Jim Cannon – Underwater Man

The Soul Detective interview by MARK NICHOLSON

An entry in Reggie Young’s 1967 log book for a session held on March 27th caught our eye for a couple of reasons. First of all, it showed that Reggie had already been scheduled to travel to New York to cut Solomon ‘Berk’ for Atlantic, a trip which didn’t actually occur until April 10th (possibly because of new bookings at American for Goldwax and Sound Stage 7 that week). It also showed that Young did lead a session that date instead at ‘Lyn Lou’ on someone name James Cannon. Lyn-Lou, of course, was the studio that Bill Black had founded on Chelsea Avenue a few years before his untimely demise, which by then had been purchased by Larry Rogers. We asked Larry about the session and, although he remembered James Cannon, he said he had no recollection of the session. Hmmmm…

All of this set ‘bloodhound’ Nicholson on Cannon’s trail, who would then discover not only the 45 that was released from that session, but an excellent article about James in the Memphis Flyer that had been written by his grandson Joshua – Rockabilly Man. Mark reached out to Joshua, who then arranged for the trans-Atlantic interview below:

James Cannon, circa 1958

James Wesley Cannon might be a name not widely known, but he has the distinction of being a Memphis music scene figure that was both central and peripheral. He is not related to Ace Cannon, although they lived near each other: “I got his bank account one time as we both banked at the same place. Somebody put his money in my account, and I was happy, man! I thought I was going to retire early. He said ‘Cannon, you got all my money!’ but I told him I didn’t ask for it.”

It all started in 1948 when James’ family became residents of the city’s Lauderdale Courts housing project. He became tight with the family of Bill Black, who also lived there. The Presley family soon followed. Today Elvis historians and residents that still reside at Lauderdale Courts regale tales of summer nights on the triangular patch of grass outside the apartments where young hopefuls gathered with guitars to sing and jam. James Cannon was one of them, Elvis was another… On one occasion a pre-fame BB King happened to be passing by. Johnny Black (Bill’s brother) described the occasion to James’ grandson Joshua during an interview published by The Memphis Flyer in 2015: “We were playing a little country because that’s all we knew. Then a young black man came along and said, ‘Can I play your guitar?’ We had never heard anything like that. We were not only amazed, but we were delirious.”

Jim Cannon (left), Jean Jennings, Johnny Black’s wife Carolyn, and Elvis circa 1952

When the 1950’s started to find its stride, so did some of the Lauderdale Courts kids. However, James Cannon’s session for a planned single for Sam Phillips had to be shelved due to being drafted to Korea in 1953. Whilst out there he learned that two of his former neighbours were brewing a mini storm with That’s Alright, Mama. In an interview with the Memphis Press Scimitar in the 1970’s James revealed that “Bill Black’s mother was always writing to me when I was overseas, telling me about ‘this little record’ Elvis had coming out.” James tried to get a piece of the action for himself upon his discharge in 1955 by forming a combo with Johnny and Dorsey Burnette. “When I got back out of the service, everyone I knew who had any talent was on Sun or some other label. I started chasing the rainbow, but it looked like the train had already pulled out of the station.” he told his grandson Joshua.

James Cannon never gave up. He married Peggy in 1959 and started a family, but he still pursued the dream. Calling himself Jim Cannon, he balanced family life with a regular job and gigs. At nights he performed at the same clubs as some of The American Studio group: “We all played in a club called The Palms – that’s where I had been playing most of the time whilst I was coming up – and they would come through and sit in.” Chips Moman also frequented the venue: “Chips was a whiz, man! Sometimes he went up there with the band. He was a good guitar picker, but he got so busy with recording he had to quit playing around. He had to get out of it to make all of those records.”

During that time Jim kept in close contact with Bill Black, often hanging out at the original Lyn-Lou studio at 627 Chelsea Avenue: “After my son Jeffery was born, me and Peggy had just left the hospital and we went by Lyn-Lou. Bill was there with a wire record rack and a silver dollar in his hand, and he was dragging it on the rack… zingggg… and I’d say, ‘What’s that, Bill? Getting another sound?’ and he’d say ‘I’m getting it!’ He then saw Jeffery and said ‘Let me have him.’ Bill was the first person to put their hands on him… Jeffery is still proud of that. I used to hang out at Lyn-Lou talking music with Bill all day.”

In the 1960’s he even started his own record label and publishing company called ‘Wescan’ (based on the first three letters of his middle name and surname – a little bit like Stax!). His first single was to be My Evil Eye, the track he intended to record for Sun Records back in 1953 (with some lyrical adjustments insisted on by Sam Phillips!) and Jim’s chosen producer was Chips Moman: “He brought Reggie and the guys to the session as they were already a package.” Jim recalls My Evil Eye being “mostly” recorded at American Sound [probably late 1966] and its flipside, Underwater Man, being recorded at Bill Black’s former studio:  “Lyn-Lou was on one side of Chelsea and  American was on the other side. The two songs were recorded very close together, but we had to go back and forth because Chips hadn’t quite got settled down at his own studio.”

My Evil Eye

The intro to My Evil Eye boasts a spikey guitar riff from Reggie Young and a droning organ sound: “We wanted a spooky sound on that, so Bobby Emmons said, ‘Tell you what, let me do this’ and he shut the power off as he was playing the organ then he’d kick it back on. We sent it down to the Plastic Products pressing plant in Cold Water, Mississippi and they thought the tape had stretched!”

Underwater Man

Underwater Man features an unusual musical contribution from Chips Moman: “That was done at Bill’s and you can hear Chips right at the start of that record! He had a straw and a cup of water and he was blowing down into it. I tell you what, man… back then it cost me ten dollars an hour for musicians, so that cost me ten dollars to have him blowing that straw to make bubbles, but it turned out good anyway!”

Jim also speaks respectfully of the other musicians that Chips brought to the sessions for his first single on Wescan: “I had Gene Chrisman on drums, and they called him ‘Mr Metronome’ because he didn’t miss a lick. Tommy Cogbill on the bass… he was a sweet guy! I tried to use Tommy nearly every time. Man, he could thrump!!! Reggie only played on that one record as I usually hired John Hughey for Steel Guitar on my Country stuff, but those American guys were good, and they ended up getting real busy soon afterwards.” (John Hughey later played steel guitar on several AGP sessions).

Indeed, as the American guys became swamped with studio work at 827 Thomas, Jim Cannon continued onwards with a handful of his compositions released on his own label. One was Sing Your Heart Out, Country Boy, which was produced by Roland Janes at Sonic. He also recorded for the ‘Memphis’ label based at 625 Chelsea, next door to the original Lyn-Lou. Both were shop fronts for a vacated movie theatre – sounds familiar?

The studio facility at 625 had originally been set up by barber Marshall E Ellis, who had operated Erwin Records from there. Marshall had loaned Jim Stewart the recording equipment used for the first Satellite singles and was also the man that first introduced him to Chips Moman. Bill Glore also operated his own Glorite label and recording studio from 625 Chelsea in the late 1960’s before taking it all across to the vacated American Studio in 1977. In the 1970’s Jim Cannon was signed to Estelle Axton’s Fretone label. So many connections…

Jim Cannon still lives in Memphis and is still writing songs!

Mark Nicholson, April 2021

  • photos courtesy The Cannon Family
  • with special thanks to Jim and Joshua Cannon, Frank Bruno and Larry Rogers

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