A Quick Music Lesson
November 30, 2019
Most of us have heard of “Memphis soul.” It took a visit to Memphis for it to sink in what a powerful influence Memphis has had on the music that I love. I got a history lesson while I was there. Here is what I learned (with some thanks to Wikipedia):
Memphis soul, also known as the Memphis sound, was the most prominent strain of Southern soul in the 1960s and 1970s. Coming out of Stax Records and Hi Records, it featured melodic unison horn lines, organ, guitar, bass, and a driving beat on the drums. Many of the songs were performed by vocalists backed by the house bands of Stax and Hi. Memphis soul was raw and gritty compared to the highly-polished Motown sound.
Jim Stewart (the “St” in Stax) and Estelle Axton (the “ax” in Stax) converted an old movie theater into a recording studio in Memphis. Shortly afterward, former WDIA disc jockey Rufus Thomas and his daughter Carla recorded the label's first hit, "Cause I Love You."
For the next 14 years, Stax launched the careers and recorded hits for the likes of Otis Redding, the Staple Singers, Luther Ingram, Johnnie Taylor, Albert King, Eddie Floyd, Wilson Pickett, Booker T. and the MGs, Sam & Dave and Isaac Hayes. Of the approximately 800 singles recorded at Stax, there were 166 Top 100 songs in the pop charts, nine of them Grammy winners.
Stax was one of the most successfully integrated companies in the country — from top management and administration to its artists. With 200-plus employees, Stax was one of the largest African-American-owned businesses in the U.S. in the 1960s.
The Stax rhythm section was the epitome of the label's integration. Composed of Booker T. Jones, Steve Cropper, Donald "Duck" Dunn and Al Jackson, Jr., Booker T. and the MGs provided the instrumental backing for Rufus and Carla Thomas, Sam and Dave, and many other artists. The group also recorded under its own name, of course. In later years, members of the group pursued their own individual careers. Jones worked with the singer and producer William Bell, and Cropper supervised the recordings of Otis Redding and co-wrote hits with Wilson Pickett and Eddie Floyd.
Started by a trio of Sun Studio musicians — Ray Harris, Bill Cantrell and Quentin Claunch — and Joe Cuoghi, the owner of a local record store, Hi Records' early releases were primarily rockabilly. While the label had success with this sound, rockabilly was declining in popularity, as was Hi Records. Then the label had its first hit, courtesy of Harris' friend, Bill Black.
The success of Bill Black's Combo changed Hi from a rockabilly label to an instrumental powerhouse during the early 60s. But as the decade wore on, Hi Records once again recognized a shift in the musical landscape, and, with the leadership of the producer, bandleader and songwriter Willie Mitchell, evolved into a successful soul music label.
The label first emerged on the national scene with Ann Peebles. Approached by Mitchell after an impromptu performance at the Rosewood Club, Peebles hit the charts in 1969 with "Walk Away" followed by "Part Time Love."
After a chance encounter on tour in Texas, Al Green joined Willie Mitchell and Hi Records, and together they became the preeminent source for soul music in the 1970s. With hits such as "Tired of Being Alone," "Let's Stay Together" and "Take Me to the River," Green established a permanent identity and a sound for Hi Records, based around a house band which became known as the Hi Rhythm Section.
Notable Other Memphis Soul Artists
Mel and Tim
The Mad Lads
The Soul Children
The Memphis Horns were a horn section, made famous by their many appearances on Stax Records. They have been called "arguably the greatest soul horn section ever." Originally a sextet, the Memphis Horns gradually slimmed down to a duo, Wayne Jackson on trumpet and Andrew Love on tenor saxophone.
The Memphis Horns appeared on nearly every recording for Stax that included a horn section — with Isaac Hayes, Otis Redding, Rufus Thomas, Sam and Dave and others — as well as on other releases, including The Doobie Brothers' What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits and U2's Rattle and Hum.
The Memphis blues is a style of blues music created from the 1910s to the 1930s by musicians in the Memphis area, like Frank Stokes, Sleepy John Estes, Furry Lewis and Memphis Minnie. The style was popular in vaudeville and medicine shows and was associated with Beale Street, the main entertainment area in Memphis.
In addition to guitar-based blues, jug bands, such as Gus Cannon's Jug Stompers and the Memphis Jug Band, were extremely popular practitioners of Memphis blues. The jug band style emphasized the danceable, syncopated rhythms of early jazz and a range of other folk styles. It was played on simple, sometimes homemade, instruments such as harmonicas, violins, mandolins, banjos, and guitars, backed by washboards, kazoo, guimbarde and jugs blown to supply the bass.
After World War II, as African Americans left the Mississippi Delta and other impoverished areas of the South for urban areas, many musicians gravitated to the blues scene in Memphis, changing the classic Memphis blues sound. Musicians such as Howlin' Wolf, Willie Nix, Ike Turner, and B.B.King performed on Beale Street and in West Memphis and recorded some of the classic electric blues, R&B and rock& roll records for labels such as Sam Phillips's Sun Records. Sun recorded Howlin' Wolf (before he moved to Chicago), Willie Nix, Ike Turner, B.B.King and others. Electric Memphis blues featured explosive, distorted electric guitar work, thunderous drumming, and fierce, declamatory vocals.
Sun Records is an American independent record label founded by producer Sam Phillips in Memphis in February 1952. Sun was the first label to record Elvis Presley, Charlie Rich, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash. Prior to that, Sun had concentrated mainly on African-American musicians because Phillips loved rhythm and blues and wanted to bring it to a white audience.
Sam Phillips opened his Memphis Recording Service studio in 1950 at 706 Union Avenue in Memphis. It was founded with the financial aid of Jim Bulliet, one of many record executives for whom Phillips had scouted artists before 1952.
In March 1951, Phillips produced "Rocket 88" by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats, who were actually Ike Turner and his Kings of Rhythm. Because of Turner's Delta blues connections, he was contracted by Phillips as a talent scout and he was effectively an in-house producer. Turner brought fellow musicians Howlin' Wolf, Bobby "Blue" Bland, Little Milton, Billy "The Kid" Emerson and Roscoe Gordon to record for Phillips.
The success of "Rocket 88" helped fund the creation of Sun Records which Phillips founded in February 1952. Phillips discovered and first recorded such influential musicians such as Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkin, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis. Presley's recording contract was eventually sold to RCA Victor Records for $35,000 in 1955 to relieve Sun's financial difficulties. (Sounds like the Red Sox and the Babe.)
Some of the other artists who recorded for Sun were Rufus Thomas (who recorded solo and with his daughter Carla Thomas), Tex Weiss, Charlie Rich, Bill Justis, and Conway Twitty (who at that time recorded under his real name, Harold Jenkins).