Memphis contemporary soul band The Bo-Keys have been actively involved in preserving the unique legacy of Memphis soul music, and are an annual featured act at the Soulsville Street Festival in April. They frequently appear with soul singer Percy Wiggins on vocals, and they began their set at Stax to the Max with him this year before blues singer John Nemeth (who recently cut a new album in Memphis) came on stage to perform some of the songs from his latest release.
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.