When I saw a flyer on my Facebook timeline for a performance by someone called “Lil Tyrone Davis” at a place called Ralph’s Bar & Grill in Whitehaven, I immediately planned to go, suspecting that Ralph’s might be the kind of neighborhood blues and soul spot that I like. The spot turned out to be in a strip mall on Millbranch just north of Holmes, and had just opened under new owners, although I recall it being a bar some years ago. It was quite large and roomy, with two main rooms, the second of which was centered around a good-sized stage and dance floor, and at first it was rather empty, with a DJ playing good blues and southern soul. Slowly, the place began to fill, first with women, then with men, and I noticed that many of them were singing every word of the songs the DJ was playing. These were true southern soul fans.
The high point of the evening was the band known as the Soul Connection Band, comprised of some excellent musicians who did a great job of backing up several male singers and a female blues artist named Ms. Diedre. After a brief intermission, they were back, this time backing Lil Tyrone Davis, who was from Chicago, and made a point of performing most of the late Tyrone Davis’ classic songs. Many of his friends and relatives were in the crowd, which by now had filled up most of the room. I met the club’s owner, who told me it was their intent to have live bands at least once a month.
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.
On Saturday night February 8, an all-star contingent of Memphis rappers and fans took over the Hard Rock Cafe on Beale Street to celebrate the release of Lil Wyte & Frayser Boy’s new duo album B.A.R. on Phixieous Entertainment. Wes Phillips, Jeff Phillips and Terrance “DJ Bay” Long of Select-O-Hits were in the building, as well as La Chat, Miscellaneous, Criminal Manne, Al Kapone and Thug Therapy. Unlike a lot of album release parties, people actually performed, and coming as it did after a big University of Memphis Tigers win at the Fed Ex Forum, it was a fun night indeed.
Memphis’ music reputation was built on blues long before gospel or soul, but authentic blues in an authentic setting in Memphis is not so easy to find. A few juke joints still exist in rougher Memphis neighborhoods, and one of the most long-standing is Wild Bill’s, a North Memphis institution on Vollintine Avenue that had a long run of popularity before closing abruptly last summer. It reopened under new ownership in December, and I read that on weekends, the Memphis Bluesmasters play there, often with Memphis blues queen Ann Hines.
So even though we were under a winter storm warning, I drove down to the rather tiny juke in a non-descript strip shopping center not far from Northside High School. When I arrived, there was already a good-sized crowd in a jovial mood. Despite the new owners, Wild Bill’s still has the funky juke joint ambiance that I remembered from my previous visit a couple of years ago, and the only real difference is that they have added a hot-wing menu and have started opening for lunch.
The Memphis Bluesmasters are a seasoned group of Memphis musicians with years of experience playing blues and soul music, on Beale Street and elsewhere, but here in North Memphis, they can let their hair down and play to the local crowd, some of whom come up and make a small dance floor in front of the musicians. Ann Hines wasn’t singing with the band on this particular night, but the female vocalist was called Miss Nickki, and she was an attractive singer with a fine and powerful voice. The material was largely taken from the standards of southern soul, with covers of Tyrone Davis, Shirley Brown and O. V. Wright songs.
At the end of the band’s first set, it was 1 AM, and I walked outside to discover that the whole neighborhood was draped in a coating of white snow that was still falling. The music would continue until 3 AM, but I decided it was best to make my way home.
Memphis artist Frank D. Robinson is the artist-in-residence at Caritas Village in Binghampton, and has done much to promote the arts in Memphis,both his own and others, so it is entirely fitting that he organized an exhibition called “One Village One City” that brings together the work of several different Memphis artists at Caritas Village. Friday night February 7, the works were unveiled to the public at a reception, and several of the artists (including Robinson) were present.