Born Roland E. Janes, 20 August 1933, Brookings, Arkansas
Guitarist, producer, engineer.
He may not be a household name, but Roland Janes is a Memphis legend, with a musical career that spans six decades. Along with Scotty Moore and Carl Perkins, he developed the rockabilly guitar style at Sun Records. He played on the majority of Jerry Lee Lewis’s 200+ Sun recordings. Janes was a modest man who could submerge his own ego and virtuosity for the good of a session.
Born in the tiny town of Brookings, Arkansas, Janes was the product of a musical family. His father, a lumberjack, moonlighted as a guitarist and his siblings (there were six of them) and cousins played a variety of instruments as well. After his parents divorced, Janes spent his teenage years shuttling between Brookings and his mother’s home in St. Louis. At age twelve Roland first picked up the mandolin, soon moving to guitar and playing country with his cousins. Apart from the country music he heard in the South, he was also influenced by the pop sounds from the stations up North, and by the gospel music in church.
In 1953 Janes moved to Memphis and enlisted into the Marine Corps. After his discharge in 1955, he started playing music professionally, just as rock and roll began to explode. He soon hooked up with a fellow ex-Marine, Jack Clement, who had just started the Fernwood label with Slim Wallace. They cut a couple of tracks by Billy Riley, with Janes on guitar. In April 1956, Clement took the tapes to Sam Phillips at Sun Records for mastering. Impressed by what he heard, Phillips ended up hiring Clement to work for him as an engineer and signed Riley to the label. Riley’s band (Roland Janes on guitar, J.M. Van Eaton on drums and Billy Riley himself on bass) soon became the de facto house band at Sun. This was the start of Janes’s long association with the Sun label. For the first Jerry Lee Lewis session, Jack Clement (who just happened to be running the board while Sam Phillips was away) teamed Lewis up with Roland Janes and drummer Jimmy Van Eaton. This combination proved to be a magic formula, which was maintained throughout Jerry Lee’s tenure at Sun (1956-1963), albeit with decreasing frequency after 1959. Lewis couldn’t have hoped for two more sympathetic accompanists. The synergy of the trio was almost telepathic.
Janes also played as a session guitarist on countless other Sun recordings, by such artists as Sonny Burgess, Billy Riley (the guitar intro to “Flyin' Saucers Rock and Roll” is legendary), Charlie Rich, Hayden Thompson, Barbara Pittman, Bill Justis and many others. On February 11th, 1959, Janes was allowed his own instrumental Sun session, but Sam Phillips didn’t consider any of the tracks worth releasing on Sun, although his brother Jud Phillips would release two numbers, “Guitarville” and “Patriotic Guitar” on his Judd label, credited to Roland James (with an m). All the songs from this session - including two with vocals by Eddie Cash - were eventually released on a Bear Family LP (“Guitarville") in 1990, along with other unissued Janes recordings from the 1960-64 period. One track on this LP features Roland as a singer, “The Story Of My Downfall”.
Later in 1959 Riley and Janes recorded as The Spitfires for the Jaro label. One side of their instrumental single was “Catfish”, a re-recording of the unissued “Rolando” from the February session. The tune sounded suspiciously like Buddy Holly’s “Modern Don Juan”.
Riley and Janes started their own label in September 1959, Rita Records, and hit paydirt with their third release, “Mountain Of Love” by Harold Dorman (1960), which went to # 21 on the Billboard Hot 100. The original version had no strings ; these were later overdubbed by Bill Justis and the version with strings is now the one best known. Rita soon fell apart, however, and Janes moved back to St. Louis for a while. When he returned to Memphis in 1962, he opened the Sonic Sound studio on Madison Avenue. Sonic operated primarily as a custom studio and a preproduction studio, although Roland cut some hits there : Matt Lucas’s “I’m Movin’ On”, Travis Wammack’s “Scratchy” and Jerry Jaye’s “My Girl Josephine”. After Sonic folded in 1974, Janes drifted out of the music business for a couple of years. He returned in 1977 as a producer and engineer at the Sounds of Memphis Recording Studio and as an instructor of recording technology at a primarily black community college in South Memphis.
In 1982, he retired from teaching and went to work for Sam Phillips again. For the remaining 31 years of his life he worked as a producer and engineer at Sam Phillips Recording Service for Knox and Jerry Phillips. Janes recorded all kinds of music, mostly with young musicians. Occasionally he still did session work for others. In 2013 Roland Janes was inducted into the Memphis Music Hall of Fame, not long before his death (following a heart attack) on October 18, 2013, aged 80.
More info (obituary by Colin Escott) :
Acknowledgements : Colin Escott, Martin Hawkins, John Klompenhouwer.
The only album ever released under Roland Janes’s name is “Guitarville” (Bear Family BFX 15340, vinyl, 1990), which has long been deleted and was never reissued on CD).
Dik, May 2015
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