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 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 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.
It’s a fairly long way from England to South Memphis, and seems an equally long distance from classic rock ‘n roll to soul music and blues, but former Free and Bad Company Paul Rodgers was heavily influenced by the blues and decided to give back to Memphis when he cut his most recent album The Royal Sessions. Recorded at Boo Mitchell’s historic Royal Studios in South Memphis, Rodgers’ most recent effort is backed by the Memphis All-Stars, a band largely coterminous with the Hi Rhythm Section, including Teenie Hodges, the Rev. Charles Hodges, Archie Turner and Michael Toles, and features largely tunes pulled from the catalog of Stax’s venerable old East Memphis Music publishing, such as Albert King’s “Down Don’t Bother Me”, William Bell’s “Born Under A Bad Sign” and Sam & Dave’s “I Thank You.” Rodger is only the latest of several high-profile artists to choose to cut albums in Memphis at the legendary studio where Al Green cut his hits, but what Rodgers did afterward was truly unique- he decided to give all the proceeds to the Stax Music Academy, which makes a difference in South Memphis by training kids in music, improving the neighborhood, the Memphis music scene and the future of soul music all at the same time.
On Saturday, a release party was held at the Stax Museum to celebrate the album’s release, drawing what appeared to be the largest crowd ever to an album release party at the museum. The line stretched well around the building at 6 PM, and in the old Studio A, it was standing room only, as people came to understand that Paul Rodgers would actually perform four songs from the album with the Memphis-All-Stars. Afterwards there was even a longer line for people to have their purchased discs signed by Rodgers and the other musicians, but it was well worth it, and great to see the legacies of Stax and Hi Records intertwined in this way.
Memphis music author Robert Gordon has completed his latest book Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion, which is the third book to deal with the history of Stax Records, after Peter Guralnick’s Sweet Soul Music and Rob Bowman’s Soulsville, USA, and Gordon was at the Stax Museum in South Memphis on Saturday afternoon to sign copies of the new book. Memphis’ legendary bluesman (and former Mar-Key) Don Nix was also present, as were around a hundred or so people who came to get their books signed, enjoy food and drink, and hear Gordon read excerpts. An all-Stax concert featuring Don Nix, Eddie Floyd and Sir Mack Rice was being held later down in Clarksdale at Ground Zero.
Saturday October 26, the Memphis Chapter of The Recording Academy sponsored their annual Grammy GPS event, a day-long conference of panels, workshops and performances intended to encourage new and young producers and artists as they are making their way in the music industry. Panelists for the day included Jonathan Poneman of Seattle’s Sub Pop label, Ben Swank of Nashville-based Third Man Records, and noted Memphis hip-hop producer Carlos “Six July” Broady. The day ended with a gala reception at the Stax Museum next door.