Born in Arkansas in 1915 Sister Rosetta Tharpe influenced Rock and Popular music more then most people know. A young Little Richard got his start by opening for her before anybody knew who he was. Elvis, Johnny Cash, and Bob Dylan all cite Sister Rosetta as a major influence, and during her heyday she performed for stadium sized crowds all over the world. In short, Sister Rosetta was a rockstar before Rock n’ Roll even existed.
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.
Traveling to Memphis!
This past spring I had the privilege of getting to spend a few days in Memphis, Tennessee. Let me start out by saying that I found Memphis to be a wonderful city with amazing history! While Memphis has received a bad reputation for it’s level of crime and high homeless population at no time did I feel unsafe. I had an excellent visit and found the locals of Memphis very friendly and helpful. If you have any interest in American Roots music or the History of the Civil Rights movement you should start making plans to visit Memphis immediately.
MUST DO’s while in Memphis.
National Civil Rights Museum 450 Mulberry St Memphis, TN 38103 http://www.civilrightsmuseum.org/
In my opinion to really understand the history of American roots music you need to learn about the struggle for Civil Rights in this country. Start your visit here! This beautiful museum will set the tone for the rest of your visit. Located in the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated, the museum elegantly tells the story of the men and women that fought hard for equality in this country. Learning about the struggle for Civil Rights will help you see why multiracial bands at Stax Records and Fame Studios were so historically significant.
Stax Museum of American Soul Music 926 E. McLemore Ave. (901) 942-SOUL www.staxmuseum.com
Possibly one of the best museums in the United States, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music tells the story of the little record label that could. From field workers singing gospel music to the artists of today this museum leaves no stone unturned. Also the museum doesn’t just stick to talking about Stax artists. It covers artists from Motown, Atlantic, Chess, Duke, Goldwax (my personal favorite), and everything in-between! You’ll see things like Issac Hayes’ car, Rufus Thomas Mater Tapes, and a recreation of the studio where Booker T. and The MG’s backed many amazing artists. The museum has lots of interactive touch-screens and even a full on dance floor! The staff are very knowledgeable and are dedicated to getting you the whole story of Soul music. Keep in mind if you’re staying downtown you’ll have to take a cab, bus, or car to get here as it’s a little off the beaten path, but you’ll learn there’s a reason for that. This museum is worth the short trip from downtown. Only here will you’ll get the whole story of American Blues and Soul music.
Although it’s now pretty much a tourist trap, Beale Street should be a stop on your trip. This is the street where so many musicians got their “start”. W.C. Handy, B.B. King, Furry Lewis, Rosco Gordon, Rufus Thomas, Memphis Minnie, all have graced the stages of clubs here on Beale. There is still plenty of live music here but it can be very hit or miss. Luckily, I had a chance to catch the great Dr. Feelgood Potts while I was here and he didn’t disappoint! He and his put put on a great show and had the place jumpin’! Check him out if you get the chance!
EATING ON BEALE
Blues City Cafe 138 Beale St, Memphis TN (901) 526-3637 http://www.bluescitycafe.com/
The one sure thing on Beale that’s around today is the restaurant Blues City Cafe. Memphis has as many amazing restaurants as it does Blues legends and the Blues City Cafe is one of the best. Late hours, great spices, amazing BBQ, what’s not to love? I had some of the best Fried Catfish I’ve ever had in my life here!
The Rock N’ Soul Museum
Located at Beale and Hwy 61 (across the street from the Gibson Guitar Factory)
This museum isn’t as essential as the Stax Museum but it’s still VERY good. They have an amazing collection of stuff from Ike Turner’s Piano to part of a classic Southern style church. They cover all the essentials from Gospel to today’s Soul and they have a really nice exhibit on Memphis’ own WDIA! If you’re short on time and cant’s make it to the Stax Museum then make sure you hit this place up! It also offers a FREE shuttle to Sun Records and is walking distance to lots of stuff in Downtown Memphis.
Another thing to do while in Memphis is vist The Memphis Cotton Exchange Museum. Cotton was king in the American south and because the history of the Blues has so much to do with the life a sharecropper lived you really can’t pass up this museum.
There’s also Sun Records, the studio where Sam Phillips recorded Elvis, Cash, Jerry Lee, and many others. Now don’t get me wrong, I like the Rockabilly stuff that was done at Sun Records but I’m personally more interested in the Blues that Sam Phillips recorded with his Memphis Recording Service. Sadly there is little mention of the Blues at Sun Records today, but to be fair, most of their visitors don’t really seem to care about that. Most of them probably aren’t even aware that Sam Phillips once called Howlin’ Wolf’s “Moanin’ at Midnight” the greatest recording he ever made. So besides an original wax copy of Ike Turner’s “Rocket 88” there really isn’t much about the Blues here at Sun Records. The studio is now very touristy and has a large gift shop and cafe in it. During my visit I tried to imagine Johnny Cash taking a break from a session to shop for a Sun Records hoodie but it made me sad so I left. However, if you’re into Rockabilly or Elvis Presley you should make this an essential part of your Memphis trip.
Some other non-essential but fun spots to see Memphis
Al Green’s Full Gospel Tabernacle Church,
The Blues Foundation office (when they finish building their Blues museum this will become an essential stop)
West Memphis, Arkansas (The clubs in West Memphis were where musicians from Memphis went to REALLY show their stuff)
Also make sure you check out the site www.msbluestrail.org. Here you’ll find information about the Mississippi Blues Trail and Historical markers that are set up at spots along the trail where Blues history actually happened! There are a number of these markers around Memphis and they provide a nice overview of the city’s Blues history.
LAST BUT NOT LEAST…
If you’re in Memphis, Tennessee then you’re only about 90 short minutes from Clarksdale, Mississippi. I HIGHLY recommend taking at least a day and travel down to Clarksdale. If you’re into Blues, Soul, Gospel, or History you will LOVE Clarksdale. Here you will get your fill of NO FRILLS BLUES HISTORY. There is so much to see and do in Clarksdale that I can’t list it all here. So if you’d like suggestions about visiting Clarksdale please contact me through this blog and I’ll be in touch with you. Keep in mind that many of the amazing clubs, shops, and museums in Clarksdale are disappearing due to the recent influx of Casinos along the Mississippi river. So see them while you can!
A few years ago while I was doing a blues gig in San Francisco and I got into a conversation with another musician about great Blues guitar players. “It’s a shame there aren’t any great blues players left” he said. “That’s not true” I replied, “There are still some of the greats left. B.B. is still around and of course you have Buddy Guy”. The musician gave me a strange look and said “What?! Why do you like Buddy Guy? I saw him once and he just played a bunch of Hendrix riffs”. All I could do at that point was chuckle and reply, “Yeah, well where do you think Hendrix, got some of those ideas from? Jimi was a student of the Blues and listened to all the blues records he could get his hands on. The guitar player on many of these records was Buddy Guy. ”
Buddy Guy’s guitar playing has inspired guitar players in every genre of music for over fifty years. Always an exciting live act Buddy, has taken his exciting brand of electric blues all all over the world. He’s shared the stage with blues legends like Muddy Waters and rockers like The Rolling Stones. He’s headlined countless festivals, performed on television and even performed for Presidents and Royalty. That being said his impressive career isn’t limited just to the stage. During the 1960’s Buddy was an in-demand studio musician for Chess records and played lead guitar on many hits by the likes of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Koko Taylor. In short, Buddy Guy has lived enough in his 76 years for three lifetimes, and lucky for us he’s decided to tell his story.
In “When I Left Home” Buddy (with help from David Ritz) takes us from the farm he grew up on in Louisiana to the streets of Chicago. A master storyteller, Buddy doesn’t hold back when talking about the ups and downs of life as a blues man. With a mother in need of extra medical attention after suffering a stroke, he left Louisiana for Chicago in search work that would able him to not only support himself but also send money back home to Louisiana. Already proficient on guitar from playing around clubs in Louisiana, Buddy worked himself into the Chicago scene with the help of some local blues fans and eventually with help from the great Muddy Waters. One would think that this would be the ending of our story, but this is only the beginning. Over the next several years Buddy works hard to establish himself as one of the premier Blues guitar players on the Chicago scene. Working as a tow-truck driver in the day, playing clubs and doing recording sessions at night he found himself working night and day to make his dream happen and take care of his family. “When I Left Home” is the no-nonsense story of George “Buddy” Guy, and like it’s author, this story is THE REAL DEAL.
Not familiar with the music of Buddy Guy? Here are some albums I think you might enjoy. There are also many single recordings featuring Buddy, more information on these recordings and the albums listed below can be found in the back of the book “When I Left Home”.
BUDDY GUY ALBUMS
“Buddy’s Blues” (Best of his Chess recordings)
“A Man and The Blues”
“Buddy and The Junior’s” (Buddy Guy with Junior Wells and Junior Mance)
“Damn Right I Got The Blues”
“Can’t Quit The Blues” (Box Set)
RECORDS FEATURING BUDDY GUY
JUNIOR WELLS “Hoodoo Man Blues”
MUDDY WATERS “Folk Singer”
This morning as I was writing a post to pay tribute to the life of the great Johnny Otis, who passed away yesterday, I learned of the passing of one of the greatest artists Johnny ever discovered, Ms. Etta James. While Etta James is a house-hold name (and rightfully so) the name Johnny Otis is sadly becoming less and less known by today’s music fans. Besides giving Etta James her first big break, Mr. Otis also helped start the careers of many top R&B performers. When not performing with his own band he was in the studio recording and producing sides for many of the best R&B performers. It was Johnny Otis who produced and performed on the original 1952 recording of Hound Dog featuring Big Mama Thornton. Two years later in 1954 Otis found himself in the studio again with another young blues singer, a woman by the name of Jamesetta Hawkins. Like Big Mama Thornton, Jamesetta started out performing with The Johnny Otis Band. She then moved to Los Angeles and entered the studio with the band to record what would be her break out song “The Wallflower (Roll With Me Henry)”. Written by Johnny Otis “The Wallflower” was an answer song to the Hank Ballard tune “Work With Me Annie”. Shortly after the release of the song Jamesetta (now going by the stage name Etta James) started off on a solo career that would last over 50 years. She recorded many smash hits for a number of different labels and released albums up until 2011. In addition to being successful in the recording studio James was also successful on the stage and would continue to be an in-demand performer until 2009 when she was unable to perform due to health issues.
As for Johnny Otis, discovering Etta James was just one of the many highlights in a career that lasted well into his eighties. A true renaissance man, Otis was a songwriter, performer, producer, author, store and bar owner, and painter. He even got involved in politics in his home state of California during the 1960’s. However, with all these accomplishments Johnny Otis is probably best know for writing the hit song “Willie and The Hand Jive” which would sell over 1.5 million copies and be covered by Eric Clapton for his 1974 album 461 Ocean Boulevard.
During the their lifetimes both Etta James and Johnny Otis brought to joy to millions of fans all over the world, they are both members of multiple halls of fame, and their influence can be heard in the music of artists in every genre of music. They will both be dearly missed.