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.
Similar Artists: Junior Kimbrough, R.L. Burnside, Lightnin’ Hopkins
The Beginning: Fat Possum Records and Hill Country Blues
In 1992 a small indie label called Fat Possum Records gave the American Blues scene a much needed kick-in-the-ass when they released the debut album from 62 year-old Bluesman Junior Kimbrough. Entitled ALL NIGHT LONG, the record was met with rave reviews from both critics and Blues fans and gave Kimbrough some well deserved national attention. Shortly after the success of the Kimbrough record Fat Possum also started having success with another one of their artists, R.L. Burnside. Like Junior Kimbrough, R.L. Burnside was in his 60’s and a resident of the area surrounding Holly Springs, Mississippi known as the Mississippi Hill Country. Also like Kimbrough, R.L. Burnside was a master of a style of music called “Hill Country Blues”. Different then the well known Delta Blues style, Hill Country Blues focuses more on creating a groove and sometimes features other instruments such as Drums. With both the Kimbrough and Burnside records receiving some good press, Fat Possum began recording other Hill Country Blues musicians. Unfortunately the label quickly ran into the problem that many of the musicians they recorded were usually older and in very poor health. Sadly, many of them died before or shortly after their album got released. Down but not out Fat Possum Records kept plugging along and in 2000 they released a record by a 59 year-old construction worker named Robert Belfour.
Robert Belfour was born in 1940 in Red Banks, Mississippi. Growing up in the Hill Country, he was surrounded by music and learned to play the guitar by watching his father play. As his interest in the guitar grew he began performing for friends and family at picnics. He continued his musical education by watching local legends like Othar Turner and Junior Kimbrough who both lived in the area and regularly performed at parties and in local Juke-Joints. Unfortunately when Robert was just 13 years old his father passed away and he was forced to get a job in order support the family. Then in 1959 Robert got married and moved to Memphis, Tennessee. He worked in construction for the next 35 years and only played music when he had time. In fact, it was until the late 80’s when he really began to take music seriously again. His first real break came in 1994 he was featured on the compilation album THE SPIRIT LIVES ON, DEEP SOUTH COUNTRY BLUES & SPIRITUALS. The recordings he contributed to the record got the attention of Fat Possum Records and in the year 2000 the label issued his debut album WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU. A dark-acoustic record, WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU showcased Roberts percussive guitar work and rich deep voice. The album featured a mixture of originals and covers, many of which had been made popular by other Hill Country Blues musicians. The album was a success with many Blues enthusiasts and introduced Robert to an international audience.
In 2003 Robert released his second album on Fat Possum, the humorously titled, PUSHIN’ MY LUCK. Like it’s predecessor, the album was primarily acoustic and pleased both fans and critics. Internationally, Robert’s popularity grew and he started to play a number of European Blues festivals. Back in the states, Robert kept his home in Memphis and continued to be a regular performer on the Juke-Joint scene in Clarksdale, Mississippi. A dynamic performer into his 70’s, Robert’s shows would usually last late into the the night and sometimes be as long as three hours! Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. Robert Balfour passed away at his home in Memphis on February 25, 2015. Fortunately for us (and thanks to the good folks at Fat Possum Records) his recordings are still readily available and can be found on iTunes, Amazon, and at your local record store.
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.
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.
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.
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!
RESPECT YOURSELF: THE STORY OF STAX RECORDS Bloomsbury USA
Author Robert Gordon has been writing about the music of Memphis for almost 30 years. In Respect Yourself: The Story of STAX Records Mr. Gordon not only tells the story of STAX but also the story of the Civil Rights movement in Memphis. Passionately written and meticulously researched this book takes you from the label’s meager beginnings in a garage outside Memphis to it’s bankruptcy in 1975. Along with Mr. Gordon’s narration you hear from the people that made STAX happen, making this book one of a kind.
A LITTLE STAX HISTORY…
Started by Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton in 1957, STAX Records was more then just a record label. It was a voice in the community. The label’s open door policy made it possible for anyone to come in off the street and set up an audition. It didn’t matter where you were from or what the color of your skin was, you were welcomed at STAX as long as you had a passion for music.
Right from the beginning STAX did things it’s own way. Segregation may have been alive and well in Memphis during the 1960’s, but that didn’t stop STAX founder Jim Stewart from hiring an African American DJ named Al Bell to be his lead promotions man. Working together side by side Jim, Estelle, and Al turned STAX records from a little indie label into a household name! STAX artists like Otis Redding, Booker T. & The MG’s, Carla Thomas, and William Bell put the label on the map with singles that started appearing on the R&B and Pop charts. Money was coming in and things were really rolling, until one very dark December day in 1967…
Today many people can remember exactly where they were when they learned that the plane carrying Otis Redding and The Bar-Keys went down. Otis was the soul of STAX and the voice of soul music. A few months later while the people of STAX were still grieving over the loss of Otis and the Bar Keys their world was rocked again. On the evening of April 4, 1968 Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. Needless to say, after the assassination of Dr. King everything was different, especially in Memphis. If all this wasn’t enough, the label’s distributor Atlantic Records ended it’s relationship with STAX. With it’s biggest star gone and no way to get music to the stores most label’s would have called it a day, but most labels didn’t have Al Bell. It was then that Al and the folks at STAX hunkered down and staged one of the biggest comebacks in music history.
The early 70’s found STAX again at the top of the Soul music world. This time around STAX would reach heights that were even greater then it did in the 1960’s. Al Bell gained full control of the label and STAX rode the success of artists like Isaac Hayes, The Emotions, Johnnie Taylor, and The Staple Singers all the way to the top of the charts. Sadly this rebirth would be short lived as some questionable business decisions and over expatiation lead to STAX eventually having to declaring bankruptcy in 1975.
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!
On Sunday June 23, 2013 the Blues world lost one of it’s most soulful voices in Bobby “Blue” Bland. Unlike many of his contemporaries Bland lived to the golden age of 83, thus making him one of the last living connections to the Memphis Blues scene of the 1950’s. In his early days Bland performed on Beale street along with artists like Johnny Ace, Little Junior Parker, Ike Turner, Howlin’ Wolf and B.B. King. Although he performed with many Delta Blues players Bland’s smooth vocal style was closer to the big city Rhythm & Blues sound of artists like Louis Jordan and T-Bone Walker (this eventually earned him the nickname “The Black Sinatra”). Along with artists like Junior Parker and Johnny Ace, Bland’s style helped shape the Memphis Soul Blues style that would influence artists like Otis Redding and Al Green.
During the 1950’s the Memphis music scene was one the biggest and most competitive in the South. Musicians from all over the Southern states flocked to the area to showcase their talent at the clubs on Beale Street and across the river in West Memphis. In these clubs you had to be not only on top of your game musically but you had to be able to put on a show! It wasn’t long before record labels like Chess, Modern, and Duke got wind of what was going on and started trying to cherry pick talent from the local scene. Using recording engineer Sam Phillips and his Memphis Recording Service as one of their main contacts these labels started bringing the music of Memphis to the masses. Bobby “Blue” Bland started out recording some sides that were released by the Modern and Chess labels were very good but failed to draw national attention. It wasn’t until he started recording for Duke Records in 1954 that he found success as a recording artist. His first big single was “Farther On Up The Road” which reached number 1 on the R&B charts. In 1961 Bland and Duke released the album Two Steps from the Blues which was combined some newly recorded “Big Band” style tracks along with some of his previously released late fifties sides. The album was an instant success and took Bland’s career to the next level.
In the years following “Two Steps From The Blues” Bland released albums and kept a busy touring schedule. Duke released like Here’s The Man, His California Album, and The Soul Of The Man but in 1968 due to a number of personal problems Bland disbanded his touring band and cut his live schedule way back. He enjoyed some success with the single “This Time I’m Gone For Good” from His California Album which broke into the top 50 on the Pop Charts. In 1974 Bland teamed up with B.B. King and released the first of two live albums with B.B. King. Together for the First Time…Live was a commercial success and helped Bland and King stay in the spotlight through the 70’s. The pair toured on and off together for the next 35 years.
Although he may not have had the commercial success of B.B. King or Muddy Waters, Bobby “Blue” Bland was a force to be reckoned with in the would of Blues and R&B. He’s inspired everyone from the Heavy Metal band Whitesnake to the legendary Rapper Jay-Z. He’s a member of both the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame and The Blues Foundation Hall Of Fame and has performed sold out concerts all over the world. B.B. King credits him as being one of the best singers he’s ever heard. Personally, I agree with Mr. King. Thank you Bobby for sharing your music and talent with us.