A trip to Sam Phillips Recording Studio in Memphis

Author: JBL Films |

For those who’ve known me a long time, you probably know I play a bit of piano. My father, a life long musician and orchestra director, taught at Lake View High School and some of my earliest memories include students playing classical music at our home every summer. I started at five years old, begging my parents for lessons with our piano teacher neighbor. This early playing didn’t continue uninterrupted and I’d rather watch TV by the age of 10 then comply with the strict, somewhat professional practice schedule my dad advocated. From 17 to around 30 years old however, I tried to play almost every day. Over the last 15 years I've gone through phases of playing often. Luckily, my work in documentary film and music promotion has kept me somewhat in the music scene professionally. Here’s a little anecdote.

One day in the mid 2000s, a local client approached me with an usual request: camera rental only for a few days. My curiosity was triggered, so I asked “Where are you going? What’s it for?” “Well, I’m going to Memphis to shoot Jerry Lee Lewis,” came the reply. Interest peaked, I asked “You hiring a local DP?” volunteered to pay all my travel expenses, work as a local to get this gig and he agreed. I got a shared room with his old pal, for a night or two, we disputed the air conditioning setting but otherwise got along fine.

On location the next day we were a person down in the lighting crew due to illness, so I threw in with the local lighting crew, hauling speed-rail, rigging and lighting the historic studio for 200 degree+ shooting. I had ordered enough grip gear so cross shooting multiple cameras in the studio would avoid seeing light stands but it wouldn't be an easy setup even with the small crew they had approved. This was to be a live-style session with about 3-4 studio players, Jerry and three cameras. Soon after the lighting was done, the producers called me over and to my surprise said “we’re covering your travel costs, don’t worry about any of that. You’re earning it.”

As usual, it was hurry up and wait. Or in this case, panic, work and wait. Jerry was on his own schedule and not showing up when expected. The piano was unattended, the studio players were ready and waiting around. I stared at the piano, wondering what it sounded like, looked at the band, thought “is this an opportunity?” I sat down at the bench and looked around, gulped and asked if they’d mind playing with me. “Go ahead!” they said. “What key?” I asked. “Whatever you do, we’ll follow.” I was nervous as hell, not in practice, not warmed up, but I started playing something bluesy and rockish and heck yes they played along. They could do this in their sleep. I was jamming with Jerry Lee Lewis’ studio band. It was an absolutely priceless experience, I remember it like it was yesterday. The shoot went fine, it was incredible to watch Jerry play live a few feet in front of me in a little studio. He was actually amazing, an old man, moving slowly – sometimes barely coherent. But he could still play and really well.

We were promoting the “Last Man Standing” project, an album and CD with collaborations with music icons and a companion live video for PBS and DVD.  A few weeks later came another call, “we’re going back…” this time we covered extensive interviews with Jerry at home, visited Sun Records and more. What a great project; it started for me with a bit of a gamble. In the end was worth way more than whatever small risk I had taken in buying a plane ticket. While in Memphis, and one reason for going back there, was I was able to continue work on a personal documentary about musicians who had survived the Katrina hurricane, but that is story for another post. I hope this memory gives a little background on some of the fun I’ve had and continue to have in film, video and television.

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