The old brick building at 1911 Poplar Avenue plays a large role in Memphis music history. It was the home of Kang Rhee martial arts, where Elvis Presley once took lessons. Then it became the Hi-Tone, one of Memphis’ most beloved music venues in the modern era. Finally, after a few years of vacancy, it has reopened as Sports Junction, ostensibly a sports bar, but with a music stage and hookahs. The live music policy is relatively hip, featuring the latest incarnation of Otis Logan’s 4 Soul Band, as the original line-up had lost members to the cruise ship business. This version featured a saxophone and a trombonist, the latter of which was also one of the evening’s two vocalists. The new 4 Soul line-up sounds as good as the old, and the new venue is pleasant, even if the old, divey feel it had in its days as the Hi-Tone has been replaced by a brighter feel. There is also a food menu, although I didn’t try any of the food options, and at least on this past Saturday, there was no cover charge for the live music. However, the venue is 21 and up only, and I did see two younger women turned away at the door.
1911 Poplar Av
Memphis, TN 38104
The Oxford Blues Festival was not held on the Square this year, as I would have expected, but rather on the Grove on the Ole Miss campus, and a good thing, since the entire Mid-South was under a heat advisory and the sun was beating down fiercely. Perhaps as a result, when I first got there, the crowd was rather small, and that despite the fact that the festival was also free. But as the day progressed, from the jazz of Doc Prana, to the bluesy rock of the Zediker Brothers, to the folk blues of Bobby Ray Watson (who had studied with Mississippi Joe Callicott), the crowd grew steadily in numbers and enthusiasm, and ever so slowly the heat began to subside. Female blues singer Joyce Jones was in the audience, and was called up on stage by Bobby Ray Watson and by Cadillac Funk to feature on a couple of songs. Then the Como Mamas came on stage to do some a cappella gospel numbers, and the afternoon was closed out by Blind Mississippi Morris as the sun was setting. Although there was a headline act for later in the evening, the people I was with wanted to head back to the Square for dinner. Despite the outrageous heat, it was a fun day of blues in a beautiful, shady setting.
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Just to the east of Marshall County, Mississippi is Benton County and its county seat of Ashland, which are also part of the Mississippi Hill Country. However, unlike Marshall County, Benton County is remote, and not as well-known, even though musicians like Nathan Beauregard and Willie Mitchell were originally from there. Sparsely populated indeed, Benton County has never been much of a destination, with the exception of visits from civil rights workers during the 1960’s. However, efforts are being made to preserve the history of Benton County, and toward that end, a festival called Arts, Beats & Eats was held on July 11th in Ashland, to attract people to the courthouse square, which has certainly seen better days. The Benton County Courthouse moved out of the historic structure on the square to a former manufacturing plant on Highway 370, and many businesses seem to have done the same. Worse, the extreme heat on Saturday kept crowds down to a minimum, with the exception of those who were running for office. But blues legends Little Joe Ayers and Garry Burnside were among the musicians who came out to perform with Mark “Muleman” Massey, and as the sun sank lower in the sky, the crowd increased and the temperature decreased. One of the purposes of the festival was to raise funds for the renovation and restoration of the square in Ashland, which is an extremely worthwhile goal. Here’s hoping this summer event becomes an annual thing. Blues belongs in Benton County as well as Marshall County.
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Although the Delta of Mississippi is known as “The Land Where Blues Began”, the area to the east known as the Hill Country produced a unique style of blues that has become famous around the world. This subgenre of blues was especially prevalent in Marshall and Benton Counties, so it’s not surprising that Holly Springs, the county seat of Marshall County, is a town that emphasizes its blues heritage. The county was home to Junior Kimbrough and R. L. Burnside, and each Thursday night during the summer, Holly Springs sponsors a weekly live music concert called Blues in the Alley, which is held directly on the courthouse square. On July 9, the featured artist was the Cassie Bonner Band, a group from Oxford that I was not familiar with. Cassie Bonner proved to be a keyboard player and a singer, and while the group’s style was more neb-soul than blues, I was quite impressed with them, particularly the young drummer. There were also food vendors and a DJ, and a crowd of several hundred people, as well as a number of motorcyclists, and a camera crew filming a documentary about Holly Springs and David Caldwell, the owner of Aikei Pro’s Record Shop. I also ran into Hill Country Blues legend Little Joe Ayers on the square as well.
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Since blues is one of the unique genres of music invented in America, I can think of few better ways to spend the Fourth of July than at a blues picnic. While there weren’t many public blues events in the Mid-South advertised on the Fourth, I had been invited to a private picnic in Sardis, Mississippi where R. L. Boyce from Como and Little Joe Ayers from Holly Springs were performing with a band fronted by a harmonica player named Al Reed. The band was playing on a truck trailer that had been pulled into a residential yard on the west side of Sardis, and there was quite a crowd there, even a young blues fan who had come down from New York. The music was great, and kids from the neighborhood nearby were shooting off fireworks, but rains kept coming, and because the instruments were electric, the show kept getting interrupted. My friend and I decided to go to Batesville to dinner, and heading back through Como heard what sounded like a fife and drum band coming from a house near the intersection of Highway 310 and Highway 51. We pulled back around and in front of the house, but the sounds were apparently from a recording rather than an actual fife and drum band. Later, R. L. Boyce sat in with the Greg Ayers Band (Greg is apparently no kin to Little Joe) at a private event facility in Senatobia. This was more of a southern soul gig, but R. L. played a couple of Hill Country tunes, and the crowd was enthusiastic indeed.
Radio Memphis is a superb internet radio station that for the last four years has been supporting Memphis music and musicians. So for their fourth birthday, they threw a party at their studios with food and music, and broadcasted the music live on the air. The performers covered nearly all genres, from the folk of Mason Jar Fireflies, to the funky organic hip-hop of Tunica rapper Jay DaSkreet, who was backed by D-Squared, consisting of Donnon Johnson on drums and Devin Jordan on keyboards, to the country of Ciera Oulette, to the authentic blues of Zeke Johnson (who studied with the late Furry Lewis) and Sturgis and Mandy Nikides of Low Society. Rarely has so much great Memphis talent been in one building at the same time, and it led to some startling serendipities, as when Donnon Johnson got on the drums backing Mason Jar Fireflies as they played an instrumental riff as a warm-up. It was a great way to celebrate Radio Memphis and what it means to the local music community.
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Jazz is the forgotten piece of the Memphis music puzzle. People who are familiar with Isaac Hayes, Al Green or Otis Redding have likely never heard of Frank Strozier, Booker Little, Joe Dukes, Jamil Nasser, Sonny Criss, Charles Lloyd, Harold Mabern or Phineas Newborn Jr. Yet the histories of jazz, blues and soul are interwoven in Memphis. A young Phineas Newborn Jr played on some of the early Sun blues records. Free jazz saxophonist Frank Lowe played with Con-Funk-Shun in the early 1970’s. Isaac Hayes’ first LP was a jazz trio record with Duck Dunn and Al Jackson Jr, and elements of jazz would be present in all his career. Much of our city’s jazz history springs from one particular high school, Manassas High School in North Memphis, which was home to Jimmie Lunceford, Jimmy Crawford, Frank Strozier, Booker Little, Harold Mabern and George Coleman, and much of that great legacy was the result of an incredible musician and band director, Emerson Able, who recently passed away. So when Johnny Yancey told me that there would be a jam session at the Blue Note on Beale Street in honor of Mr. Able, I decided to head down there, and found the club filled to overflowing. An all-star group of musicians was on stage, including Bill Hurd on saxophone, Sidney Kirk Sr. on piano, Sidney Kirk Jr on drums, Ralph Collier, Johnny Yancey and Mickey Gregory on trumpets and others. At least part of the purpose was to raise funds for instruments for the Manassas band program, and if it proved nothing else, the amazing Thursday night of music proved that Memphians will turn out to support authentic jazz in an accessible, welcoming environment. The jam sessions will continue to be held on the first Thursday of each month.
Blue Note Bar & Grill
341 Beale St
Memphis, TN 38103
A year or so ago, Joshua McCain & The Soul Seven were playing every week at a place in Hickory Hill called El Toro Loco, but were left without a regular home when that place quit booking live music. Now they have ended up right around the corner at Los Cabos on Quince, where they hold forth every Tuesday night. Featuring vocalist Gerald Bailey and keyboardist Joshua McCain, the Soul Seven performs a mix of instrumental originals and covers from Memphis’ favorite R & B artists, such as Bobby Womack, Willie Hutch, Frankie Beverly and Michael Jackson, and usually draws a crowd anywhere they play. With two birthday parties on this particular night, the audience was even larger than usual.
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Los Cabos Mexican Bar & Grill
6542 Quince Rd
Memphis, TN 38119
Audie Smith has been well-known around Memphis as an extraordinary keyboard player, so when I saw that his band Prime Cut was playing at the Southwind location of Huey’s on Sunday night, I made plans to go and check them out. Although Audie’s background is jazz, Prime Cut plays primarily neo-soul and R & B, although in a rather jazz-inflected way. His keyboard skills are absolutely tremendous, and the band featured a really soulful singer as well. Particularly impressive were jazzy takes on “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” and Michael Jackson’s “I Can’t Help It”, neither one of them tunes usually associated with jazz. The music was great, and a decent crowd was in the house as well.