I've been missing the northern end of the Delta lately. So I turned to two good sources of inspiration about the rich Memphis music scene that capture the bountiful spirit of that southern city.
The first is the 25th anniversary edition of It Came From Memphis, native Memphian Robert Gordon's fascinating personal history of how blues music migrated up the Delta to the Bluff City and influenced several generations of inventive musicians: from originators like Furry Lewis, Bukka White, Gus Cannon, Mose Vinson, Sleeping John Estes, and others to a host of performers from the 1950s through the 1990s. The story is as rambling and discombobulated as the town and the people who have made music there.
So if you want to get beyond Elvis and Otis and discover the real, largely unsung heroes of Memphis music, this is the book for you. How about Alex Chilton, the lead singer of the Box Tops--remember "The Letter" and "Cry Like a Baby"?--who sang these megahits at age sixteen and never again attained these heights again, but instead led a stormy, fantastical existence with a long line of strange underground cult bands? Or Jim Dickinson who pops up everywhere, producing or playing on one hit after non-hit, who exclaimed and lived by the motto: "If you're not living on the edge, you're taking up too much space."
The band marches on with an outrageous and talented cast of crazy, under-appreciated Memphians: colorful wrestlers like Sputnik Monroe and Jerry Lawler, wonderful and often obscure musicians like Charles "Skip" Pitts (who can forget that perfect wah-wah rift on "Shaft"?), bassist Scott Bomar, Ben Cauley, Howard Grimes, Teenie and Leroy Hodges (ala the Hi Rhythm Section), Fred Ford, Lee Baker, Sid Selvidge, on and on--making music for the ages.
I can only agree with Rolling Stone: "If you haven't read this book, do it now."
A suitable and enjoyable companion to the book is the 2014 documentary Take Me to the River, now streaming everywhere, where director Martin Shore gathers a bunch of crack Memphis session musicians to accompany a handful of old blues and soul singers with some of today's young singers and rappers.
So we watch duets by Otis Clay and Lil P-Nut, Mavis Staples and the North Mississippi All-Stars, Bobby Rush and Frayser Boy, Booker T. and Al Kapone, William Bell and Snoop Dogg, Charlie Musselwhite and the City Champs, and my favorite: Bobby "Blue" Bland and Yo Gotti, singing/rapping "Ain't No Sunshine" (I know, I know, I know...).
If it sounds a little weird, well, it is, but that's Memphis! I found it to be great fun, and it appears the performers did as well. And so will you.