Once in a while, a local music show gets announced which I just cannot miss, and the announcement of a Don Bryant show with soul revivalists The Bo-Keys was just such a show. Better yet, it was being held at Loflin Yard, one of my favorite Memphis venues.
Don Bryant is one of Memphis’ forgotten soul geniuses. Originally a member of Willie Mitchell’s group The Four Kings, he recorded a number of soul sides for Joe Coughi’s Hi label during the 1960’s, but ended up becoming better known as a staff writer for the label, with “I Can’t Stand The Rain”, recorded by Ann Peebles in 1973 becoming his biggest hit. Bryant married Peebles in 1974, and soon disappeared from popular music. There were rumors that both Bryant and Peebles had transitioned to gospel music, and a few gospel releases appeared under Bryant’s name. Peebles would occasionally return to blues and soul music, but Bryant did not, at least until embarking on the recording of a new album “Don’t Give Up On Love” for the Fat Possum label out of Oxford.
Friday night’s show at Loflin Yard was primarily a showcase of the new songs, backed by Scott Bomar’s Bo-Keys, the highlight of which was a funky gospel tune called “How Do I Get There?” which is the single from the forth-coming album. Despite the drizzly weather, the venue was fairly crowded, and Bryant, at 74 years of age, was still in great form and voice, a consummate performer. And thanks to the Bo-Keys ,featuring such Memphis legends as drummer Howard Grimes and keyboardist Archie Turner, the backing sound was authentic, with live horns and real instruments, and no modern anachronisms. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hear authentic Memphis soul music as it was intended to be heard.
Celebrating the Launch of Royal Records in South Memphis
In 1958, record store owner Joe Coughi of Poplar Tunes in Memphis decided to start a record label, and he named it Hi Records, with the name taken from the last two letters of his name. Purchasing the Royal Theater on South Lauderdale, he converted it into a recording studio (Jim Stewart would do the same thing a year later with the nearby Capitol Theater on McLemore Avenue in forming Stax Records), and began recording country and rockabilly records. When Ruben Cherry and Celia Hodge’s Home of the Blues family of labels collapsed in 1962, producer Willie Mitchell was briefly without a musical home, but he soon ended up producing for Coughi at the Royal Studios, which he eventually purchased. Hi Records soon moved from recording rockabilly and country to recording blues, soul and gospel, particularly the work of such greats as Al Green, O.V. Wright, Don Bryant, Ann Peebles, Otis Clay and Syl Johnson. The Hi label was eventually sold to Al Bennett in California, but the Royal Studios continued under Willie Mitchell. As Stax collapsed and the Memphis recording industry with it, Royal continued on, and today, under Willie Mitchell’s son Boo, has become a world-famous institution. So it was only fitting that Royal Sound Studios should celebrate with a block party for the surrounding South Memphis neighborhood on the street now called Willie Mitchell Boulevard, and all the more so as Boo Mitchell announces to the world the launch of Royal Records, a label based out of the venerable Memphis studios. The first act for the fledgling label is a rap duo called Lil Riah and Key Money, both of whom are members of the Mitchell family, and who were the featured performers at the block party. But attendees also enjoyed performances by Memphis veterans Al Kapone and Frayser Boy as well as the Royal Studio Band, and there was plenty of good food from local food trucks, including hand-crafted ice cream pops from the good folks at Mempops. Even Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland came to pay his respects.
Lebanon’s @WantonBishops Record In Memphis at @RoyalStudios
It’s a long way from Beirut to Memphis, and Lebanon is definitely not the first place you think of when it comes to blues, but that didn’t stop the Wanton Bishops, a Beirut-based blues/rock band, some of whose members had met outside a well-known Beirut blues bar. After several years of growing popularity in Lebanon, Turkey and France, the Bishops started gaining attention from American audiences as well. Sponsored by Red Bull, the Wanton Bishops ended their triumphant appearance at South By Southwest in Austin with a journey up Highway 61 from New Orleans to Memphis by way of Clarksdale, documented by a film crew. Perhaps the apotheosis of that journey was a recording session in a most appropriate place, Boo Mitchell’s legendary Royal Studios in South Memphis, the place where classic recordings were made by Al Green, Otis Clay, Syl Johnson, O. V. Wright and many others. For young, blues-loving men from the Middle East, it must have seemed like the dream of a lifetime. Although it took all day, it resulted in one perfect song, and some lasting memories.
Hi Rhythm Section’s Soul Serenade at the Recording Academy 40th Anniversary @Grammy365 @LevittShell
The Young Willie Mitchell and Ruben Cherry’s Home of the Blues Records
Home of the Blues began shortly after World War II as a record shop owned by Ruben Cherry at 107 Beale Street in Memphis. Its location near Beale and Main guaranteed that both Blacks and whites would buy music there, and they did. The shop was frequented by radio rebel Dewey Phillips and King Elvis himself, and Johnny Cash’s song “Home of the Blues” was allegedly titled in honor of the shop. By 1960, Ruben had gone into business with his aunt Celia G. Camp in forming a record label called Home of the Blues, which recorded a number of blues and early soul discs during its furious two years of recording.
Many of the Home of the Blues session were produced by a young Willie Mitchell, who at that time had produced a few sessions for Eddie Bond’s Stomper Time label. He recorded a number of instrumentals, as well as recordings by his doo-wop group The Four Kings featuring Don Bryant, all of which are documented on the Stomper Time CD Original Memphis Rhythm ‘N’ Blues. Of particular note are the sultry mambo “Tanya” and its driving Memphis-beat twin “Yvonne”, and the acapella Four Kings tracks that show strong points of similarity to the mysterious Sun group Hunki-Dori. Lead singer Don Bryant would follow Mitchell over to Joe Coughi’s Hi Records label, where he would have a much bigger career.
Most of the other Home of the Blues artists are featured on Rockin’ Rhythm ‘N’ Blues From Memphis, including Roy Brown, Dave Dixon, Larry Birdsong, Billy Adams, Billy Lee Riley, The 5 Royales, Gene “Bowlegs” Miller and the mysterious “Cleanhead Cootsie” who was one of many alter egos for the great Memphis saxophonist Fred Ford. Highlights here include Willie Cobb’s magnificent “You Don’t Love Me” which made inroads even into Jamaica, Larry Birdsong’s gospelish “I’ll Let Nothing Separate Me From Your Love” and two tracks from the rarely-recorded Robinsonville, Mississippi bluesman Woodrow Adams.
While the release of these two discs from Stomper Time sheds a welcome spotlight on an obscure era in Memphis music history, the 61 tracks on these two releases only scratch the surface of what exists in the Home of the Blues catalog. Here’s hoping that the good folks at Stomper Time will eventually release the entire output of this great-but-forgotten label.
Hi Rhythm & Percy Wiggins-Id’ Rather Be Blind, Crippled & Crazy @SXSW 2013
Percy Wiggins and Hi Rhythm perform one of the lat O. V. Wright’s biggest hits at The Stages on Sixth in Austin on the last night of South By Southwest, 3/16/13
Hi Rhythm- Can’t Stand the Rain @SXSW 2013
Hi Rhythm performs Ann Peebles’ hit “I Can’t Stand The Rain” with a female singer at the Stages on Sixth in Austin on the last night of South By Southwest, 3/16/13. Band member Mabon “Teenie” Hodges was the subject of a highly-acclaimed documentary at this year’s SXSW.
Hi Rhythm Featuring Percy Wiggins Performs at the Stages on Sixth @SXSW 2013
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.