The Year in Memphis Music: Personal Picks

Our writers on some of their favorite things from a year of Memphis music

Who was that singing along with the Rolling Stones on their cover of Otis Redding? Why, it was Carla Thomas!

Photo by Mike Brown // Buy this photo

Who was that singing along with the Rolling Stones on their cover of Otis Redding? Why, it was Carla Thomas!

Beyond the best records and biggest stories, here are some of the things we’ll remember most about the year in Memphis music:

Bob Mehr

Author Robert Gordon’s reading of his Stax history “Respect Yourself” turned into a rousing, emotional affair.

Photo by Trey Harrison

Author Robert Gordon’s reading of his Stax history “Respect Yourself” turned into a rousing, emotional affair.

Pathos and punk: In November, local author Robert Gordon celebrated the release of his essential history “Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion” with a lively, emotional program at the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. The highlight came as Gordon read from his harrowing chapter on the 1967 plane crash that claimed lives of Otis Redding and most of the Bar-Kays. By the end, the audience, and Gordon himself, were in tears. A different kind of mood permeated the presentation by punk icon Richard Hell a few weeks earlier. Reading from his autobiography, “I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp,” Hell’s cutting, comic, and occasionally off-color writings were at the heart of an unusually rollicking evening at the Brooks Museum.

Royal’s straight: Nearly four years after the death of owner Willie Mitchell, South Memphis’ Royal Recording Studio continues to flourish under the stewardship of Mitchell’s grandson, Lawrence “Boo” Mitchell. In the past 12 months, the studio has hosted several high-profile projects, including sessions for the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards, Elton John, the Wu-Tang Clan, Paul Rodgers, Boz Scaggs and a collaboration between Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant and the North Mississippi Allstars. Royal also served as one of the backdrops for Memphis-connected rapper Drake’s long-form video for “Worst Behavior,” which perfectly captured the studio’s old school, throwback vibe.

Feel Like Going Home: This year saw a pair of musical sons return home. Alabama native and Nashville resident Dan Penn came back to play his first local show in 16 years. Penn’s two-set, 2½-hour concert at Rhodes College was a reminder of why he’s considered one of the pillars of Southern soul. Similarly, Sam & Dave’s Sam Moore returned after 16 years as well. Moore was the honored artist and performer at the annual Blues Ball, and his mild estrangement from his old label home ended with his emotionally charged first visit to the Stax Museum.

Showman and Kingmaker: Though his death may not have generated hundred-point headlines, the life and legacy of Eddie Bond — who died in March at age 79 — remains a compelling one. A musician, radio deejay and station owner, cult TV star, wrestling promoter, nightclub impresario, record label head — even a police chief — he was an old-time showman in the truest sense: part P.T. Barnum, part hillbilly oracle. The rockin’ daddy from ding-dong Tennessee will be missed.

Gee whiz: For me, the year’s “only-in-Memphis” music moment happened in an unlikely place: the darkened confines of a movie theater during the Indie Memphis Film Festival. Watching the Rolling Stones documentary “Charlie is My Darling,” I noticed that the woman seated next to me was really enjoying the film, laughing and hooting at the vintage footage of the band. When the Stones started doing Otis Redding’s “Pain in My Heart,” she began to sing along at full volume. Normally I might’ve been annoyed, but I was shocked by how beautifully and perfectly she was nailing the tune. When the lights came on, I saw why: It was Carla Thomas.

Mark Jordan

Marcella Simien made a name for herself in Memphis in 2013.

Courtesy of Marcella Simien

Marcella Simien made a name for herself in Memphis in 2013.

Best newcomer — Marcella Simien: The 22-year-old Simien has emerged over the past year as one of the most exciting talents in the city. The daughter of zydeco star Terrance Simien, the Lafayette, La., native began performing with her father when she was a child, and she has played regularly around here through her four years at Memphis College of Art. But with gigs this year at Mollie Fontaine Lounge and Cooper-Young’s Bar DKDC, she has at last come into her own as an artist and performer.

The Memphis Music Hall of Fame induction ceremony: I know. Another awards show. But in the second year of its Memphis Music Hall of Fame, the Memphis Rock ‘N’ Soul Museum put on one of the best ceremonies of this kind in recent memory. The event had plenty of star power, with Jimmy Jam inducting David Porter, Master P inducting the Bar-Kays, and Bad Company’s Paul Rodgers — in town recording at Royal Studios — paying tribute in song to Albert King. But in swapping the Cannon Center, site of last year’s inaugural event, for the much-smaller Gibson Lounge, it was the intimate and personal stories and performances by lesser-known artists, family and friends that made such a special night.

“Take Me to the River”: This was a banner year for Memphis music docs, but Martin Shore’s “Take Me To the River” may be the best of the lot. Executive produced by Lawrence “Boo” Mitchell, Cody Dickinson and Jerry Harrison of the Talking Heads (who, of course, famously covered the titular Al Green hit), the doc won’t officially be released until next year, but the finished film has already been shown to select audiences. The remarkable film attempts to show the flow of the region’s musical tradition through a series of multigenerational recording sessions that pair Charlie Musselwhite with the City Champs, Booker T. Jones with Al Kapone, Mavis Staples with the Allstars, and Yo Gotti with the late Bobby “Blue” Bland, in one of his last recording sessions.

Mavis Staples at the Levitt Shell: I get the logic of why Patty Griffin was the headliner of October’s “Stars In the Park” fundraiser. Second-billed Staples, a former Stax great, has played here several times during her recent comeback, whereas Griffin, a New England singer-songwriter with a large cult following, has rarely appeared here despite residing just down the road in Nashville. In practice, though, the pairing was like one of those early-season Memphis Tigers basketball routs. Griffin’s literate, laid-back folk simply could not compete with Staples’ ecstatic, church-ified performance, which had an otherwise-sedentary crowd on its feet dancing.

Charles Lloyd and George Coleman/Harold Mabern at Rhodes College: It is a sad facet of the Memphis music legacy that the city has produced so many accomplished jazz musicians who have met with great success and acclaim everywhere but in their hometown. That situation has been ameliorated somewhat in recent years by the work of Rhodes College’s Mike Curb Institute, which brought these three jazz giants home for packed concerts.

Chris Herrington

The Oblivians closed out the old Hi-Tone location in style.

Photo by Jamie Harmon

The Oblivians closed out the old Hi-Tone location in style.

The Oblivians’ “Call the Police” live at the Hi-Tone Cafe, Feb. 23: I had never heard of — much less heard — this recent regional single before the revived Memphis garage-punk trio played a revved-up cover version during the final public set at the Hi-Tone’s Poplar Avenue location. But with Greg Cartwright yelping out the anthemic chorus — “You better call your wife/Call your bossman/We ain’t never going home/Call the po-lice/Call the po-lice/We’re gonna get our drink on” — it didn’t leave my head for weeks.

Remembering Di Anne Price: When I first moved back home to Memphis after college, more than a decade ago, Di Anne Price was my favorite discovery. A barrelhouse piano player and jazz-blues singer, she played free gigs regularly — at Huey’s Midtown, at King’s Palace Café, at what was then Cielo. I saw her play a lot back then. My biggest cultural regret of 2013 is that, in more recent years, I didn’t see her play as much. I took her for granted. Price died in March. If you didn’t have the privilege of seeing her live, know this: She was a brilliant singer and a performer with an enormous reservoir of charisma, heart and wisdom. Her loss still hurts, but she lives on via video (search YouTube) and on record (search out 2000’s Wild Women). Don’t just pay respect; treat yourself.

The overdue breakthroughs of Valerie June and John Murry: When I first met Murry, he was 17, an impossibly precocious misfit in a local alt-country band otherwise made up of University of Memphis grad students. When I first met June, she was probably only a couple of years older, a country mouse new to the city, a barista building up the gumption to perform and very far from finding her voice. So I took particular pleasure in seeing both finally emerge with terrific debuts this year.

Most promising new band — Dead Soldiers: This young barroom country-rock band released a pleasurable but modest debut album, All The Things You Lose, early in the year, but it only hints at the bonhomie they’ve developed live. They’ll play their biggest local club date yet this weekend, opening the “Lucero Family Christmas” show at Minglewood Hall.

Jeff Powell: The producer has been a fixture on the local scene for a while, but he deserves special commendation for his deft work on Mark Edgar Stuart’s Blues For Lou, knowing just how much adornment each song needed and when to step back entirely and just use Stuart’s home demos. Powell followed up with more ornate but equally impressive work on Rob Jungklas’ The Spirit and the Spine. Next year he’ll oversee the full-length debut from The Memphis Dawls.

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