Memphis music great Stan Kesler — who worked with Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, others — has died

Musician, songwriter and producer Stan Kesler, a pivotal figure in the Memphis birth of rock ‘n’ roll whose keen ear, innovative playing and studio smarts enhanced the careers of such rock and soul legends as Jerry Lee Lewis, James Carr, Sam the Sham and Elvis Presley, has died. 

Kesler, who had suffered from deteriorating health for some time, passed away Monday in a hospice facility in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, according to family members. He was 92, and the cause of death was bone cancer.

Although hardly a household name, Kesler made essential contributions to dozens of records that found their ways into the homes of music lovers around the world. He was a Zelig-like figure in Memphis music during the key decades when the city was a lodestone of rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm-and-blues innovation: He wrote songs for Elvis, played bass on “Great Balls of Fire,” produced “Wooly Bully,” and engineered recordings at Goldwax, a label that never achieved the fame of Stax or Hi even as it produced music of comparable greatness.

Memphis music great Stan Kesler — who worked with Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, others — has died

“Guys like him were a big influence on me, because he was a bass player, a steel guitar player, an engineer, a producer, a songwriter — and that’s the same way I’ve been able to make a living in music, that same model,” said Memphis musician, composer, bandleader and Electraphonic Recording studio chief Scott Bomar. “He had success in all of it.”

“He was such a big part of Memphis, most people don’t even realize,” said Grammy-winning Memphis producer and engineer Matt Ross-Spang, who has worked with Jason Isbell and John Prine. “I definitely looked up to him a lot. He was one of those guys who could do it all.”

One of 10 children, Stanley Augustus Kesler was born in Abbeville, Mississippi, where music was a family affair.

As a boy, he learned to play guitar, mandolin and dobro while harmonizing with various family members. “When company would come,” he told The Commercial Appeal in 2014, “my mother would say, ‘OK, boys, get your instruments now and sing some songs for Aunt Hattie and Uncle Dick.'” 

After serving in the Marines (where he learned to play pedal steel guitar), Kesler move to Memphis in about 1950, working a day job filling catalog orders at the Crosstown building when it was a Sears distribution center. But music beckoned.

Befriending local players, he became a member of the Snearly Ranch Boys, which was the house band at the Cotton Club in West Memphis. Specializing in country music and Western swing, the band often was accompanied by such future Sun Records vocalists as Barbara Pittman and Warren Smith.

Memphis music great Stan Kesler — who worked with Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, others — has died

With Kesler on steel guitar, the Ranch Boys found their way to Sun founder Sam Phillips’ studio at 706 Union Ave., where they cut singles of their own with lead singer Clyde Leoppard and backed such artists as the harmonizing Miller Sisters and the gravel-voiced Smokey Joe.

In 1955, the Ranch Boys recorded “Split Personality.” Co-written by Kesler, the song showcases humorous Jekyll-and-Hyde lyrics with vocals to match, and presages the novelty-type recordings Kesler would make a decade later with Sam the Sham.

At Sun, Kesler began working as an engineer, and soon established his bona fides as a musical jack-of-all-trades.

During the famous “Sun sessions” that launched Elvis Presley’s career and ignited the Big Bang of modern rock ‘n’ roll, Elvis recorded two songs co-written by Kesler, “I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone,” and “I Forgot to Remember to Forget.” A 1964 Beatles performance of the latter song, with George Harrison on lead vocals, appears on the compilation recording “Live at the BBC.”

Jerry Phillips, son of Sam Phillips, said Kesler’s clever pop songwriting was unusual in Memphis at the time. “He was very pivotal to Sun with his early songwriting, because my dad was having to beat the woods for local songwriters who could write new songs that might be hits, and Stan was one of them.”

Memphis music great Stan Kesler — who worked with Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, others — has died

“They just bubble up like boiling water sometimes, and I have to do something with them,” Kesler said of his songwriting, in a 2014 interview in The Commercial Appeal. 

The Kesler-Elvis connection remained strong throughout the singer’s career. In 1957, after Presley moved from Sun to RCA, Elvis recorded Kesler’s composition, “Playing for Keeps.” Another Kesler song, “Thrill of Your Love,” appeared on the 1960 album “Elvis Is Back!,” which was Presley’s first post-Army LP.

Finally, during the 1969 sessions at Chips Moman’s American Sound Studio in Memphis that revitalized the singer’s career, Elvis recorded Kesler’s “If I’m a Fool (for Loving You).”

“Most of my songs are the love songs, the hurting tear-jerkers,” Kesler said in 2014.

During the heyday of Sun, Kesler played on records by Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis, including Lewis’ epochal 1957 hit, “Great Balls of Fire.” “He was one of the first two or three people to own an electric bass in Memphis, and play it on a record,” said Bomar, also a bass player.

Kesler’s “soothing personality” provided a contrast to the fiery Jerry Lee Lewis, said longtime friend J.M. Van Eaton, a drummer at Sun who played with Kesler on key recordings by Jerry Lee and others. “They’re light and dark,” he said.

Nevertheless, the Killer in the late 1960s and ’70s recorded such Kesler compositions as “One Minute Past Eternity” and “Sometimes a Memory Ain’t Enough,” for albums produced by Kesler in Nashville.

Some others who recorded Kesler songs include Marty Robbins, Johnny Cash, Wanda Jackson and John Prine. 

Beyond country, rockabilly and rock, Kesler played a significant role in Memphis soul. One of Kesler’s Sun colleagues, Quinton Claunch, later was a co-founder of the Hi and Goldwax record labels. Kesler joined Claunch at Goldwax, engineering many records that remain especially prized by soul connoisseurs, including 1967’s “The Dark End of the Street” by James Carr.

At Goldwax, Kesler provided a direct although largely overlooked contribution to one of Memphis’ greatest contributions to the music of the era: He organized the band of ace session musicians that became famous as the “Memphis Boys” after Moman lured them to his American studio, where they provided backing for Elvis, Neil Diamond, Dusty Springfield and many others. (Kesler himself did some work at American, helping to engineer classic recordings by such artists as Bobby Womack and Joe Tex.)

Kesler also put together the band that became known as “The Dixie Flyers,” which featured Jim Dickinson on keyboards. That group, too, was lured away, but to a more distant location: It became the house band at Atlantic’s Criteria Recording Studio in Miami.

Memphis music great Stan Kesler — who worked with Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, others — has died

In the mid-1960s, Kesler achieved great success as a producer for Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, fronted by a flamboyantly turbaned Texas-born Memphis transplant, Domingo “Sam the Sham” Samudio. Originally released on Kesler’s own XL label, the band’s signature song, “Wooly Bully,” was picked up by MGM Records and sold more than 3 million copies. 

“What Stan learned from somebody like Sam Phillips was how to capture somebody, like Sam the Sham, their essence, and get that onto a record,” Bomar said. 

“When Sam the Sham would come in with these far-out ideas, Stan knew better than to say, ‘No,'” said Memphis music historian and author Robert Gordon. “He’d say, ‘Let’s see what we can do.'”

XL was only one of several music businesses Kesler was part of during his career. In 1957, he founded a short-lived rockabilly label, Crystal, and with Clyde Leoppard he ran L&K Recording Service on Main Street. Other recording studios in which he was invested included Sounds of Memphis and Echo, and another of his labels was called Pen. 

Even as the Memphis recording boom became more of a murmur, Kesler remained busy. He worked for many years with brothers Knox and Jerry Phillips at the Sam Phillips Recording Studio on Madison Avenue, which Sam opened after leaving Sun. 

In the 1980s, Kesler returned to performing as part of the Sun Rhythm Section, a reunited group of Sun veterans that toured all over the world after getting together for a Smithsonian Institute festival in Washington in the 1980s. Meanwhile, a reunited Van Eaton and Kesler performed in the 1970s and ’80s in The Seekers, a Southern gospel group.

Memphis music great Stan Kesler — who worked with Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, others — has died

Kesler lived much of his adult life in a home in Bartlett, but two years ago — with his hearing, his eyesight and even his memory failing — he moved in with his daughter, Katrina Barker, of Mt. Juliet, Tennessee.

In addition to Barker, he leaves seven grandchildren and what Barker called dozens of nieces and nephews — “there are like 55 of them.” 

A private funeral service for “family, close family friends and musical friends” will be organized, Barker said. She said any donations in her father’s memory should be made to the Alzheimer’s Association.

Said Van Eaton: “We go waaaay back, and I’m going to miss him terribly. I don’t know anybody who didn’t like him.”

Memphis music great Stan Kesler — who worked with Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, others — has died

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