Not that many years ago, Broad Street (as we called it then) was largely vacant, except for a bar or two and the venerable Broadway Pizza Company. It had once been the downtown of a separate town called Binghampton, but in 1915, Binghampton voted to give up its separate identity and become part of the city of Memphis. Not long afterwards,a city ordinance changed Broad Street to Broad Avenue, because Memphis had determined that all east-west streets must be avenues and all north-south streets would be streets. (This ordinance also tripped up the legendary “Beale Street”, and getting Beale back to “street” status took almost 30 years). But the remarkable transformation of the Broad Avenue area to Memphis’ second arts district has only taken about two years, and periodically now the district celebrates its new boom with Friday night art walks, similar to the Trolley Nights in the other South Main Arts District. On Friday, November 7, a large crowd was in the Water Tower Pavilion, listening to a great band of students from the School of Rock performing on the stage, with food trucks and clothing vendors nearby. Up on Broad, crowds were making their way to the different galleries and shops, new restaurants like Bounty on Broad, and temporary exhibits highlighting local products like Relevant Coffee Roasters, and some of the best handmade caramel candies I have ever eaten. Broad Avenue is definitely worth a visit as the Christmas season approaches, for unique gifts that cannot be found elsewhere.
My homeboy Otis Logan invited me to a 4 Soul Band rehearsal that was being held on a Tuesday night in downtown Memphis in the upstairs of an old warehouse. As it turned out, the 4 Soul Band was backing up an up-and-coming R & B group called Offici8l, which had been featured on the TV show the X-Factor. They were getting ready for an out-of-town show on the weekend, and I was able to get some good video footage of Otis Logan on drums, the 4 Soul band, and Offici8l as well.
Wednesday night is not usually a big entertainment night in Memphis, but on October 29, many of Memphis’ best industry figures came together at Purple Haze downtown to celebrate the release of veteran rapper Frayser Boy’s new album Not No Moe on the Phixieous label. Frayser’s own DJ Bay was on the ones and twos, and Tune C, DJ Zirk, Miscellaneous,Carlos Sargent, DJ Care Bear, Lil Wyte, Snootie Wild, Jason Da Hater,Suavo J, Louis Goggins of the Memphis Flyer and Lawrence “Boo” Mitchell of the Recording Academy and Royal Studios were among the attendees. Frayser Boy, Lil Wyte and Miscellaneous performed a few songs from the album toward the end of the night, and the event was all love, fun and food.
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When Memphis rapper Tune C and I headed downtown for the album release party for Frayser Boy’s new album Not No Moe, we heard a drumline playing on Beale Street. There had been a Grizzlies game in the FedEx Forum, so at first I thought it was the Grizzline drummers, but the beats they were playing didn’t quite sound right for that. As it turned out, it was just a random line of local youths, playing a very funky series of cadences indeed. Such drumlines had been common on Beale during its first ten years or so, when there were no barricades or ID checks, and buskers were common along the street, but this was the first time I had seen such drummers on Beale in nearly 20 years. It felt (and sounded) good.
One of the cooler things about building renovations is that sometimes they uncover pieces of history, such as old plaques or advertising signs. Such was the case with the building being converted into residences next to the Webster Avenue Stage in Memphis’ River Arts Fest. I had been standing beside it for a couple of hours or so, and hadn’t noticed anything about it, but when the afternoon sun hit it a certain way, I could clearly make out an old sign: “Chero-Cola Bottling Company.” What on earth was Chero-Cola, I wondered? As it turns out, Chero-Cola, founded by a grocery store owner in Columbus, Georgia in 1915 was the predecessor to the far better-known Royal Crown Cola, or RC, the beverage that went with a moon pie in the Southern past. The founder was trying to find a replacement for Atlanta-based Coca Cola when the Columbus distributor for the latter refused to give him a volume discount he felt he deserved. Although the first Royal Crown beverages appeared earlier (a ginger ale and a root beer), Chero-Cola (did it perhaps include cherry flavoring in the formula?) first appeared in 1915, and only lasted through about 1921, when a court ruled that the designation “cola” could only be used by Chero-Cola’s famous competitor, Coke. Without being able to designate their signature drink as a cola, sales flagged, and the company was renamed from Chero-Cola to Nehi. By the time it introduced a new cola formula in 1933, the name had been changed again to Royal Crown or RC. A court in 1944 overturned the old 1921 decision, and RC’s became officially “colas” again. But the coolest thing is that the relatively-short time that Chero-Cola existed helps us place the Memphis building in time between the years 1915 and 1921. A really cool discovery indeed!
The final act to appear on the River Arts Fest’s Webster Avenue Stage was Memphis’ only local dub band, the Chinese Connection Dub Embassy, or CCDE. Like 4 Soul, the CCDE has occasionally backed up local rappers, but for the most part, these musicians have chosen the harder path of upholding the banner for dub music and reggae music in a city where these style are not particularly popular. Nevertheless, they are always a crowd-pleaser, whether calling out oppressors on songs like “Tyrant” or spreading the feel-good vibes on their single “Heavy Meditation.” Perhaps the band’s most unique attribute is their ability to see the reggae potential in the most unlikely of songs, such as Norwegian band A-Ha’s “Take Me On.” The Chinese Connection Dub Embassy closed out Saturday’s River Arts Fest on a high note.
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Tyke T was already an up-and-coming Memphis rapper when the local radio station K-97 proclaimed him the “Next Big Thing” after he won a contest they sponsored. Since then, he has been to New York and several other places for concerts, and although he might not be nationally known yet, he is part of a growing movement of Memphis rappers who seem to be more positive, more upbeat and more lyrical. He is also part of a growing local trend to rap with live musicians instead of just recorded tracks or a DJ, and for his performance at the River Arts Festival, he chose one of Memphis’ best up-and-coming bands, 4 Soul to back him, along with live singers, and guest appearances from other Memphis rappers such as Li’l Cam and S.O.U.L. Altogether it was a rap performance that could appeal even to people who don’t usually like rap, and that was probably precisely the point. Tyke’s lyrics avoid the negative tendency of the local artists that lean more to the gangsta style, and the live band gives him an appeal to those whose musical preferences lean toward other genres.
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The Side Street Steppers are a Memphis-based band whose repertoire consists mainly of music from the 1920’s and 1930’s, an era that has largely been forgotten. It is significant that Memphis’ first recording industry occurred during those years, in which record companies from the north rented rooms at the Peabody Hotel and recorded Black bluesmen and gospel choirs, country string bands and hillbilly musicians. This activity in Memphis continued until the Great Depression put a stop to the early independent record labels. Much of this kind of music finds its way into Side Street Steppers shows, and they are both accomplished musicians and fun to hear.
Memphis indie duo Deering and Down wear their Memphis influences on their sleeve. Yet the 13-year-old duo of Lahna Deering and the Rev. Neil Down started not in the Bluff City, but in the unlikely town of Skagway, Alaska, when Deering’s mother introduced her to Rev. Down, who was known in the community as a musician and band-leader. The quick friendship led to an album, a cross-country tour that included a stop in Memphis, and eventually an album recorded at Yellow Brick Studios in Memphis in 2007. Shortly, thereafter, Deering and Down relocated to Memphis, cutting yet another album, 2009’s Out There Somewhere at the legendary Royal Studios, working with Willie and Boo Mitchell, Teenie Hodges and other Memphis musical legends. Memphis music was always part of Down’s musical vision, and Deering and Down pull off the seemingly impossible, reconciling alternative/indie music with soul in a way that doesn’t seem forced or contrived. Given the rise of other soul-inflected indie bands over the last couple of years, it could be truthfully argued that Deering and Down were ahead of their time.
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Given the immense and growing popularity of craft beer and micro brewing, it comes as no surprise that there is also a craft soda movement, but the craft soda movement has been a little more subdued and not as well-known. So when Love Pop Soda Shop opened up a pop-up shop in the vacant lot next to Ernestine and Hazel’s during the River Arts Fest, I was amazed at the selection of craft sodas available, all made with natural ingredients and sweetened with nothing other than pure cane sugar. I was even more amazed when a friendly employee told me that the selection exhibited at the festival was nothing compared to the choices that the permanent store will have when it opens. The Love Pop Soda Shop opens November 22, 2014 at its new digs at 506 South Main, right in the thick of the South Main Arts District, and will definitely be worth a visit.
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