Things are going to be a little different this week. For one thing, I’m not in Rhode Island. I’m writing to you from Margate City, New Jersey (near Atlantic City), where I am doing a writing retreat for the month of October. My plan is to work on a book that takes place in this area. It’s where I grew up, and the idea is to immerse myself in the environment and try to find some inspiration. I’ve only been here for a few days, but so far, so good.
The other thing that’s a little different this week is that I’m not going to feature a specific song, or even a specific artist. Instead, this column will focus on a wonderful new four-disc compilation called The Soul of Designer Records.
The Designer Records story is primarily about two guys, and the dozens of musicians that they recorded over the years of the label’s existence. Style Wooten was born Jesse Corbett Graham in Woodlawn, Tennessee in 1921. Music was everywhere in the Wooten house, and Style learned to play guitar, piano, bass, drums, organ, mandolin, and fiddle. Despite his obvious talent, it remains unclear whether Wooten ever played on the sessions he recorded.
There is something about Memphis that attracts the oddballs and renegades. Sam Phillips once told the Memphis Press-Scimitar that “our informality gives us hit records.” Taking risks was the only accepted way of conducting yourself. Into this zany picture stepped Style Wooten, a six-foot-six giant with a big bushy beard, and a handle bar mustache. Wooten was himself an enigma, a man of mystery.
He began advertising in the back of magazines and newspapers. His pitch was that for $469.50 he would record your music in a professional studio, with first-rate musicians, create a two-sided single, give you 25 copies to sell at your gigs, and promote it to whatever outlets were available at that time. Over the years dozens of groups from all over the south and as far off as Detroit took him up on the offer.
The second key player in the Designer story was Roland Janes. The guitarist had played on some of the earliest rockabilly records, in fact it could be said that he defined the sound of rock and roll guitar with his playing on Billy Lee Riley’s “Rock With Me Baby,” the first record that Janes ever played on. Later he was part of a band called Little Green Men that featured Jerry Lee Lewis on piano. In addition to Riley, Janes played on singles for Charlie Rich, Sonny Burgess, and his old bandmate Jerry Lee. He was the house guitarist for Sun Records beginning in 1956. That’s Janes playing guitar on “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.” These records, together with the ones that Elvis was making in Memphis at the same time, marked the beginning of the genre that became known as rockabilly.
By the early ’60s Janes had decided to focus on recording from the other side of the studio glass. He started a label called Rita Records, but it failed. His next venture, Sonic Studios, was a different story. The studio opened in 1962, and several successful records were recorded there, but in late 1963 he British Invasion devastated the American recording scene. Soon Janes was offering his studio for rental. It was around that time that he met Style Wooten.
Prior to this time Wooten had been working with a guy named Gene Williams, who was a DJ at country station KWEM. Wooten was around when Williams recorded custom records for people in the radio station studio and he decided that he would like to try it for himself. The early records were mostly rockabilly and honky tonk and appeared on Wooten labels like Eugenia and Big Style. Then he launched Designer Records. During the decade beginning in 1967, Designer released 500 singles and albums. The label’s forte was almost exclusively black gospel music.
Most of the Designer recordings were made at Sonic. The gospel artists were often amateurs. Janes recorded truck drivers, barbers, school teachers, farmers, and factory workers. The weekend recording sessions were often built around gigs that the artists had booked in the area around Memphis. As many as five groups cut records in the studio every weekend. Wooten produced, and Janes engineered. If the group didn’t have adequate backing, Janes would strap on his guitar and pitch in. That’s not to say that the Designer scene did not spawn some legendary musicians. As an example James Carr and O.V. Wright were once members of the Memphis-based Jubilee Hummingbirds, a group that is still around today. Then there were Mighty Blytheville Aires from Arkansas who recorded at Sonic and were never heard from again.
Whether it was the Gospel Songbirds, the Dynamic Hughes Gospel Singers, the Foster Brothers, the Dynamic Dixie Wonders, the Magnificent Soul Survivors, or any of the many other groups that recorded for Designer, the one thing that they all had in common was the audible thrill that they experienced from being in a real recording studio. That excitement is brilliantly captured on the new 101-track set from Big Legal Mess Records.
“See, these gospel guys, man, they’re doing it for the love of what they’re doing,” Janes told Michael Hurtt who wrote the collection’s fascinating liner notes. “They used to get in their cars — maybe two or three carloads of ’em — say from Detroit, and they’d come down south and they’d work down here all Friday night, and Saturday, and Sunday. They’d miss a day’s work, maybe two days work, and get back home. They were doing it because they loved it, man.”
The sheer number of records that Designer released made it one of the most successful independent gospel labels by the early ’70s. When Janes closed Sonic in 1973 Wooten bought his own gear and moved the company’s operations to his house in Memphis, with Janes staying on as a session player. Janes also went back to work for Sam Phillips, producing and engineering at Phillips Recording. He was 80 years-old when he passed away in 2013.
Wooten kept recording artists for many years, on a variety of labels. He was recognized as the king of independent Memphis custom record men. Wooten died in his sleep in 1998, but now The Soul of Designer Records delivers on the promise that he made to the artists who recorded for him. He told them that for a reasonable fee he would make their music immortal, and now it is.