Friday, August 21, 2020

Memphis Soul - Born Again

In the mid-80's, I discovered Memphis soul music via numerous songs by numerous artists on Stax and Hi Records.  While I was in college, one of my regular stops was the local Be-Bop Record Shop, where quite a bit of my disposable income was disposed for a number of years.  During one of my visits, I found that Atlantic Records had released several discount collections from various Stax artists (Sam & Dave, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Booker T & the MG's, etc.....) and Motown had reissued Al Green's Greatest Hits.  I had only heard bits and pieces of most of these artists, but I jumped in with both feet and I haven't resurfaced yet.  For years, I've been collecting songs from the above-mentioned artists and many, many more.  

While I always enjoyed the Stax artists, and still do, when I dug deeper into Hi Records catalog, I found many of my all-time favorites......Syl Johnson, the incredible O.V. Wright, Ann Peebles, and Otis Clay.  There was something about the combination of these magnificent singers, the smooth production from Willie Mitchell, the amazing Hi Rhythm Section, and the peerless songwriting that really grabbed me.  That was also the combination with Stax, but maybe the music from Hi resonated with me more because it was a little more from my time....similar to the modern music that I had listened to.  I still loved both, and still listen to both, but the music from Hi's tunes (particularly the Rev. Charles Hodges' keyboards, which still draw goosebumps when I hear them) sealed the deal for me.

Of course, most of these guys are no longer with us.....fortunately we still have a few who are still performing.....just a few years ago, I went to see former Stax artist William Bell, who is still getting it done as well as he ever did.  Al Green is still fairly active, having returned to secular music many years ago, and so is Syl Johnson.  I actually saw a performance on public television a few weeks ago from Ann Peebles at Ground Zero in Clarksdale from several years ago, and she was still wonderful.  

Over the past couple of years, there have been some great albums of Memphis soul released.  Boz Scaggs released Memphis, a fine tribute to Memphis Soul a few years ago.  Tad Robinson pays tribute to the sound on a regular basis, as does Robert Cray.  The Sensational Barnes Brothers, a Memphis-based gospel duo, released one of the best albums of last year......Nobody's Fault But My Own, a stunning gospel album that sounded like it came right out of Stax Records.  William Bell released This Is Where I Live on a rejuvenated Stax Records in 2016 and it was a fantastic return to form.

Don Bryant - 1970's
2017 saw another comeback album, seemingly from out of nowhere, this time from a singer/songwriter from Hi Records named Don Bryant.  Bryant started out as a performer with Hi, but eventually settled in as a songwriter.  Mitchell assigned him to work with Peebles, who had just signed with the label, and the pair quickly formed a creative musical and personal bond, which led to their marriage in 1974. Bryant co-wrote several of Peebles' biggest hits ("I Can't Stand The Rain," "99 Pounds," "Fill This World With Love").  His success with his spouse eventually led him to writing material for Green, Johnson, Wright, and Clay.

Ann Peebles & Don Bryant
When Hi Records, folded, both Bryant and Peebles took a break, though he continued to perform gospel music, releasing an album in the mid-80's.  When Peebles returned to recording in the 90's, Bryant was there to provide songs and support.  By this time, he was strictly performing gospel himself, releasing another album in 2000.  In 2012, Peebles suffered a stroke and retired from performing, so in his newly found spare time, Bryant began to work on songwriting again.

In the mid-2000's, a group of Memphis-based musicians called The Bo-Keys emerged on the scene.  Featuring newcomers and veterans of the Memphis soul and blues scene, the group released a couple of albums in 2004 and 2011.  The first was mostly instrumental with just a few spoken-word asides, and the second one featured a few vocal tracks from Clay and Bell.  The third release in 2016, Heartaches By The Number, was an incredible foray into country-soul, covering ten country music classics....nine of which featured vocals.  Two of The Bo-Keys, bassist/producer Scott Bomar and former Hi drummer Howard Grimes talked Bryant into singing the title track, and sing it he did!!

The experience with The Bo-Keys inspired Bryant to return to the studio and in 2017, with help from The Bo-Keys, he released Don't Give Up On Love on Fat Possum Records.  Fellow Hi veterans Grimes, Hodges, and Hubbie Turner also chipped in.  The production is true to the form of those great Hi recordings of the late 60's and early 70's, but the best thing is that Bryant's voice is as powerful as it was some fifty years ago.  It's a mix of some of his classic songs from that time, plus a few new tracks of soul, blues, and gospel, and covers of other soul classics (his take on Wright's "A Nickel And A Nail" is every bit as strong as the original).  At 75 years old, it was like he'd never been away.

Earlier this year, Bryant released You Make Me Feel, which is a delightful breath of fresh air in an otherwise insane year. He wrote eight of the ten songs, some dating back to Hi days ("I Die A Little Each Day," a hit for Clay in the 70's, and "Don't Turn Your Back On Me").  The songwriting is strong, but Bryant's voice is even stronger.  He's 78 years old and to these ears, he's never sounded better, singing with the energy and enthusiasm of a man half his age.  That vintage Hi Records sound is still present and should bring a big, wide smile to the face of anyone who enjoys classic Memphis soul music.  Actually, either of Bryant's sets will fit the bill.

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