ROLAND JANES 1933-2013
by Colin Escott
Sometimes, musicians would come into Phillips Recording in Memphis, aware that the engineer, Roland Janes, had been a big deal guitar player long ago. They’d hand him a guitar and say, “I wanna hear you play.” Roland would hand it back and say, “You’ve HEARD me play.” Just about everyone heard Roland Janes play. If not the solo on Whole Lotta Shakin’ or High School Confidential then the bridge on Raunchy or the deliriously over-the-top solos on Flying Saucer Rock and Roll. And don’t forget that he played on and produced Harold Dorman’s Mountain Of Love, and issued it on a label he co-owned. He also produced Travis Wammack’s Scratchy, Matt Lucas’s I’m Moving On, and Jerry Jaye’s My Girl Josephine—among the best records to come out of Memphis in the early to mid 1960s.
Sometime in the early ‘80s, I went to Phillips Recording on Madison Avenue in Memphis. I knew Roland had just started back there after twenty or more years, and that no one had ever interviewed him (Martin Hawkins and I had phoned his house in 1971 only to be told he had no interest in talking to us). So I walked into the little rec room across the hall from the studio. A bunch of guys were sitting around a table eating and smoking. I said, “Is Roland Janes here?” Someone with his back to me said, “No man, Roland’s gone for the day.” I realized later that was Roland Janes.
If he felt like talking—and later that week we began an intermittent thirty-year conversation—no one was a better source for Memphis music history or gnomic wisdom about life in general. Unlike the artists who refract everything through the prism of their ego, he was self-effacing to a fault. He also had the driest wit in Memphis. The last few Christmases, I received a card from him with a self-composed short story inside. One time, he asked how to get a work of fiction published. I told him he’d have to go on the road to promote it, and I don’t think the idea resurfaced after that. He lived at the same address for decades with the woman he’d married in 1959, and, as far as I’m aware, hadn’t left Memphis in years.
Roland Janes was born in Brookings, Arkansas on August 20, 1933, the second youngest in a family of seven. His father was a lumberman whose work kept the family on the move during the Depression. When Roland was ten, his parents divorced and his mother moved to St.Louis, eventually bringing the children with her. Roland’s first instrument was the mandolin, although he’d switched to guitar by the time he enlisted in the Marines in 1953. He’d moved to Memphis shortly before entering the service and returned there after his discharge in 1956. Going to school under the GI Bill, he worked briefly as a laundryman and even more briefly in a paint factory before turning to music.
Doc McQueen, a pianist who ran a home demo studio and led a band at the Hideaway Club, was looking for a guitarist, and Roland got the job. Through McQueen, Roland met steel guitarist Kenneth Herman who introduced him to Jack Clement. At that time, Clement and a local truckdriver, Slim Wallace, were on the point of launching Fernwood Records from Wallace’s garage. Their first artist was Billy Riley. Clement took the tapes to Sam Phillips at Sun for mastering. Phillips liked what he heard and Riley’s first efforts led to an engineering job at Sun for Clement, a contract for Riley, and a steady job working sessions for Riley’s group.
In December 1956, Riley and Phillips were looking for songs for Riley’s second single when Roland remembered some demos he’d heard by a local musician, Ray Scott. One of the songs, Flying Saucer Rock ‘n’ Roll, played off the then-current infatuation with extra-terrestrials. It became rockabilly in all its go-for-broke tutti-frutti looniness. There was so much to love about it starting with Roland’s spacey intro, his delirious solos and the sustained Twilight Zone piano chord at the end. As it hit the streets, Riley dressed his band in pool table green baize and went on tour in search of the hit that should have been his.
Don’t overlook the flip-side, I Want You Baby. Roland plays his two-string style. “Most guitarists were playing single string back then,” he said, “and we wanted something that wasn’t country but wasn’t blues. We said, ‘What can we do that’s different to set this apart?'” In their new role as session musicians, Roland and Riley’s underage drummer, J.M. Van Eaton, played on Jerry Lee Lewis’s demo session, and the chemistry was so instantaneous that they were conscripted to play on most of Jerry Lee’s sessions for the remainder of the decade. They provided a loose framework in which Lewis’s peculiar genius could shine. It was pretty clear to astute listeners that the same guitarist played on most of Jerry Lee’s early sessions, and the first clue to his identity came when Jerry shouted “Roland, boy!” on Hand Me Down My Walking Cane. A few years later, we found some of the original session contracts with his name and immediately realized that he’d written Put Me Down for Jerry’s first LP. It all started fitting together.
In 1957, Roland quit Riley to work on the road with Lewis. He and Jerry roomed together, and he insists that Jerry’s bass player/father-in-law, J.W. Brown, and his road drummer, Russ Smith, were the hellraisers. Falling with out with Jerry Lee after a few months, Roland worked a short spell with Bill Justis, then riding the crest of the wave that began and ended with Raunchy, before returning to work with Jerry Lee shortly before the ill-fated tour of England in May 1958. They worked together until 1959 when Roland returned to Riley’s group. By that point he had married and was beginning to question whether he wanted to spend the rest of his days working the road and making forty bucks or less on sessions that led to million-selling records. He and Riley decided to become moguls.
“When Sam [Phillips] put in the new studio on Madison Avenue,” said Roland, “Bill and I went to Sam and asked him to let us retain the old studio and record there with the product going to Sun, but we never actually resolved the question and just drifted into doing our own thing. Rita Records was a co-op deal. Bill and I played on everything, which naturally eliminated having to pay a couple of musicians, and we used our old buddies Martin Willis and J.M. Van Eaton. We came up with a partner, Ira Lyn Vaughan, who had a little money. He was an accountant, and we named the label after his daughter. Mr. Vaughn did all the paperwork, and Bill and I took care of production and getting records to distributors. Riley was a much better salesman than me, but I probably had a better business head.”
Rita Records was launched in September 1959. Roland Janes and Billy Riley released their own records together with singles by J.M. Van Eaton and Marty Willis. The first and only hit on the label came in 1960 with Harold Dorman’s Mountain Of Love. The record climbed the charts, eventually peaking at #21 on the Hot 100. The label folded soon after the follow up, Moved To Kansas City. Roland had to lay low for a while, and moved back to St. Louis. Back in Memphis, he launched Sonic Sound, on Madison Avenue. His ideas on production were based on what he had learned from Sam Phillips. “Sam taught me not to hold back. Just do it and have a good time doing it. Don’t get hung up on little minor mistakes. If it feels good, that will come through on the tape.”
Three hits came out of Sonic: Matt Lucas’s I’m Movin’ On, leased to Smash/Mercury, Travis Wammack’s Scratchy, released on Roland’s ARA and distributed through Atlantic, and Jerry Jaye’s delightfully retro My Girl Josephine on Hi (probably the last hit cut for less than twenty bucks). “Roland even gave me the keys to the studio so I could go and rehearse,” said Wammack. “He gave me a break and I couldn’t believe it because he was the top picker around.” “Travis was so good,” said Roland, “that he would become impatient with the other musicians. He would play his part and theirs too. Sometimes he’d sound like a lead guitar, rhythm guitar and horn section–all at the same time. I told him to slow down or I’d have to get out my guitar and cut him.”
Sonic operated during a transitional period in Memphis music. “We were coming out of the rockabilly thing into something with a heavier beat and in some ways more musically advanced,” said Roland. “The music we cut was real transition music. It had a little rockabilly, a little soul and so on.” For troublesome customers, he had a knob on the console that said “Control All.” He’d invite the client to adjust it while he ran the tape. They’d play with it until they were satisfied, and had no idea that it wasn’t wired to anything.
Sonic folded in 1974. After a couple of years out of the business, Roland hired on as an engineer at Sounds of Memphis, and then, in 1982, at the Phillips studio. In between, he worked as an instructor in recording technology at a predominantly black vocational school in Memphis. At Phillips, he engineered Charlie Feathers’ Elektra album, Charlie Rich’s last album for Sire Records, and a plethora of other sessions: soul, blues, rock, grunge, indie, retro, even rap. Artists, including Bob Dylan, came to Phillips Recording simply to have Roland engineer their work and pass judgment on it.
I last saw Roland at the studio in August when we worked on some 1970s Jerry Lee Lewis tapes that Knox Phillips had produced. I told him I’d come see him when he was inducted into the Memphis Music Hall of Fame on November 5. Roland had been way overweight for years, and his knees troubled him, but he’d spiffed himself up with some hair color and new glasses. In September, he had a heart attack, and went swiftly downhill from there. He went into the hospital on October 3, and on the 17th, Knox Phillips called to say that Betty Janes and the kids had opted to remove life-support after a scan revealed serious brain damage from a stroke. Roland died the following day, a couple of months past his eightieth birthday. His family was with him, and J.M. Van Eaton had dropped by the hospital to check on Roland, only to be present at the moment of his passing.
The funeral was on October 22. A slideshow showed Roland at different stages of his life and career. Among the shots was his Bear Family LP, Guitarville—the only album ever released under Roland Janes‘ own name.