My homeboy Otis Logan is one of Memphis’ best young drummers, so when he told me he would be playing for a singer named Bigg Smith at The African Place, I was intrigued, as I didn’t know the singer or the venue, but I made plans to attend. As it turned out, The African Place is the former Cafe 581 which had an extremely brief run about four years ago, and it is not usually a music venue, but rather more of a shop/gallery for imported African goods. All the same, the place was packed to overflowing, with a very small space for the band. The show opened with a few songs from an R & B singer named Lamar, but Bigg Smith proved to be an amazingly talented singer, with a warm voice that exudes confidence, and the backing band was first-rate as well. Smith’s repertoire included some originals, as well as covers ranging from Aretha Franklin to Jeffrey Osborne. All too soon it was over, but it was a Friday evening well-spent.
Dr. Alfred Brown’s club called The Plexx in an old decrepit shopping center on E. H. Crump Boulevard in Memphis is one of the few places in the city where authentic old-school live blues and soul can be heard, but on the Friday night before Halloween, things took a slightly different turn, as veteran blues singer Jewel Jones was backed by the 4 Soul Band, consisting of some of Memphis’ best young musicians, including Lloyd Anderson on bass and drummer Otis Logan. While it’s common to think of there being something of a musical divide between young and old, the consummate talents of these young musicians enabled them to fit in perfectly with the older blues and soul offerings of Ms. Jones. Veteran Memphis drummer Willie Hall was in the crowd as well, and it was a great night of Memphis music off the beaten path and away from the tourist crowd
While the annual Memphis Music and Heritage Festival was going on downtown, the On Location: Memphis Film and Music Festival was also taking place in Overton Square and in the Cooper-Young neighborhood. The music showcases were held in the basement of Cooper-Walker Place, and featured great Memphis musicians from all genres. Memphis hip-hop star Jason da Hater was on stage when I arrived, followed by a new local rock band called One Word. Then Tori WhoDat performed, along with Preauxx and other members of the TRDON camp. Perhaps the highlight of the afternoon showcase was 4 Soul’s performance, with Otis Logan on drums, and extraordinary Memphis vocalist Tonya Dyson fronting Memphis’ premiere neo-soul band. Over at Studio on the Square, a large crowd was watching a preview screening of an upcoming movie called The Man in 3B, with the filmmaker present. Altogether it was a great year for On Location: Memphis on its first Labor Day weekend.
Although Memphis’ Black community has an old and deep history of drumlines, the phenomenon has been fading in recent years. A reduced interest on the part of young people, lack of access to drums, lack of available instructors and the preference of dance squads and majorette teams for recorded music and DJ’s have all been factors in reducing the number of drumlines and drummers in Memphis. But a few of the high schools still have drumlines, and this fall, my homeboy Otis Logan is coaching the drummers at Manassas High School, the legendary school where the great big band leader Jimmie Lunceford was the first band director. The Manassas drummers sound good, particularly for it to be as early in the year as it is.
The Havana Mix in downtown Memphis is primarily a cigar lounge, but occasionally books live music, often on Friday evenings. So when my drummer friend Otis Logan told me to come down because he was playing there, I did. The band was billed as the Havana Mix Band, and did a series of neo-soul and R & B classics for the ample crowd inside. Of course, as one would expect with a cigar bar, the place is not for those who don’t enjoy plenty of smoke. But the atmosphere is elegant and refined, and the music (when they have it) is first-rate.
The old brick building at 1911 Poplar Avenue plays a large role in Memphis music history. It was the home of Kang Rhee martial arts, where Elvis Presley once took lessons. Then it became the Hi-Tone, one of Memphis’ most beloved music venues in the modern era. Finally, after a few years of vacancy, it has reopened as Sports Junction, ostensibly a sports bar, but with a music stage and hookahs. The live music policy is relatively hip, featuring the latest incarnation of Otis Logan’s 4 Soul Band, as the original line-up had lost members to the cruise ship business. This version featured a saxophone and a trombonist, the latter of which was also one of the evening’s two vocalists. The new 4 Soul line-up sounds as good as the old, and the new venue is pleasant, even if the old, divey feel it had in its days as the Hi-Tone has been replaced by a brighter feel. There is also a food menu, although I didn’t try any of the food options, and at least on this past Saturday, there was no cover charge for the live music. However, the venue is 21 and up only, and I did see two younger women turned away at the door.
1911 Poplar Av
Memphis, TN 38104
People who know me know that I’m not a huge fan of modern-day Beale Street. In its current garish, Disneyland-like iteration, it seems like a travesty upon the street where blues became famous rather than a tribute to it, and bad cover bands seem to be the order of the day, along with mostly mediocre food and plenty of alcohol. So I was less than thrilled when my musician friend Otis Logan suggested that we go to B. B. King’s on Beale Street, but I like going out with friends, and he was supposed to sit in, so I agreed to go. Beale at this time of year is pretty much a ghost town, even on weekends. Winter is the off-season in Memphis, as we get weather every bit as cold as St. Louis or Cincinnati, and people wanting great music and a warmer climate are heading further south to New Orleans, not shivering here. But there was a decent-sized crowd in B. B. King’s, all the more amazing since it was a Thursday night. I ordered a fudge brownie, which was actually delicious, and sat down at a table as the band was walking up on the stage. The band this particular night was known as the B. B. King’s All-Stars, and an impressive bunch of Memphis musicians they were. They were tight and together as a unit, and they played a couple of funky instrumentals before bringing up their vocalist, a soul singer named Rodney Tate whom I had never heard of, and he was also quite good. One of my bigger complaints about Beale Street in recent years has been how little of the music heard on the street is actually classic Memphis blues or soul, but the music at B. B. King’s on this particular night was exactly that, and it was thrilling to hear. Due to a late start, the Memphis musicians who had gathered in the club hoping to sit in did not get to, but it was altogether a fun and exhilarating experience. Perhaps I’ll venture there more often.
I really was not familiar with the Memphis rapper Crisis 901 who was putting on an event called Dope On Arrival at the House of Mtenzi in Midtown Memphis on a Friday night in January. But I did of course know the Chinese Connection Dub Embassy band that was providing the musical backdrop for the MC’s, and my homeboy Otis Logan was playing drums with them on the gig in place of Donnon Johnson, so I decided to go down and support the event, and I enjoyed myself. Most of the artists were young new artists from Memphis, and I wasn’t familiar with them, but they were all decent MC’s. Crisis, who was celebrating his birthday, closed out the set, and I learned was not only a rapper but also an R & B singer as well. He refers to himself as “The Dark Knight” and uses a considerable amount of Batman references. Apparently the Dope on Arrival events are regularly-scheduled recurring concerts that happen about every three months or so.
Every Monday night, musicians, singers and poets head down to a Latin club and restaurant in Memphis’ South Main Arts District for a weekly open mic event called The Word. Hosted by Memphis singer Tonya Dyson, The Word usually features a live band which backs up the singers, rappers and poets, and on the particular Monday night I was there, the band in question was Chinese Connection Dub Embassy, Memphis’ best local reggae and dub band. The main drummer for CCDE is Donnon Johnson, but on this particular night, he traded out with my homeboy Otis Logan on certain tunes, and Otis was featured on an amazing drum solo over a keyboard vamp. Several singers and poets performed, including Tonya Dyson herself, who had an incredible reading of the Jamaican festival classic “What A Bam Bam”.
Memphis soul singer Devin Crutcher comes from a legendary musical family in Memphis, the family of Stax songwriter Bettye Crutcher, and is probably the most in-demand male singer in the city today. He can be heard at different venues most nights of any week in Memphis, but it is not so common for him to appear with the excellent 4 Soul Band, which my friend Otis Logan is the drummer for. So when I heard that Devin Crutcher would be performing with 4 Soul and some sort of fashion and hair extravaganza at the Ice Bar on a Sunday night, I made plans to be there. 4 Soul is one of the city’s best soul and funk bands, and Devin is one of the best singers, so his brief two sets of music were a treat indeed, separated by a brief fashion show.