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Roland Janes: Guitarist who played with Jerry Lee Lewis


In the 1950s, the guitarist Roland Janes was a regular and reliable session musician for Sam Phillips, who owned the Sun Studios in Memphis. The label signed some monstrous talents with even larger egos, and Janes was a steadying force, working alongside the main performers and developing their sound. He never claimed to be a great guitarist, instead telling journalists that he only got the job because "Sam took pity on me", which was far from the truth.

Janes was born in 1933 into a large family in the riverside town of Brookings, Arkansas. His father was a lumberjack who played guitar and ran a weekend band with his brother. His parents divorced when he was 10 and he went with his mother to St Louis.

By the time he returned to Brookings in 1947, his father had become a Pentecostal minister. Janes started playing guitar with his cousins and performing in church. In 1953, he joined the Marine Corps and played in military clubs.

Moving to Memphis, he worked in Doc McQueen's swing band and met Jack Clement, a guitarist and engineer who was starting a new label, Fernwood. Clement asked Janes to be part of Billy Lee Riley's backing group, soon to be called the Little Green Men. They recorded "Trouble Bound", but before its release, Sam Phillips bought the recording, signed Riley to Sun and employed Clement as an engineer.

Janes worked with Riley in the studio and on the road, and found the novelty "Flyin' Saucer Rock'n'Roll", which was recorded in 1957 with Jerry Lee Lewis on piano. Janes worked with Lewis on over 150 recordings including "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On", "Great Balls of Fire" and "High School Confidential". When Phillips told his promotion team to get behind "Great Balls of Fire" and drop Billy Lee Riley's "Red Hot", Riley was so angry that he set about destroying the studio and had to be restrained.

Janes also worked with a young Roy Orbison on his first Sun recordings, including "Chicken Hearted" (1958), and with Charlie Rich on his first hit record, "Lonely Weekends" (1960). He produced Barbara Pittman's "Two Young Fools in Love" (1957) but was reprimanded for leaving the label's trademark echo off the record. He also recorded instrumentals, including "Catfish" as a member of the Spitfires, and "Guitarville" (1959), under his own name.

Also in 1959 Janes and Riley established Rita Records and had a hit single with Harold Dorman's "Mountain of Love", although they were not able to consolidate this success. In 1963, he opened his own Sonic studio, cutting US hit records by Jerry Jaye ("My Girl Josephine") and Travis Wammack ("Scratchy").

The studio closed in 1974, but Janes continued with the Sounds of Memphis studio and taught production techniques in colleges. In 1982, he returned to work for Sam Phillips and became part of an oldies band, the Sun Rhythm Section. He played with the Seattle grunge band Mudhoney in 1988.

Spencer Leigh

Roland Janes, guitarist: born Brookings, Arkansas 20 August 1933; married (two sons, one daughter); died Memphis, Tennessee 18 October 2013.