Benton County, Mississippi is due east of Marshall County, and was once a part of it, having been carved out of it and Tippah County by the state legislature during Reconstruction. Demographically similar to the county it was taken out of, Benton is a part of the Mississippi Hill Country, although sparsely populated and somewhat poorer than the other Hill Country counties. Although many great musicians came from Benton County, including Willie Mitchell, Syl Johnson, Joe Ayers and Nathan Beauregard, there has never been a live music scene in the county, mainly for the simple fact that Benton has always been a dry county, and remains so today. Such music as there has been has usually been held at private events such as picnics and yard parties.
However, over the last month or so, Robert Kimbrough, one of the sons of blues legend Junior Kimbrough, has been holding yard parties/jam sessions at his house just outside the Benton County seat of Ashland. The somewhat remote location is an opportunity to hear the music in a setting more like where it originated, in an era where “clubs” or even “juke joints” were still unknown. The atmosphere in the yard is easy going, with musicians taking turns going on stage and then coming off to enjoy food and drink. Musicians like J. J. Wilburn, G-Cutta, Little Joe Ayers and even Robert’s brother David Kimbrough occasionally come through and sit in. Fans bring lawn chairs and sit in the lawn while the musicians play under the carport roof. It’s all a rather informal affair. However, the weekend schedule for these events is somewhat erratic, as it depends on Robert’s touring schedule, so if you want to attend, follow Robert on Facebook here so that you know when and where his events are occurring. (I won’t put his address here publicly, although he occasionally does put it on Facebook. Follow him for details on where and when to go).
In 1958, record store owner Joe Coughi of Poplar Tunes in Memphis decided to start a record label, and he named it Hi Records, with the name taken from the last two letters of his name. Purchasing the Royal Theater on South Lauderdale, he converted it into a recording studio (Jim Stewart would do the same thing a year later with the nearby Capitol Theater on McLemore Avenue in forming Stax Records), and began recording country and rockabilly records. When Ruben Cherry and Celia Hodge’s Home of the Blues family of labels collapsed in 1962, producer Willie Mitchell was briefly without a musical home, but he soon ended up producing for Coughi at the Royal Studios, which he eventually purchased. Hi Records soon moved from recording rockabilly and country to recording blues, soul and gospel, particularly the work of such greats as Al Green, O.V. Wright, Don Bryant, Ann Peebles, Otis Clay and Syl Johnson. The Hi label was eventually sold to Al Bennett in California, but the Royal Studios continued under Willie Mitchell. As Stax collapsed and the Memphis recording industry with it, Royal continued on, and today, under Willie Mitchell’s son Boo, has become a world-famous institution. So it was only fitting that Royal Sound Studios should celebrate with a block party for the surrounding South Memphis neighborhood on the street now called Willie Mitchell Boulevard, and all the more so as Boo Mitchell announces to the world the launch of Royal Records, a label based out of the venerable Memphis studios. The first act for the fledgling label is a rap duo called Lil Riah and Key Money, both of whom are members of the Mitchell family, and who were the featured performers at the block party. But attendees also enjoyed performances by Memphis veterans Al Kapone and Frayser Boy as well as the Royal Studio Band, and there was plenty of good food from local food trucks, including hand-crafted ice cream pops from the good folks at Mempops. Even Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland came to pay his respects.
Home of the Blues began shortly after World War II as a record shop owned by Ruben Cherry at 107 Beale Street in Memphis. Its location near Beale and Main guaranteed that both Blacks and whites would buy music there, and they did. The shop was frequented by radio rebel Dewey Phillips and King Elvis himself, and Johnny Cash’s song “Home of the Blues” was allegedly titled in honor of the shop. By 1960, Ruben had gone into business with his aunt Celia G. Camp in forming a record label called Home of the Blues, which recorded a number of blues and early soul discs during its furious two years of recording.
Many of the Home of the Blues session were produced by a young Willie Mitchell, who at that time had produced a few sessions for Eddie Bond’s Stomper Time label. He recorded a number of instrumentals, as well as recordings by his doo-wop group The Four Kings featuring Don Bryant, all of which are documented on the Stomper Time CD Original Memphis Rhythm ‘N’ Blues. Of particular note are the sultry mambo “Tanya” and its driving Memphis-beat twin “Yvonne”, and the acapella Four Kings tracks that show strong points of similarity to the mysterious Sun group Hunki-Dori. Lead singer Don Bryant would follow Mitchell over to Joe Coughi’s Hi Records label, where he would have a much bigger career.
Most of the other Home of the Blues artists are featured on Rockin’ Rhythm ‘N’ Blues From Memphis, including Roy Brown, Dave Dixon, Larry Birdsong, Billy Adams, Billy Lee Riley, The 5 Royales, Gene “Bowlegs” Miller and the mysterious “Cleanhead Cootsie” who was one of many alter egos for the great Memphis saxophonist Fred Ford. Highlights here include Willie Cobb’s magnificent “You Don’t Love Me” which made inroads even into Jamaica, Larry Birdsong’s gospelish “I’ll Let Nothing Separate Me From Your Love” and two tracks from the rarely-recorded Robinsonville, Mississippi bluesman Woodrow Adams.
While the release of these two discs from Stomper Time sheds a welcome spotlight on an obscure era in Memphis music history, the 61 tracks on these two releases only scratch the surface of what exists in the Home of the Blues catalog. Here’s hoping that the good folks at Stomper Time will eventually release the entire output of this great-but-forgotten label.
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.
At the historical marker dedication for Willie Mitchell and Royal Studios, South Memphis, March 1, 2012