Last week, Memphis lost Roland Janes. The legendary guitarist and producer was famous for his work with Jerry Lee Lewis and for his studio work at Sam Phillips Recording. Janes' records will endure. His legacy as a musical mentor is profound. Few people experienced Janes as a teacher more than Scott Bomar, a Grammy-winning film composer, who (like Memphis musicians) learned to record and produce from Janes. Bomar's success and, more importantly, his demeanor reflect Janes' influence. Below, Bomar shares his memories of learning from one of Memphis' greatest talents. — Joe Boone
One of the most pivotal moments in my life was digging a funky, yellow-labeled 45-rpm single out of a stack of records at my grandmother's house when I was around 13. It was Travis Wammack's "Scratchy," one of the wildest, most unhinged guitar instrumentals of all time. It was from the past and the future all at the same time. It was hard to tell if it was from 1962 or 2102. I became fascinated with the sound of the record, and it sent me on a pre-internet fact-finding mission to find out everything I could about its creators.
I eventually found out about the record's producer, Roland Janes, who had cut the record in the '60s at his Sonic recording studio in a strip mall in Midtown Memphis. I began to connect the dots and discovered that Roland had been the in-house studio guitarist for Sam Phillips at Sun Studio and had played on numerous Jerry Lee Lewis hits, Billy Lee Riley's "Flyin' Saucers Rock & Roll" (one of the lodestones of rock-and-roll guitar), "Raunchy" by Bill Justis, and Harold Dorman's "Mountain of Love." Roland had the magic touch.
My growing obsession with the Memphis instrumental sound of the '50s and '60s eventually led to the formation of 1990s band Impala. I was a band member. In the early '90s, I was working at Select-O-Hits, the record distributor operated by the family of Sam Phillips' brother Tom Phillips and was approached by Johnny Phillips to make a full-length Impala record. I knew that Johnny did all of his recording at Sam Phillips Recording on Madison (the ultra-swank studio Sam Phillips built after he sold Elvis' contract to RCA), and Roland Janes was the in-house engineer. I couldn't say yes fast enough.
Working with Roland was not only a dream come true but also the beginning of a life-changing mentorship and friendship that lasted until his passing. With Roland at the helm, I experienced my first album session (Impala, El Rancho Reverbo), my first experience making music for a film (Impala, Teenage Tupelo), and my first record as producer (Calvin Newborn, New Born).
Roland always had the best advice, the best answers, and the ability to get the best performances from both raw talent and seasoned pros. From Roland, I learned more about the psychological aspect of producing records than the technical, though I did glean some of his knowledge of the latter as well. Roland's sense of humor and wit were unlike anyone I have ever known. Roland would have musicians laughing and quickly forgetting any anxieties or pressure they may have been feeling, and, before they knew it, they would be getting takes down. Roland Janes, like his former boss, Sam Phillips, had a divine ability to work with talent and capture the precise moment of inspiration on tape.
Up until the past few years, Roland had been reticent to do interviews and share the bottomless wealth of stories he had. But being the intuitive person he was, I believe he knew he was in the twilight of his life, and he had begun to share more of his stories and himself — he even had a Facebook page. Fortunately, Roland lived to receive accolades from the Memphis music community that he had given so much to.
In 2006, I had the honor along with Knox Phillips, Jon Hornyak, and Craig Brewer to present Roland with plaques from the Recording Academy for his participation in three Grammy Hall of Fame recordings.
Last month, it was announced he would be inducted into the Memphis Music Hall of Fame and would be receiving a brass note on Beale Street. Roland was praised in numerous articles and online posts by a new generation of musicians and fans he had touched, and he was recently featured in a large cover story in the Sunday Commercial Appeal.
Roland Janes' essence and legacy are captured in the past six decades and in the future of Memphis music. I will never forget the things he taught me, the advice he gave me, his stories, and, most of all, his generosity and kindness.