As I was driving toward downtown on Lamar Avenue, I noticed this mural on the wall of an old warehouse. I had not noticed it before, so I have a feeling that it is fairly recent, and I love the way it celebrates Memphis’ music legacy.
MemShop is a local effort to revitalize Memphis neighborhoods by placing temporary shops in vacant store space in strategically located areas. The organization has recently been involved in trying to turn around the intersection at Mississippi Boulevard and Walker near the LeMoyne-Owen College campus, and Saturday MemShop held a block party at the intersection to celebrate the opening of two new shops, Klassy Chics and @ Home Computer Service. The block party featured performances by Memphis alternative/neo-soul singer Apollo Mighty, and the dance team from Knowledge Quest Kids Camp. The hope is that the temporary shops will encourage permanent tenants to move into the space.
William Bell was one of the first young men from South Memphis to walk over and investigate the Stax Records studios as they were being built in the old Capitol Theatre in South Memphis. Although perhaps never as big a star as Isaac Hayes or Otis Redding, Bell is deserving of acclaim for his success as a songwriter, as a performing artist and as the owner of his own independent record label, Wilbe Records. He generally is the last performer to appear at each year’s Soulsville Street Festival in South Memphis, and frequently performs with the Bo-Keys in various locations. William Bell is truly a living legend of Memphis music.
The Mad Lads were yet another Memphis vocal group with South Memphis ties, and they recorded a number of singles and a handful of albums for Stax Records before lead singer John Gary Williams (who was a member of the Memphis Black Power group known as The Invaders) was arrested and charged with being involved in a sniping incident against the Memphis police in late 1968. Later, Williams launched a solo career, and recorded one very elusive self-titled album just as Stax was falling apart in late 1974. Over the years, Williams has put together a number of reconstituted Mad Lads groups, and is now the subject of a forthcoming documentary called I See Hope: The John Gary Williams Story , which is currently in production. The annual appearance of the Mad Lads at the Stax to the Max festival is a big deal to the largely South Memphis crowd that attends.
Memphis was an exception to the rule that Black vocal groups were a largely Northern phenomenon, as the city had a number of great Black doo-wop and soul groups from the 1950’s to the 1970’s. One of the city’s favorites was the South Memphis group known as the Temprees, who recorded for the Stax subsidiary label We Produce in the early 1970’s, and who captured a bit of attention with their soulful reading of the rock/pop standard “Dedicated to the One I Love.” As they are South Memphis native sons, their appearance at the Stax to the Max festival stage is always a huge affair. This year the crowd tried to storm the stage and had to be held back by security, and all this despite the fact that they haven’t had a record out since 1976!
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.
As the column of smoke from the north of the Stax Museum grew blacker, higher and more dense, people could no longer ignore it. A number of young people began leaving the festival and walking north past the LeMoyne-Owen College campus, fearing that perhaps their houses or the houses of people they knew might be on fire. The fire certainly looked to be in the former LeMoyne Gardens area, but as we walked in that direction, we could see that it was further north. It proved to be beside the railroad tracks across from Elmwood Cemetery, and was an old abandoned warehouse. A man came and explained to us that the fire had possibly started when a railroad car’s wheels threw up a spark that ignited the building. Unfortunately, the fire had spread to a lumber car on the nearby train that had started smoldering, which was a more serious problem than it seemed, because other cars on the train were tank cars containing highly-flammable liquefied petroleum, and if they had ignited, the whole neighborhood could have been levelled. As it was, he said he had called the Burlington Northern railroad, and they had sent two engines out to move the cars away from the fire, which by now had attracted 80 or so curious onlookers including a number of kids. People were telling us that the smoke could be seen all the way from Poplar and White Station. Just at that point, a Civil Defense truck pulled up and told us to get away from the area, because they didn’t know exactly what was burning inside the warehouse, and that it could be some kind of chemical. Also, he said that if the fire reached either of two electrical transformers, it could send projectiles across the tracks to where we were standing. So I began to back away, but many others seemed reluctant to leave. We later heard that three teenagers had been seen running from the building shortly before it burst into flames.
The Memphis-based Daddy Mack Blues Band is one of the city’s best and most highly-acclaimed blues bands. Their traditional roots-oriented style sets them apart from many other Memphis blues bands, and they are immensely popular in Europe. They were the second act of the day to perform at the Stax to the Max Soulsville Street Festival, and they got a lot of love from the enthusiastic crowd. Unfortunately, as they performed, a big plume of black smoke began to rise from a fire off to the north behind the stage. Soon sirens were sounding from every direction, and all of this proved to be an unwelcome distraction from their performance.
The Memphis Music Magnet is a music-based community redevelopment effort in the Soulsville neighborhood of South Memphis adjacent to the Stax Music Academy and the Stax Museum. Its crowning achievement so far has been the redevelopment of blues great Memphis Slim’s childhood home into a recording co-operative with a small performance space upstairs (this house being directly across the street from the legendary Stax studios is one of the odd coincidences of the neighborhood), and on April 25, the general public got their first opportunity to tour the facility and to sign up for a membership, which costs $60 per year. Members get 10 hours of recording time per month, and can get two more each month by teaching a class to other members. The facility is small but beautiful, and has an upright piano and a vintage drum set, in addition to its recording board and mic room. These are the kind of initiatives that Memphis needs, and ones that will hopefully make a difference. To celebrate their open house, the Collaboratory had hired my homeboy DJ Daniel to spin rare Memphis soul, which is what he does best.