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.
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.
The last Saturday of April in Memphis is always one of the biggest days of the year for festivals and events, including the On Location: Memphis International Film and Music Festival, the Southern Hot Wing Festival, the Vollentine Evergreen Art Walk, and the Stax to the Max Soulsville Street Festival. The latter, which is free, is an annual outdoor party and concert, featuring many of the best living veterans of Stax, usually including William Bell, John Gary Williams and the Mad Lads, the Temprees and the Memphis revivalist band the Bo-Keys. Held on the back parking lot of the Stax Museum and the Stax Academy, crowds can run into the thousands.