AUSTIN, Texas — The closing night of the South by Southwest music festival in Austin was touted as a night of giants, with highly anticipated performances by megastars like Prince and Mid-South native Justin Timberlake.
But it was another Memphian and diminutive superstar, Mabon “Teenie” Hodges, who provided the festival’s real highlight. The 66-year-old Hodges, the guitarist and band leader of Memphis’ famed Hi Rhythm, was the subject of a new documentary screening at the festival, and made a rare live appearance with the band Saturday in Texas.
Austin’s Alamo Theater was the site of the world premiere of Susanna Vapnek’s 40-minute film, “Mabon ‘Teenie’ Hodges: A Portrait of a Memphis Soul Original.” A noted painter and visual artist, Vapnek first became acquainted with Hodges when she served as tour manager for her friend, the singer-songwriter Cat Power, in 2007. Hodges was the linchpin of Cat Power’s Memphis Rhythm Band, and he and Vapnek struck up an immediate bond that sparked the development of the documentary project.
Starting in 2008, Vapnek spent several years shooting Hodges in and around his Memphis home base, interviewing family, friends and collaborators, capturing recording sessions and piecing together a narrative of his life.
While it was billed as a “portrait” of Hodges, the film proved to be much more than that. It is essentially the story of two families: the 12 Hodges children, and their life growing up in then-rural Germantown, and the formation of a second, close-knit musical clan at Hi Records. Vapnek’s narrative provides a neat overview of how the Hi Rhythm sound was cultivated by band leader/producer Willie “Pops” Mitchell and how the Hodges and Mitchell families became inextricably linked together.
Some of the most hilarious and emotional sequences come with the footage of Teenie and Pops talking together. Their teasing and joking is underpinned by a sense of love and devotion; Hodges was essentially adopted by Mitchell as a teen, and would serve as a musical father figure to the other Hodges brothers who would come to comprise the Hi label’s house band. The brash and comic Mitchell, who died in 2010 — the doc is dedicated to his memory — nearly steals the film, no small feat given Hodges’ own colorful manner.
Mostly, though, the film is testament to Hodges’ often overlooked gifts as a songwriter. During Hi’s glory years starting in the late ’60s, he wrote or co-wrote many classics of the R&B genre, including a succession of hits for Al Green: “Here I Am, Come and Take Me,” “Full of Fire,” “Love and Happiness.”
One of the film’s funniest moments comes as he lists the names of all the artists who have covered his song “Take Me to the River” (the Talking Heads, Annie Lennox, Tina Turner), before noting that the use of the tune by the animatronic singing toy “Big Mouth Billy Bass” has produced the biggest royalties. “What a world, what a world,” laughed a bemused Hodges.
After a post-screening Q&A with Vapnek, Hodges, and Hi Rhythm, the band then proceeded to the Stages at Sixth for a rare live performance. Hi Rhythm’s touring has been limited in recent years, partly because of Teenie’s struggles with emphysema. At first, it appeared the show would be felled by Hodges’ health, as he seemed worn by the day’s activities. But, hooking up to his oxygen tank, he quickly recovered, and helped lead the band through a fiery performance in front of a packed house of festivalgoers that included soul aficionados from across the U.S., Europe and Japan.
With appearances by vocalists Lisa G. and Percy Wiggins, the six-piece band — featuring Teenie, his brothers Charles on organ, Leroy on bass, Fred on piano, keyboardist Archie Turner, and drummer Reginald Ector — worked its way through a set of classic material, songs the group had famously put its signature stamp on in the studio: from O.V. Wright’s “I’D Rather Be Blind Crippled and Crazy” to Ann Peebles’ “I Can’t Stand the Rain.” An epic rendition of “Love and Happiness” brought the set to a close, and drew down the curtain on an evening that did much to cement the Hi legacy.
Vapnek’s film is expected to be available for sale and download by the end of the year, and will usher in a slate of new projects relating to the Hodges family and Hi, including a documentary project on Willie Mitchell spearheaded by Grammy-winning musician Steve Jordan, and Neil Young biographer Jimmy McDonough’s forthcoming book on the Hi label.