I don’t ever recall any June in Memphis being this wet, but one of the upsides to the extensive rain (besides the cooler temperatures) has been the frequency of rainbows in and around Memphis. This one appeared over the Booker T. Washington High School area of South Memphis as I was heading down to Beale Street to see my homeboys in the C3 Band perform at the Rum Boogie Cafe.
Each year Memphis rap artist Lionheart sponsors a block party on Tate Avenue in South Memphis, featuring live rap performances and free barbecue. The purpose of the Tate Street Block Party is both to encourage youth against violence and also to promote and showcase local music talent. This year, the high points included a young rapper named Tve Bandz (pronounced “Tae Bandz”) who performed along with his even younger sister Breeze, as well as an appearance from the group AirBorn Academy from South Memphis. But there were also a number of newer artists, including one young man called This Some Major. The afternoon was full of music, food and fun, with no incidents whatsoever.
Every summer in June, the Memphis rapper Blac Youngsta sponsors a South Memphis Block Party on McMillan Street in honor of a neighborhood youth named King Craddy that was killed a few years ago. It usually is a fun time for the kids, with a bounce house, and there is usually a DJ, plenty of good food and lots of dancing. This year, things took a turn for the worse when out of nowhere, a young man pulled out a gun and began shooting. I hadn’t even heard any arguing or confrontation leading up to it. We ended up having to get down, run to the back of the houses and then struggle through the underbrush and out the chain link fence on the other side on Ely Street. The gunshots continued from over on the other street before we finally heard the sirens of the police coming. We soon learned that a 3-year-old boy had been shot. There is absolutely nothing that can justify shooting into a crowd including women and children during a neighborhood block party. Nothing whatsoever.
MemShop is a local effort to revitalize Memphis neighborhoods by placing temporary shops in vacant store space in strategically located areas. The organization has recently been involved in trying to turn around the intersection at Mississippi Boulevard and Walker near the LeMoyne-Owen College campus, and Saturday MemShop held a block party at the intersection to celebrate the opening of two new shops, Klassy Chics and @ Home Computer Service. The block party featured performances by Memphis alternative/neo-soul singer Apollo Mighty, and the dance team from Knowledge Quest Kids Camp. The hope is that the temporary shops will encourage permanent tenants to move into the space.
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.