Friday, March 11, 2011

A Journey Up Highway 61: Memphis

The rolling hill country of northern Mississippi melts into the horizon as 61 Highway rumbles into Memphis, Tennessee. Grandly named by its founding fathers for the ancient river port of Old Kingdom Egypt, Memphis has taken after its namesake with gusto.  A major inland port high above the banks of the Mississippi, Memphis by the early 20th century was the largest lumber, cotton and mule (!) market in the world. In the days when it meant something, Memphis was one of the most important railway junctions in the United States and today Highway 61 turns into I-55 and runs up through Arkansas for a while before veering east.  All this economic activity and accessibility meant that sharecroppers and vagabonds, hobos and hoods drifted into the city looking for work, anonymity and prospects that were brighter than those they were leaving behind.

As in New Orleans, it is a fool’s game to try to ‘encapsulate’ the musical culture of Memphis with any single description or label. All the genres of New Orleans are found here if in altered forms. The journey up through the bayous of Louisana, across the Delta  and through the hills has changed the jazz and blues and into something at once more grittier and silkier in Memphis. Smooth uptown soul and funky r&b are this city’s greatest gifts to the world but they are by no means the only ones.  Every form of American music has its champions and purveyors in Memphis. And no other city, possibly in the world, has seen so many influential recording studios/labels operating to shape popular music as in Memphis. Sun Studios recorded virtually the entire first generation of rock ‘n roll (Elvis, Jerry Lee, Johnny Cash, Howling Wolf, BB King, Carl Perkins, Ike Turner, and on and on). Stax, reinvented the blues and soul in the late 60s with the likes of Issac Hayes, Albert King, Irma Thomas and Booker T and the MGs (apologies to the myriad others who made great music in those hallowed walls). Over at Hi the sweet Willie Mitchell sound was being perfected by the angelic singing of Al Green and Ann Peebles.

How does one select just five ‘Memphis’ records? How do you cover all of this city’s musical bases?  Don’t know. Certainly can’t be done in one simple blog post.  So let this ultra thin sample simply be that aperitif that gets the juices flowing and moves you to spend many hours and days feasting on the rugged sounds of this bustling cultural petrie dish.

First up, the King himself. Elvis Presley returned to his hometown after a decade in Hollywood where his mighty Almighty-granted talents had been smothered by B-movie shlock. In January 1969 he went into American Recording Studios for ten days of recording.   He was determined to reclaim his crown as the King of Rock ‘n roll and cleanse his soul of the syrup of his lightweight and sanitised soundtrack work of the past ten years. Elvis (not without some powerful persuasion to stay in Memphis to record rather than escaping up the pike to the familiar, yet more conservative Nashville) went on record the most powerful music of his career since his first Sun and RCA work of the mid 50s. Indeed, these sides were his first sessions in Memphis since he’d last recorded for Sam Phillips at Sun Studios in 1955.To use the vernacular, he burned the fucking house down.  

 Have a listen.

Track Listing:
1.      Stranger in My Own Hometown
2.      Power of My Love
3.      Only the Strong Survive
4.      Any Day Now
5.      Suspicious Minds
6.      Long Black Limosine
7.      Wearin’ that Loved On Look
8.      I’ll Hold You in My Heart
9.      After Loving You
10.    Rubberneckin’
11.    I’m Movin On
12.    Gentle on My Mind
13.    True Love Travels on a Gravel Road
14.    It Keeps Right on Hurtin’
15.    You’ll Think of Me
16.    Mama Like the Roses
17.    Don’t Cry Daddy
18.    In the Ghetto
19.    The Fair is Moving On
20.    Inherit the Wind
21.    Kentucky Wind
22.    Without Love
23.    Who am I?
 Listen here.

Elvis got his start in Sun Studios as did so many other giants of American music. Johnny Cash, the sharecropper’s boy from Arkansas turned up at Sam Phillips doorstep with a couple of friends and recorded some gospel songs as well as Cry, Cry, Cry.  The rest, as they say, is History.  Here is a collection of his Sun Studio hits.   There are 28 of them. Nearly everyone is by now deeply embedded into every American’s subconscious.  Raw, outlaw country. The real stuff.

Track Listing
1.      Cry, Cry, Cry
2.      Folsom Prison Blues
3.      So Doggone Lonesome
4.      I Walk the Line
5.      Get Rhythm
6.      There You Go
7.      Train of Love
8.      Next in Line
9.      Don’t Make Me Go
10.    Home of the Blues
11.    Give My Love to Rose
12.    Ballad of a Teenage Queen
13.    Big River
14.    Guess Things Happen That Way
15.    Come in Stranger
16.    The Ways of a Woman in Love
17.    You’re the Nearest Thing to Heaven
18.    Its Just About Time
19.    Luther Played the Boogie
20.    Thanks a lot
21.    Katy Too
22.    Goodbye Little Darlin’
23.    Straight A’s in Love
24.    I Love You Because
25.    Mean Eyed Cat
26.    Oh Lonesome Me
27.    Rock Island Line
28.    Down the Street to 301

Listen here.

Three Sun Studio musicians decided to branch out on their own and ended up setting up Hi Records. After a couple successful runs with mainly rockabilly and instrumental music a producer cum trumpet player named Willie Mitchell took control of the company and developed a sound that is one of the most distinctive of any recording label/studio. His first great success was the fabulous Ann Peebles best known for her hit Can’t Stand the Rain. Her smooth slinky style fitted perfectly with Mitchell’s preference for unison horn lines, organ/ guitar fills and snappy driving drumming.  Her classic albums Straight From the Heart (1972) and Can’t Stand the Rain (1974) are offered here as evidence of the heights to which  the highly refined Memphis soul sound could ascend.

                  Track Listing
1.      Slipped, Tripped and Fell in Love
2.      Trouble, Heartaches and Sadness
3.      What You Laid on Me
4.      How Strong is a Woman
5.       Somebody’s On Your Case
6.      I Feel Like Breaking Up Someone’s Home
7.      I’ve Been There Before
8.      I Pity the Fool
9.      99 Pounds
10.    I Take What I want

11.    I Can’t Stand the Rain
12.    Do I Need You
13.    Until You Came into My Life
14.    (You Keep Me) Hanging On
15.    Run, Run, Run
16.    If We Can’t Trust Each Other
17.    A Love Vibration
18.    You Got to Feed the Fire
19.    I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down
20.    One Way Street

Listen here.

Willie Mitchell and Hi Records best known artist was Al Green who dominated the R&B charts in the early 70s and has yet to be seriously challenged as the greatest southern soul singer America has ever produced.  His 1972 masterpiece, I’m Still in Love With You is the place to start (but hopefully not end) an appreciation of this man’s amazing ability to squeeze air from his lungs. If there is a record more perfect in its pacing, its varied song selection (Green has always covered country music and his slow paced Pretty Woman gives Orbison’s classic a complete and absolutely believe make-over)and more sensual in its exposition of LOVE, then please contact me! I want to hear it.

                  Track Listing:
1.      I’m Still In Love With You
2.      I’m Glad You’re Mine
3.      Love and Happiness
4.      What a Wonderful Thing Love Is
5.      Simply Beautiful
6.      Oh Pretty Woman
7.      For the Good Times
8.      Look What You Done for Me
9.      One of These Good Old Days

Listen here.

We can’t leave Memphis without a taste of the blues and I’ve selected Memphis Blood: The Sun Sessions by James Blood Ulmer. A jazz guitarist who made his reputation with the free jazz maestro Ornette Coleman, Ulmer’s 2001 interpretation of some of the blues’ most famous songs is full on.  He has fun and lets it all hang out but keeps the blues feeling without allowing his fingers to run too far off into avant garde jazz land. A wonderful, powerful blues outing. And recorded at Sun Studios to boot!

                  Track Listing
1.      Spoonful
2.      I Want to Be Loved
3.      Little Red Rooster
4.      Dimples
5.      I Just Want to Make Love to You
6.      Evil
7.      Death Letter
8.      Fattening Frogs for Snakes
9.      Money
10.    I love the Life I Live and Live the Life I Love
11.    Too Lazy to Work, Too Nervous to Steal
12.    Double Trouble
13.    I Asked for Water (She Gave me Gasoline)
14.    Back Door Man

Listen here.

Next stop: St Louis, Missouri!

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