TAKE ME TO THE RIVER: The Story of The Memphis Music Scene

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TAKE ME TO THE RIVER

Directed by Martin Shore

Social Capital Films (Soundtrack available from Concord Music/STAX)

Few cities have played a bigger role in the development of popular music then the city of Memphis, Tennessee. Artists like B.B. King, Otis Redding, Elivs Presley, and Al Green all came to Memphis looking for opportunities that couldn’t be found in their hometowns. Overtime, artists like these changed the sound of the Memphis scene as well as the sound popular music, but they didn’t do it alone. Just as important as the artists, if not more in some cases, are the produces, songwriters, and label owners who took chances with them. The story of the Memphis music scene can’t be told without including people like Sun Records founder Sam Phillips, STAX A&R man Al Bell, STAX Founders Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton, and producer Willie Mitchell. These people put up money for studio time, did the promotion, produced the sessions, and in some cases even risked their lives for the music they believed in!  It took many different people from different backgrounds to make the Memphis music scene happen. Now thanks to a new documentary from director Martin Shore, the story of the Memphis music scene is finally be told the way it should be told… by the people who lived it.

Part history lesson, part musical tribute, TAKE ME TO THE RIVER not only tells the story of record labels like STAX and Hi-Records but also shows the recording of the movie’s soundtrack. Recorded in Memphis, the album version of TAKE ME TO THE RIVER (Stax/Concord Music Group) showcases legendary Memphis musicians performing alongside younger players who’ve been inspired by the music of Memphis. While not all the duets might be the perfect match up of artists there’s still something very heart warming about music bringing people from different backgrounds together.  One of the album’s the best duets is the pairing of 72 year-old Soul-Shouter Otis Clay and 12 year-old rapper P-nut on the track “Trying To Live My Life Without You”. Originally a hit for Otis in 1972 the song still sounds fresh. Otis is still in great vocal form and the band is right on the money. While some may view the addition of the 12 year-old P-Nut as some sort of gimmick, it’s anything but. P-Nut nails his part and sounds great. Also, you get the sense while watching the film that Otis legitimately enjoys listening to P-nut rap over his tune.

Another standout duet on the album is the match up of Mavis Staples with The North Mississippi All-Stars on “Wish I Had Answered”. Originally recorded by the Staple Singers in 1963, the song was selected by the All-Star’s own Luther Dickinson. Many times for these type of star-studded duet projects you get bands that sound a little flat even though they’re made up of top-notch studio musicians. This is not the case here. The All-Stars are students of American music and along with an outstanding vocal performance by Ms. Staples, they perfectly capture the original spirit of the tune. Pops would be proud.

If the movie has any faults, it’s only that the short lived Goldwax label isn’t mentioned. Producing singers such as James Carr, Spencer Wiggins, and The Ovations, this little label was started by former Sun Records guitarist Quinton Claunch in 1964. Unfortunately due to money issues and to Carr’s mental instability (he was the label’s star performer) the Goldwax was out of business in 1969. Still, during it’s short lifespan it was responsible for some of the most soulful music to ever come out of Memphis. Still, even without the mention of Goldwax TAKE ME TO THE RIVER gives the viewer and excellent in-depth look at the musical history of Memphis, as told by the people that lived it. Here’s hoping both the film and soundtrack inspire a younger generation to discover this music and make music history of their own.

 

BLUESIN’ BY THE BAYOU: Swamp Blues at it’s finest!

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Few people were better at discovering musical talent in Louisiana during the 1950’s and 60’s then J.D. Miller and Eddie Shuler. Instrumental in bringing styles such as Zydeco, Cajun, and Swamp Pop to the ears of the world, they each made their mark by recording and producing local unknown talent. Miller recorded the artists he discovered then usually sold the tapes to other record labels while Shuler recorded and released music on his own Goldband label. Now, thanks to the fine people at ACE Records, there are TWO new excellent compilations that focus on the Blues recordings produced by Miller and Shuler.

Part of ACE’s “By The Bayou” series, these discs, entitled Bluesin’ By The Bayou and Bluesin’ By The Bayou: Rough & Tough, are both supreme examples of the Louisiana Blues scene during the 50’s and 60’s. Sometimes known as “Swamp Blues” the music on these recordings is a mix of down-home Country Blues with a few touches of R&B, Zydeco, and Cajun Music thrown in for good measure. These recordings are essential for any Blues or Roots Music fan’s record collection. This is as greasy as it gets!

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Some of the artists featured on Bluesin’ On The Bayou

SLIM HARPO

Born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Slim Harpo was one of the most successful and best known of all Swamp Blues artists. His songs “I’m A King Bee” (1957) and “Shake Your Hips” (1961) were both covered by The Rolling Stones and he had a number one hit in 1966 with “Baby Scratch My Back”. Included on Bluesin’ By The Bayou: Rough and Tough are his single “My Little Queen Bee”, an answer to his first hit “King Bee”, and a cover of Lonesome Sundown’s “Bought Me A Ticket”

LONESOME SUNDOWN

Lonesome Sundown was born Cornelius Green in 1931 on a plantation in Donaldsville, Louisiana.  Well versed in a variety of musical styles, Lonesome Sundown’s music ranged from down-home Blues to Country to Roll-licking R&B.  He was never a household name but nevertheless was responsible for some of the most exciting music to come out of Louisiana in the 50’s and 60’s. Included on Bluesin’ By The Bayou: Rough and Tough are romping versions of his songs “I’m Gonna Stick To You Baby” and “If Anybody Asks You”. Both songs are essential listening for ANY Blues fan.

LIGHTNIN’ SLIM

One of the most important and influential bluesmen to ever come out of Louisiana, Lightnin’ Slim was actually born in St. Louis, Missouri. He moved to Louisiana when he was a teenager and soon picked up the guitar and began playing in clubs. In 1954 he recorded “Bad Luck Blues” with J.D. Miller and regularly performed with fellow Louisiana bluesmen Lonesome Sundown, Lazy Lester, and Slim Harpo. Included here in this collection is his song “Trip To Chicago” which talks about the groups “adventure” to play a gig in the Windy City! Fellow Louisiana bluesman Buddy Guy credits Lightnin’ Slim as one of his biggest influences.

LAZY LESTER

A talented multi-instrumentalist, Lazy Lester performed on many recordings produced by J.D. Miller as both a front-man and backup musician. His first major his was the his 1958 release “I’m A Lover Not A Fighter”. Originally written by J.D. Miller, this song put Lester on the map and was coupled with the b-side “Sugar Coated Love”. Still an excellent performer to this day, he still tours nationally and is a favorite at Blues festivals. He was inducted into the Blues Hall Of Fame in 2012.lazyLester

 

NO MORE DOGGIN’ The RPM Records Story: Vol 1 1950-1953

 

RPM RecordsFull of Jump Blues, early R&B, and down-home Country Blues, the double-disc collection No More Doggin’ The RPM Records Story Vol. 1 might be one of the best introductions to early 50’s blues ever.  Compiled by the good folks at ACE Records, this collection covers the early years of RPM Records and features well know artists like B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, and Lightnin’ Hopkins.

Started in 1950 by the Bihari Brothers, RPM was meant to be a subsidiary of the Bihari’s very popular label Modern Records.  After initially having lots of success with Modern, the Bihari’s began having trouble getting their records played on the radio due to stations not wanting to play too many sides from any one label. So in order to get their product on the airwaves the Bihari’s started a number of subsidiary labels. Probably the most popular of Modern’s subsidiary labels, RPM introduced the world to a Memphis radio DJ by the name of Riley B. King. Eventually known as “B.B. King”, Riley came to the attention of the Bihari Brothers thanks to their working relationship with Memphis talent scout/producer Sam Phillips. Phillips at the time was recording local artists with his Memphis Recording Service then sending the masters to labels like Modern and Chess. Trough their relationship with Phillips, the Bihari’s got hooked up with some of the best talent in Memphis. Unfortunately their relationship ended when Phillips and the Bihari’s had a disagreement over a B.B. King session and went their separate ways. Fed up with feeding product he recorded to other labels, Phillips then decided to start his own label, Sun Records. As for Modern/RPM, even without the help of Phillips the label still went on to produce many more hits, including B.B. King’s breakthrough hit record Three O’Clock Blues.

No More Doggin’ The RPM Records Story Vol. 1 starts off with the Dixieland-style track “Alabama Bound”. Sung by Adele Francis, this tune was RPM’s first release in 1950.  Other stand out tracks are Sonny Blair’s down-and-out blues ballad “Glad To Be Back Home”, B.B. King’s “Other Night Blues, and Howlin’ Wolf’s “Riding In The Moonlight”. My personal favorite recordings on this collection are the Lightnin’ Hopkins tracks. Excellent versions of “Bad Luck and Trouble” and “Another Fool In Town” showcase Hopkins at his bluesy best, while “Jake Head Boogie” shows that he also could ROCK when he wanted to.  Another nice surprise on this collection is the tune “It’s Time For Lovin’ To Be Done”. Performed by Detroit Bluesman Little Eddie Kirkland, the song features uncredited backing vocals by the great John Lee Hooker!

As usual the folks at ACE left no stone unturned when putting this collection together. Included in this collection is a nice history of RMP records as well as a few words on all the performers. All of the albums 52 tracks sound crisp and clear thanks to the extra care shown by the folks who did the remastering. If you want to hear where Rock N’ Roll really began this collection is for you.

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JAMES GOVAN 1949-2014

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James Govan might be the best singer you’ve never heard of. Born in McComb, Mississippi in 1949, James was raised in Memphis, Tennessee where he was an in-demand performer on Beale Street. His first “big break” came in 1967 when his talent caught the attention of songwriter/producer George Jackson. Jackson who at the time was working for the Muscle Shoals-based record label FAME decided to record a demo with James in Memphis. He sent the demo to FAME label owner Rick Hall who loved what he heard and set James up with producer Mickey Buckins. James recorded a number of songs for FAME between 1969 and 1972 but the label only released a few of them as singles. In fact, most of the music went unreleased until 2013 when the good people at ACE Records complied it and released it as James Govan Wanted: The FAME Recordings. Even though none of these recordings were big hits that made him a household name it’s still an amazing body of work that’s essential to any music fan’s record collection.

After his time with FAME, James went back to Beale Street where he became a regular performer in blues clubs. He released one album in 1982 which went nowhere and after that didn’t release any new music until the 1990’s. He saw some success in 1993 when his performance at the Porretta Soul Festival in Italy made him a popular performer in Europe. He then released another album in 1996 but like his previous albums, it failed to draw any attention. James may have never had that “big hit record” but he always delivered the good live. He was a regular performer at the famous Run-Boogie Cafe in Memphis for over 20 years.

Sadly James passed on July 18, 2014. Fortunately his amazing talent will live on through his recordings and hopefully in time make James Govan into a household name.

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MAVIS STAPLES: A Tribute to a living legend

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Mavis Staples is a living legend.  Over the past 60 years she’s not only brought Gospel music to the masses but she’s also been a voice of hope and strength for those fighting for Civil Rights. Her career started in Chicago during the late 1940’s. Mavis and her siblings would perform in churches alongside their Father, the legendary Roebuck “Pops” Staples.  With a sound was rooted in Southern Gospel and Delta Blues “The Staple Singers” soon became local favorites and in the early 50′s began recording sides for labels like VeeJay, Riverside, and Checker.  In addition to Gospel music fans the band was also embraced by the folk music scene during the folk revival of late 50′s and early 60′s. At this time band also became very active in the civil rights movement and regularly performed at rallies and events hosted by Dr. Martin Luther King. In the late 60′s and early 70′s the music scene was changing and the band changed right along with it. They signed with the legendary STAX Records and under the guidance of STAX’s A&R man Al Bell they started adopting more of a Soul-Gospel style. Their music might have become a little funkier but it still contained the same message of hope and tolerance. Songs like “Respect Yourself“, and “I’ll Take You There” made the band a household name and catapulted them into stardom. Unfortunately, due to some questionable business decisions by Al Bell STAX Records filed for bankruptcy in 1975 and was forced to shutdown.

Over the next several years the Staples put out several releases, none of which had much success. Then in the 1990’s the Staples Family found themselves back in the spotlight.  Pops won a Grammy for his solo record Father, Father and the whole band was inducted into the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1999. Sadly this was Pops’ last hurrah as he would pass away in December of 2000 from complications caused by a concussion he suffered while at his home. During the 2000’s Mavis continued to perform and release solo albums. Paired with producers such as Ry Cooder and Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, these records introduced Mavis to a whole new audience. In 2013 her Jeff Tweedy-produced album You Are Not Alone won a Grammy for “Best Americana Album”.

This year Mavis will turn 75 years young and she’s just as popular as ever. People all over the world still cram into venues to see her perform and she’s a regular musical guest on late-nite TV.  Her music still carries with it a message of hope and tolerance. A message that reminds us that even though there have been victories in the struggle for civil rights, the fight is far from over.

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STAPLE SINGERS/MAVIS STAPLES SUGGESTED LISTENING

The Staple Singers: Uncloudy Day (VeeJay)

The Staple Singers: Freedom Highway (Epic/Legacy)

The Staple Singers: Be Attitude: Respect Yourself (Stax)

The Staple Singers: The Staple Swingers (Stax)

The Staple Singers: The Best of The Staple Singers (Stax)

Mavis Staples: We’ll Never Turn Back (Anti) produced by Ry Cooder

Mavis Staples: You Are Not Alone (Anti) produced by Jeff Tweedy

Mavis Staples: One True Vine (Anti) produced by Jeff Tweedy

 

LEE FIELDS: Emma Jean

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LEE FIELDS & THE EXPRESSIONS EMMA JEAN Truth & Soul Records

For Fans of: Issac Hayes, James Brown, Solomon Burke, and Charles Bradley

This summer Lee Fields & The Expressions are back on the scene with a new record full of sweet soul music!  Entitled Emma Jean in honor of Lee’s late mother, this record finds the band incorporating more elements of Folk and Gospel into their sound more then they have in the past. In fact, the album’s first single is a soulful version of the J.J. Cale tune “Magnolia”. Sounding a little like Solomon Burke, Lee croons his way through this Folk classic with help from pedal-steel guitar master Russ Pahl. While the song is stylistically a little different then songs Lee and his band have done in the past, they still sound great.  That being said, Emma Jean has something for everyone. Fans of classic hard-soul will enjoy songs like “In the Woods” and “Stone Angel” while fans of the teary-eyed ballads will have a new favorite song in “Don’t Leave Me This Way”.  The album’s standout track however is the piano-driven “Eye to Eye”. In this song the band sways back and forth while Lee pleads with his lover to take him back. Singing like his life depends on it, Lee is clearly still at the top of his game. For a guy who’s been releasing music since 1969, this album might be his crowning achievement.

 

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SONNY KNIGHT & THE LAKERS “I’m Still Here”

SONNY-KNIGHT SONNY KNIGHT AND THE LAKERS: I’M STILL HERE Secret Stash Records

For fans of: James Brown, Otis Clay, Lee Fields, and Dyke & The Blazers

Sonny Knight has been part of the Minnesota music scene for over 50 years. Originally from Jackson, Mississippi, Sonny moved to St. Paul, Minnesota with his family when he was only 7 years old.  In his early teens he became involved with the local doo-wop scene and sang with a number of groups before eventually cutting his first single, “Tears On My Pillow” in 1965.  Unfortunately his musical career had to be put on hold when he got drafted in to the Army and was sent to fight in Vietnam. When Sonny returned home from overseas he was unable to find consistent work as a musician. He ended up taking a full-time job as a truck driver while continuing to sing off and on with different groups during the 70’s and 80’s. Then in 2012 the Minnesota indie-label, Secret Stash Records, released the compilation album Twin Cities Funk & Soul 1964-1979.  To help promote the release, Secret Stash co-founder Eric Foss put together a show featuring some of the artists that appeared on the album. One of these groups was 60’s R&B group The Valdons. As he was currently performing with members of The Valdons, Sonny was asked to participate with the band in their reunion show.  While working to prepare for the show Foss became so impressed with Sonny’s talent that he signed him to Secret Stash and put together a band to back him on a solo record.  Now known as Sonny Knight and The Lakers, the guys have decided to share their sound with the world by releasing what might just be the best album of 2014.

The name of the album is I‘m Still Here and the music on it is hard hitting funk!  This album was recorded the way an album should be recorded, LIVE and with everybody playing together. You can hear the band feeding off each others energy on tracks like “Sonny’s Boogaloo” and “Get Up and Dance”. These guys might not have been on the scene as long as their 66 year-old front man has but they’re still seasoned pros. Label owner Foss handles the drumming duties on the record. A rock solid drummer, he keeps things steady and makes it easy for the band to fall in behind him. Songs like “Through With You” and the James Brown-esq “Juicy Lucy”, groove hard and are full of soul. The album’s strongest track might be the Stax-flavored “Hey Girl”.  Sure to please dance floors everywhere, this tune makes you wonder what Wilson Pickett would have sounded like if he had been backed by the 70’s funk band Black Heat.  Still, even with all these great players in the room, the star of the show is Sonny Knight. After only a few minutes of listening to him you can tell that this guy’s the REAL DEAL. Hopefully with the release of I’m Still Here he’ll get the attention he so rightly deserves.

LEO “BUD” WELCH: Sabougla Voices

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Leo “Bud” Welch: SABOUGLA VOICE Big Legal Mess/Fat Possum

For Fans of: Junior Kimbrough, R.L. Burnside, The White Stripes, Rev Louis Overstreet

Guitarist Leo “Bud” Welch was born in Sabougla, Mississippi in 1932.  A natural musician, Leo taught himself to play the guitar by learning songs off the radio.  As soon as he built up a small repertoire he began performing at parties and local juke-joints.  Unfortunately work as a musician was inconsistent and even though he was incredibility talented he was unable to make a living playing music.  In order to make ends-meet Leo ended up taking a job as a logger and had to resort to playing music only when he had free time.  Then in 1975 Leo switched from playing Blues to playing Gospel.  He started performing in churches all over Mississippi and even began hosting a local Gospel Television show. Even though he now considered himself a Gospel musician he still kept in touch with the local Blues scene.  As time went on he heard that Blues musicians like Junior Kimbrough were having late-in-life success working with Fat Possum Records.  Inspired by this he called up the label and requested an audition. Label owner Bruce Watson agreed to hear Leo play and ended up signing him on the spot. Now thanks to the good people at Fat Possum and Big Legal Mess Records the world finally gets to hear one of the treasures of Mississippi, guitarist Leo Welch.

The album is called  Sabougla Voices and the music on it is honest no-frills Mississippi Gospel.  Throughout the albums ten tracks Leo’s plays the guitar with the energy of someone half his age.  Songs like “Praise His Name” and “You Can’t Hurry God” are upbeat and show us the lines between Blues and Gospel are blurry at best. In fact, if you were to change a few lyrics, these songs could easily be for Saturday night instead of Sunday morning.  Another standout track on the record is the acoustic “Me and My Lord”.  Sounding a little like Pops Staples, Leo does call and response with his backup singers while playing acoustic guitar. This song is given an extra push by Leo’s backing band which shows it’s professionalism by settling into a nice groove and not over playing.

Even though all of the music on Sabougla Voices is solid, the album’s strongest track is easily the slow and eerie blues tune “A Long Journey”. Beautifully recorded, this song is about accepting the fact that death is part of life.  That being said, hopefully Leo will be still be around for a long time as he deserves to enjoy every minute of his new found success!  He’s got gigs booked across the U.S. this summer and is even scheduled to perform in Europe!  Not bad for someone that at one point had to turn down an audition with B.B. King because he couldn’t afford to travel to Memphis.  Regardless of weather you call the music on Sabougla Voices Blue or Gospel, the music on this album is excellent and belongs in your collection.

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LITTLE WILLIE JOHN: The Authorized Biography

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FEVER: Little Willie John’s Fast Life, Mysterious Death, and the Birth of Soul 

Author: Susan Whitall  Publisher: Titan Books

Armed with a lion-like voice and sparkling personality Little Willie John was one of the most popular entertainers during the 1950’s and 60’s. Songs like “All Around The World”, “Fever”, and “Talk To Me” all made it to the top of the R&B charts and became the blueprint for what would later be called “Soul Music”. He consistently filled concert halls throughout his career always delivering an electric stage show that left audiences wanting more. On the road more often then not Willie lived his life fast and hard. He regularly stayed out until the wee-hours of the morning drinking and socializing.  One night after a show in Seattle, Washington while he was drinking at an after-hours club Willie was involved in an altercation that ended with him stabbing a man. Willie ended up being charged with manslaughter and was sent away to the Washington State Penitentiary where he died on May 26 1968 at the age of 30. Although the cause of his death is listed as “Heart Attack”, there are questions about the care he was given while incarcerated.  However it happened, it’s a sad but true fact that Little Willie John left this world too soon.

In her book FEVER: Little Willie John, A Fast Life, Mysterious Death, and the Birth of Soul, author Susan Whitall gives us a detailed and in-dept look at the life of one of music’s greatest voices. Written with the help of Willie John’s son Kevin and filled with interviews from those who knew Willie John this book is essential for anyone interested in the history of Soul music.

Essential listening  Little Willie John: Complete Hit Single’s A’s & B’s

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SHARON JONES & THE DAP-KINGS: GIVE THE PEOPLE WHAT THEY WANT!

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GIVE THE PEOPLE WHAT THEY WANT Daptone Records

Full of raw Funk and organic Soul, Give The People What They Want might be Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings finest hour. The album opens with the in-your-face sound of “Retreat”, the album’s first single, before flowing nicely into the Motown flavored “Stranger To My Happiness”.  On both these tunes we hear the band swinging like never before.  For all the credit we give Ms. Jones we need to also recognize the talents of her band the Dap-Kings.  Able to move effortlessly from one style of music to another, these talented musicians are a big reason this album flows so well. On the Latin infused “Long Time, Wrong Time” the band leads the way with a mellow groove reminiscent of Curtis Mayfield’s “Pusherman”.  Tasteful playing is the name of the game here and the band finds a nice groove behind Sharon’s soulful vocals. Other stand out tracks are the beautiful ballad “Slow Down, Love” and the hard driving “People Don’t Get What They Deserve” (they bust out the tympani drums for this one).  But this record is more then a collection of songs, it’s a reminder that the best things in life are worth fighting for.

In early 2012 Sharon lost her mother to cancer.  On tour when her mother passed Sharon found comfort in her music. Instead of taking a break she kept performing and began working on this album.  Shortly after the recording was complete she started experiencing some health problems  and was diagnosed with cancer herself.  Fortunately doctors caught it in time and Sharon is now cancer free!  Now with a new lease on life and album to promote she’s back and able to do what she does best… and that’s GIVING THE PEOPLE WHAT THEY WANT!