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.
San Antonio-based soul singer Mel Waiters is one of the most popular figures in Southern soul, best known for hit songs like “Hole In The Wall” and “Got My Whiskey.” Saturday night, Waiters was one of the headline acts for the Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival, and the crowd cheered as his band came out in their matching blue-and-white suits. Mel Waiters’ band was first-rate, and he put on a great show.
In addition to an awards show, parties, dinners and fun, the Jus Blues Music Awards also sponsors a Tech Conference which provides blues and southern soul artists with strategies to promote, market and distribute their products, especially in a music business that is rapidly changing due to the advent of digital downloads and streaming media.
Thursday night, August 1, 2013, the Southeast Ballroom of the Memphis Hilton was the scene for the Jus Blues Music Awards, an annual event sponsored by the Atlanta-based Jus Blues Music Foundation. Although Memphis has a number of blues-related events during the year,this is the only one that is uniquely geared to the blues-related subgenre known as “southern soul”. As might be expected, this year’s awards brought out a number of blues and soul stars, including Theodis Ealey, Latimore, Millie Jackson, Preston Shannon, Drink Small, Karen Wolfe, Bobby Rush, Denise LaSalle any many others, as well as representatives of the Blues Foundation. Between awards, Drink Small performed “Rooster Blues”, and after Latimore was presented a lifetime achievement award, he performed his biggest hit “Let’s Straighten It Out” with the band on stage, and was unexpectedly joined by Millie Jackson who came up from the auidence to sing the second verse. It was truly the high point of the evening.
Memphian Andrew Booker makes his debut on the Southern Soul scene with his new EP “I Miss My Mom N Dad”, featuring eight first-rate shots of soul and blues. From the opening “Bingo Lover”, where he complains that his woman loves bingo more than him, to the title track which will move anyone who has lost their parents, “I Miss My Mom and Dad” walks the line between blues and soul. There are traditional blues like “I’m About to Get Old” and “Don’t Tell Me”, and uptempo romps like “20 Hard Days” and “Policeman Coming ‘n You Going to Jail.” While there’s little here that would be unexpected, this is a well-done debut from a new voice in Memphis blues and soul.
Louisiana-born Bobby Jones is a Chicago bluesman who has also recorded as “Bobby Jonez” and “Bobby Jonz”. Not to be confused with the gospel music star, Jones is a competent blues vocalist who has seen some popularity on the Georgia-Carolina Beach Music circuit. You Ain’t Got No Proof is seemingly Jones’ first album since 2006, and it is a return to the Southern Soul genre where his career began. The centerpiece of the album is the title track “You Ain’t Got No Proof”, which seems to build upon Jones’ 1997 hit “Innocent Until Proven Guilty”, reminding an accusing lover that there’s no proof of the charges. “Stepping is Cool” celebrates the Chicago Steppers dance craze, and “Wife and Sister” is another song about losing one’s spouse to a same-sex relationship. A few of the songs have a more contemporary R & B production, of which “You Be Loving Me” is the standout, but Jones seems at his best on blues-inflected tunes like “Stick A Fork In Me” or the title track. While You Ain’t Got No Proof doesn’t stray much beyond the familiar Southern Soul formula, it should be welcomed by fans of the genre.
Later in the evening, Ground Zero Blues Club set up an outdoor stage next to their building, and a soul band from Cleveland was performing a lot of southern soul covers and drew a crowd. A couple of guys rode up on horseback! Only in Clarksdale!
Somewhere between 1970 and 1980, the lines between blues and soul became blurred. In the urban areas, soul had given way to funk, and the emerging hip-hop and R & B genres, but in rural areas, particularly in the south, blues and soul remained. Production styles changed, the music became more electrified and sequenced, but the emphasis on singers, and on tales of juke joint parties and back-door affairs remained constant. This formula, known today as “Southern Soul” is a remarkable subculture, at once as insular as swamp pop or beach music. Its stars might be unknown outside the subculture, but they perform to packed houses night after night in places like Wetumpka, Holly Springs or Monroe, Louisiana, and O. B. Buchana is one of those rising stars.
His album “It’s My Time”, released in 2009 by Memphis-based Ecko Records, follows the usual formula, with feel-good party songs like “Groove Thang” and “Let’s Dance”, and songs about break-ups or cheating, such as “Looks Like It’s Over” and “We Know It’s Wrong.” Suggestive or even sexually explicit songs, often with the use of double entendre, are a big part of the genre, and Buchana offers those too, with “Did You Put Your Foot In It?” (a duet with Mr. Sam) and “Slow Lick It.” But the naughtiness and partying is suddenly forgotten with the title track “It’s My Time”, a moving soulful ballad that expresses both Buchana’s aspirations as an artist and his appreciation for his fans. The album is closed out by a duet with labelmate Ms. Jody called “One Way Love.” While “It’s My Time” offers little deviation from the accepted southern soul formula, it is a well-conceived and well-performed album, and a perfect introduction to this little-known genre of music.