practiced being aloof and staying one step removed so I wasn't affected by it. But it was really intense."
These days Vaughn describes himself as "semiretired." He spends most of his time at his home in 29 Palms, Calif. But he's slowly inched his way back into the music world. Vaughn produced Marvelous Clouds, the new solo album by longtime Ween member Aaron Freeman. He also recently completed his own solo effort. Vaughn's new record was done in collaboration with Tex-Mex organ legend Augie Meyers, of Sir Douglas Quintet fame. "I've wanted to play with him forever," says Vaughn. "Sir Douglas Quintet is one of my favorite things ever musically. People try and imitate Augie but there's only guy that sounds like that, and it's him."
Vaughn just finished mixing the record and is pondering his options for releasing it, likely next year. "The record business is so strange now," he says. "I'm doing what all artists my age and with my sales history are doing, trying to decide whether putting it out myself is the way to go. But it's a record I'm really proud of and I want to get it out there."
Ben Vaughn, Dan Montgomery
Friday at Otherlands, 641 S. Cooper. Doors open at 7:30 p.m., show time is 8 p.m. Tickets: $15. Seating and capacity are limited. Tickets can be purchased at Otherlands or at wevl.org.