Robin Gallaher Branch | Photography courtesy of Memphis Archives and Graceland
Bobby Wood is an American original, gifted musician, and talented songwriter who was in the right place at the right time when music happened in the 20th century’s last decades. Now in his 70s, Wood is perhaps most famous as the piano player for the Memphis Boys and for his work with Garth Brooks and other rock ‘n’ roll stars. He also had nine number one hits.
Roben Jones, biographer of the Memphis Boys, called Wood a consummate professional piano player. “He’s a true artist,” she said. “Bobby has a true talent.”
The Memphis Boys played in the 1960s for Chips Moman, the producer and owner of the American Recording Studio in Memphis. Although the group varied, its mainstays were Wood, piano; Tommy Cogbill and Mike Leech, bass; Gene Chrisman, drums; Bobby Emmons, organ; and Reggie Young, guitar.
“All virtuosos,” Jones said. She believes the Memphis Boys produced a sound equal to that of the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, and the Eagles.
Agreeing, Ezra Wheeler, program manager at Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum and Memphis Music Hall of Fame, noted that “theirs is a legacy that’s probably not as recognized as it should be.”
Bobby Ray Wood was born in 1941 to a musical family living in the small community of Mitchell Switch, Mississippi. Many called it “a wide place in the road.” For everyone in the neighborhood, life had no frills, Wood summarizes in his biography (co-authored with Barbara Wood Lowry), Walking Among Giants: From Elvis to Garth.
Early in grade school, Wood’s fellow students paid pennies, nickels, and dimes to hear young Bobby sing. At age 15, he started his own rock ‘n’ roll band. Walking Among Giants tells many stories that make a reader smile and laugh.
For example, his teenage band was asked to perform during a 15-minute intermission at a school play. Wood had learned piano by listening and copying. He nailed the style of Jerry Lee Lewis and a current hit, “Great Balls of Fire!”
Knowing the potential of that song to get a crowd going, Bobby played it in a way the high schoolers loved — but the administration did not. The memoir recounts, “The principal was furious. He immediately turned off the lights so that the students could not see the band. This, however, was not a showstopper. The band continued to play and the students went wild. Even in the dark, the enthusiasm could not be curtailed.”
After high school, Bobby moved to Memphis and got a job at Standard Parts. He moonlighted by playing night clubs. He toured with a group in the years before seat belts. During one of these exhaustive road trips, an accident occurred; Bobby was partially thrown through the front windshield. He underwent many surgeries and an extensive recuperation period. He has a glass eye.
“Bobby then became part of the Memphis Boys, a group of guys that changed a style and changed a sound,” Jones said. “The Memphis Boys had 122 hits from 1967 to 1971. They chose their songs this way: they had to be good and convey a message.”
The group had what Jones called “a grown-up style” and sang about “sorrow, suffering, resignation, and despair.” The style fit Wood’s personality, which was “reflective and sad,” Jones said. Then she laughed and added, “Bobby was also the practical joker of the group. He often took out his eye and said, ‘My eye is on you!’”
Wood continued writing, singing and playing. He moved to Nashville. Today he mentors aspiring songwriters, telling them to be themselves. Early in his career, he was told the world (meaning music producers) did not need another Lewis. Wood was encouraged to be himself and find his own voice. He did, and the public responded well.
In essence he tells others, “Do your own thing; go with your heart; go with your soul.”
Two of Wood’s gifts are knowing what makes a hit song and being able to write one. In Walking Among Giants, he tells of one such encounter on New Year’s Eve 1976 when he and Roger Cook brainstormed about situations in life people love to hear about. The conversation led to dreams and sleep. They started with the phrase, “three o’clock in the morning.” Over a short period of time, playbacks, overdubbing, and bringing in more band members led to the hit, “Talkin’ in Your Sleep.”
Wood has many favorite artists but mentioned these he’s worked with in particular: George Jones and Tammy Wynette, Elvis Presley, Crystal Gayle, B. J. Thomas, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Garth Brooks.
Commenting on his association with Wood, Brooks said of the music business that “it comes down to one thing—selling records. I bet Bobby Wood has played on more records sold than any other player…bar none.”
Of his life and career, Wood says on a YouTube video that it was a process of the Lord opening the doors: “It couldn’t have been me. I’m not that good.”