It’s a fairly long way from England to South Memphis, and seems an equally long distance from classic rock ‘n roll to soul music and blues, but former Free and Bad Company Paul Rodgers was heavily influenced by the blues and decided to give back to Memphis when he cut his most recent album The Royal Sessions. Recorded at Boo Mitchell’s historic Royal Studios in South Memphis, Rodgers’ most recent effort is backed by the Memphis All-Stars, a band largely coterminous with the Hi Rhythm Section, including Teenie Hodges, the Rev. Charles Hodges, Archie Turner and Michael Toles, and features largely tunes pulled from the catalog of Stax’s venerable old East Memphis Music publishing, such as Albert King’s “Down Don’t Bother Me”, William Bell’s “Born Under A Bad Sign” and Sam & Dave’s “I Thank You.” Rodger is only the latest of several high-profile artists to choose to cut albums in Memphis at the legendary studio where Al Green cut his hits, but what Rodgers did afterward was truly unique- he decided to give all the proceeds to the Stax Music Academy, which makes a difference in South Memphis by training kids in music, improving the neighborhood, the Memphis music scene and the future of soul music all at the same time.
On Saturday, a release party was held at the Stax Museum to celebrate the album’s release, drawing what appeared to be the largest crowd ever to an album release party at the museum. The line stretched well around the building at 6 PM, and in the old Studio A, it was standing room only, as people came to understand that Paul Rodgers would actually perform four songs from the album with the Memphis-All-Stars. Afterwards there was even a longer line for people to have their purchased discs signed by Rodgers and the other musicians, but it was well worth it, and great to see the legacies of Stax and Hi Records intertwined in this way.
John Kilzer should be a familiar name to most Memphians, although many will likely remember him for different reasons. At various times he has been a Memphis State University basketball player, a university professor, a singer-songwriter with a major label deal, a recovering alcoholic, a theological student and now a clergyman. With the release of Seven on the Memphis-based Madjack Records, Kilzer returns to his roots as a songwriter and lover of literature, along with evidence of his new-found faith, for as the name suggests, Seven is an extended meditation on God, brokenness and grace.
The album begins joyfully enough, with the nonsensical soul-funk of “Kentucky Water”, a Memphis romp reminiscent of The Hombres old “Let It All Hang Out”, bolstered by Teenie Hodges on guitar (who taught Kilzer how the play the guitar), Charles Hodges on organ, and a first-rate horn section. Kilzer tells an unnamed someone to “Pass me the rattlesnake, honey, I’m feeling faithful.” All good fun. But the bulk of the album moves on to weightier matters, with the song “Mary” setting the solemn theme of spirituality, and “Two Coats” explicitly referencing Kilzer’s own conversion. “Two coats were before me, the old and the new,” he sings. “I asked my sweet Savior what should I do?” A similar mood hangs over “The Stranger”, Kilzer’s brilliant retelling of the story of the crippled man at the pool of Bethesda. Referring to being “beside the pool of the broken”, he mentions a Stranger that comes and says “Everyone alive today is broken, Anyone who says they’re not’s a fool.” There are even notes of doubt, such as the song “Resurrection Train”, where Kilzer sings “If the dead can rise why can’t they see me down here on my knees.” But the darker and more solemn moments are broken up by joyful soul in “Walk By Faith, Not By Sight” or the upbeat “All For Joy.” Even the somber, wistful “Fading Man” has the mood and feel of a New Orleans ballad. Altogether, John Kilzer’s Seven is a masterful accomplishment, full of the various strands of musical tradition that make up Memphis, backed by incredible musicianship, great arranging, superb songwriting and good recording values. An essential addition to the Memphis musical legacy.
Although the Hi Records imprint is forever associated with Willie Mitchell and his legacy of Memphis soul, the label didn’t start out that way at all. Begun by a group of investors that included Pop Tunes owner Joe Cuoghi (the “Hi” name seems to have come from the last two letters of Cuoghi’s name), the label focused on recording the kind of country and rockabilly that had brought success to other Memphis labels such as Sun, Moon and Fernwood. Instrumental hits by the Bill Black Combo kept the label going in this fashion until the first soul and blues recordings appeared in the mid-1960’s. Willie Mitchell became a producer at Hi after the demise of Ruben Cherry’s Home of the Blues label in 1963, and by the early 1970’s he was putting together the band that would become known as Hi Rhythm, built around the three Hodges brothers, Mabon, Charles and Leroy. The band went on to back every great Hi artist, from Al Green, to Syl Johnson, to Otis Clay, to O. V. Wright, to Ann Peebles.
By any rights, this year’s appearance of Hi Rhythm should have been one of the high points of SXSW, so although I was happy to have an easy time getting into the Stages on Sixth to see it, I was disappointed that the crowd was smaller than I had expected. Nevertheless, musically, the appearance of these Memphis legends with another living Memphis legend, soul singer Percy Wiggins was definitely the high point of MY South By Southwest, and the kind of serendipitous experience that makes me proud to be a Memphian. Percy Wiggins’ voice was in fine form, and it perfectly suited the sound and groove of Hi Rhythm, and Teenie Hodges, who was the subject of a documentary film at this year’s SXSW, was also on stage despite being on oxygen. Two fans were kept on him at all times to keep him cool during the performance. Altogether, it was a triumphant night for Memphis, and a tribute to the lasting vision and spirit of the late Willie Mitchell.