I’ve only been in Memphis– my favorite city other than New York– for a few hours. But I’ve already had ribs, fried chicken, and gumbo, several meals, and was almost lured on to the roof of my hotel by strangers offering Gus’s chicken. The two main activities in Memphis are music and eating, and I’ve already been well embedded.
On the food front, starting in the airport (where there is no sign that reads “Baggage Claim”– just pictures of a suitcase) the smell of barbecue is overwhelming. You have to push yourself not to eat it right there, and wait until you’re downtown. Along the way, everyone from the taxi dispatcher to the driver to the doorman at the hotel are discussing where you should go first, and what you should eat.
Then there is the music. We are here for the Memphis Music Hall of Fame induction ceremony Saturday night. Sam Moore and the late Dave Prater will be inducted, and Sam will close the show with an all star band of Memphis musicians including Charles and Leroy Hodges, Bobby Manuel, Archie Butler, and Steve Jordan on drums among others.
Rehearsal today was in the famed Royal Studios in South Memphis, where the late legend Willie Mitchell recorded all of the great hits by Al Green, Ann Peebles, Syl Johnson, Otis Clay and others on Hi Records. It is now run by his son Boo and the Mitchell family.Royal Studios is basically a couple of low brick buildings cobbled together and sitting on a weedy block. It actually looks like two buildings that collided into each other. One of them is more residential in appearance. Someone painted a now faded black and white piano keyboard on the stoop a long time ago.
Nothing has changed since I was last here in 1999. Charles Hodges, who played the organ and keyboards on all of those hits (like Let’s Stay Together and I Can’t Stand the Rain)showed me his Hammond B3, the same one he played on all the records. “I’ve been sitting here since 1969,” the Reverend told me. (He was ordained in 1998.) The Reverend, his brother Leroy, and late brother Teenie were the heart and soul of the Hi Records Rhythm section. Leroy was also in the rehearsal room yesterday, along with an amazing horn section and Archie Turner on his Wurlitzer.
Yes, it was rather amazing to have stepped off the plane from New York and two hours later stand in the middle of this small studio room. First there was a run through of Booker T and the MGs’s “Green Onions” with organ solos that could have been from 1962 (when the instrumental was first a smash hit) or 1967 (when it staged an international comeback).
And then Sam Moore, who turned 80 this past week, with three female back up singer behind him, and Steve Jordan quipping between drum beats, rehearsed Sam & Dave’s “I Thank You” and Sam’s quintessential “Soul Man.” The horns rising behind me like a choir of angels, with the Memphis sound–, Hodges and Butler shimmering on organs, Leroy and Bobby Manuel’s plaintive guitar leads in filigree mode and then Sam’s sweet rich tenor rising above was too much for everyone to handle.
Mission: accomplished. The sound of heaven meant just one thing: time for Gus’s famous spicy fried chicken. This was two hours after lunch, and three before dinner. Macaroni and cheese were involved, as well. The musicians took their plates and spilled out onto the sidewalk in front of Royal. The air was still warm enough to enjoy the dying days of Indian summer. Willie Mitchell must have been smiling above.
Saturday: big celebrities are expected including Jimmy Fallon, Justin Timberlake, and Keith Richards. The Hall of Fame show will be bursting with R&B stalwarts, the Memphis Elvis contingent (for Scotty Moore), country fans (for the late Charlie Rich, his looklike namesake son will perform his hits), the hardcore Stax family (for Al Jackson Jr. of Booker T and the MGs) and the music royalty in this town. Then next week, many of them will show up again for Pat Tigrett’s 22nd annual and final Blues Ball to benefit Memphis charities. Beale Street is booming. You could just stay here, eat and listen to music. The rest of the world doesn’t exist.