Years before the towering "hologram" of Tupac Shakur sat in with Dr. Dre a few weeks ago at Coachella, there was "Elvis in Concert '97" at the Pyramid, with The King checking in from beyond via massive video screen to perform with former sidemen and the Memphis Symphony Orchestra on the 20th anniversary of his death. That concert launched a subsequent tour as well as a similar 25th anniversary show in 2002 at the Pyramid. Now the company behind the Tupac stunt is considering other celebrities to bring back larger than life. From NME:
From Elvis Presley and Jimi Hendrix right through to Michael Jackson and
even Whitney Houston - who only passed away in February - the eggheads
from Musion Technology Ltd claim they've got a number of dead stars in
Speaking to NME, Head of Music at the firm Sanj Surati said that seeing Elvis onstage with Justin Bieber "would be a cool thing".
With the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and the 100th anniversary of the Titanic converging this year, it's a perfect time to remember the wreck of the Sultana, still the deadliest maritime disaster in U.S. history. (We last remembered the Sultana on this blog back in December.) On April 27, 1865, the steamer, recklessly over capacity, exploded just a few miles from Memphis on its way to Cincinnati. Two-thirds of the 2,400 passengers crammed aboard the doomed steamer were killed, most of them Union soldiers freed from Confederate prison camps.
The Sultana never became a cultural and historical phenomenon on the scale of the Titanic. We in Memphis know something about it as it took place on our doorstep and hundreds of the dead are buried at Memphis National Cemetery. Now, a singer-songwriter from Binghamton, N.Y., has recorded a concept album dedicated to the disaster. "The Sultana: April 27, 1865" will be released at a "reunion" of scholars and Civil War buffs this weekend in Cincinnati. Jeff Stachyra was inspired to do the project to keep alive the lore of the Sultana and the memory of those who died, not Astors and Vanderbilts, but hundreds of common soldiers, emaciated from disease and crippled by wounds.
The whole thing with the Titanic versus the Sultana, where the Titanic gets all the attention and the Sultana gets none, I'm for the man on the street, the average Joe, the 99 percent," Stachyra said in an interview last week.
"Here are the poor guys who are coming home from the war after serving their country and creating the freedom we have today, and they don't get any recognition for that. In our world of fancy and glitzy, we're all driven toward the glamorous story."
Stachyra learned the full story on and off over four years -- as long as the Civil War lasted, he realizes now -- by reading every book on the Sultana and also doing his own research in St. Louis, Memphis, New York City and elsewhere.
Many elements of the sorry tale resonate today. War profiteering may have played a role: The Sultana's legal capacity was only 376, but more than 2,400 were crammed onboard in Vicksburg, allegedly because the captain had taken bribes to transport as many
soldiers as possible. Also, one theory posits that poorly repaired boilers were sabotaged by a Confederate agent getting one last act of revenge on the North.
In addition to his original song cycle, Stachyra recruited an orchestra to record a forgotten 1879 piece called "Sultana" that he discovered at the Library of Congress. A few groups have approached him about developing a "Sultana" musical based on his songs.
Off hand, other musical tributes include the early-'70s funk-rock track "Sultana" by a band incidentally called Titanic, and Son Volt's 2009 song "Sultana," written by frontman and Belleville, Ill., native Jay Farrar (I wouldn't be surprised to hear that one when Son Volt performs next Saturday at the Memphis in May Beale Street Music Festival.)
The great New Orleans music magazine Offbeat has a long interview with The Bo-Keys bandleader and bassist and Grammy-nominated producer Scott Bomar. The Bo-Keys, of course, mixes younger musicians like Bomar, trumpeter Mark Franklin and sometime-guitarist Joe Restivo, with veterans of the classic Stax and Hi era in Memphis soul -- drummer Howard Grimes, guitarist Skip Pitts and others.
Some excerpts from Bomar below. On playing with venerable bandmates:
We absolutely love playing with the older guys in the group because
they have so many good stories and they teach us so much. They have such
a wealth of information. When we're working together, I'd say 90
percent of the conversation consists of those guys schooling us on
everything they have learned in their careers, and it's super
In the time I've been playing music in Memphis, we've lost more and
more people as time goes by, and I see how important it is that we have
gotten to work with the older guys and learn what we've learned because I
think it would get lost like any other art form or music form like jazz
or anything like that. I think that we're really fortunate that we have
been able to get a little bit of the craft to keep playing that kind of
music the right way.
On how to play Memphis soul:
Well first of all, you have got to have the right feel. That's the most
important thing, and the second thing is to not get too busy. Don't
clutter it up; play simple. Simplicity is one of the most important
things. Each musician needs to know what their role is and what their
part should be.
For me, the easiest part for writing is coming up with the concept or
idea for a song. Those come to me pretty frequently, and they tend to
come from the ether. The hard part is sitting down and actually
finishing the songs--arranging them, taking lyrics and choruses scratched
out on napkins and turning them into a full song. That's where being in
a band with like-minded musicians really helps, because the
collaboration is really great. Everybody in the group is on the same
page, and we really compliment each other's writing.
The Bo-Keys play Friday night at d.b.a. in New Orleans. See previous Links to Memphis coverage of the band here and here.
NPR's The Picture Show blog today mentions the recently released "Jack Robinson on Show: Portraits 1958-72," a collection of iconic celebrity shots from Vogue and other publications by the eponymous photographer whose work is archived and sold at the Robinson Gallery on South Main in Memphis.
The Commercial Appeal told the story behind the book when it was released in January: Robinson lived in Memphis for the last 25 years of his life, almost in seclusion, rarely talking about his past work with his celebrity subjects and his carrying-on with the Andy Warhol gang. After Robinson's death, his employer, Dan Oppenheimer, happened upon a treasure-trove of work at the photographer's apartment, much of which made it into this new volume.
The career lasted 17 years before Robinson came undone and moved to
Memphis. There, he sobered up and took a job as a stained-glass
designer. By the time Oppenheimer met him, New York City and photography
and alcoholism had all been buried in the past. And there's really no
one who knows much more -- at least not outspokenly.
"I kept waiting for some family member to step forward and make
arrangements, and to this day no one has stepped forward," Oppenheimer
says on the phone from Memphis. Robinson, it seems, left everything to
Oppenheimer on purpose -- knowing it would be in good hands. He was
right; Oppenheimer still gets excited when he talks about it.
wouldn't have known what Tom Wolfe looked like 45 years ago but I knew
the name," Oppenheimer says. "It overwhelms people to this day to see
all of the icons of your youth ... to see all of these people when
they're 20 years old."
Continuing a cross-country road trip diary for The Huffington Post, travel-guide writer and -show host Rick Stevesstops through Tennessee to compare and contrast the three grand regions represented by the white stars on the state flag. His pointing out that there are differences throughout Tennessee made me consider actually posting his travelogue (I usually don't bother linking to such pieces, which usually rehash the usual Elvis/barbecue/blues/barbecue/Elvis tropes.). There was also the fact that he referred to Memphis' skyline not only as "little," but also as "smart." He actually seems to like it here.
Memphis, with its smart, little skyline, overlooks the Mississippi
River. It was one of the first cities to fall in the Civil War, so it
wasn't destroyed but occupied. After the war, freed slaves came and
helped power the local factories, mills, and cotton shipping. Its
industrial wealth shows itself in fine, old neighborhoods filled with
grand, "Four Square" houses--two-story homes of equal width and depth,
many with a breezeway right through the middle that vents the four,
As this has long been an African American center and an industrial
powerhouse, it's where black and white culture come together musically,
too. Rock 'n' roll has its roots in African American and blues music.
And Memphis is therefore logically the city for blues and rock 'n'
roll--and the home of the man who helped black rhythm and blues enter
white culture, Elvis Presley.
Moving on to Graceland, Steves repeats what seems to be becoming a common reaction to Elvis' old Whitehaven estate: In the post-"MTV Cribs" age, it seems quaint and unpretentious.
The mansion itself was nowhere near as gaudy as I expected. Elvis bought
it when he was 22 for $102,000. It's a stately mansion with big white
pillars out front. Like so many nice homes in this part of the country,
it overlooks a sprawling and fun-loving estate. The interior is a trip
back to the 1970s--shag carpets, mirrored ceilings, all the finest
low-tech accessories of the age with Elvis' flair for fancy. While my
house in the 1970s was tiny and humble compared to Graceland, the decor,
furnishings, kitchen, and so on were remarkably similar.
From Memphis, Steves moved on to Atlanta. Read all about that here.
Former Memphian and rising jazz player Kenneth Whalum IIIgets a mention this week in NPR's A Blog Supreme jazz blog. In a post about the mainstream attention being paid to new hip-hop- and pop-oriented albums by crossover jazz artists Robert Glasper and Esperanza Spalding, blogger Patrick Jarenwattananon reminds readers of the two musicians' recent work as band members on projects fronted by other musicians.
Whalum, son of minister and Memphis school board member Dr. Kenneth Whalum Jr., had performed with Glasper as a member of soul singer Maxwell's band, and he enlisted the keyboardist and the Experiment rhythm section for his latest album:
While Glasper and Spalding were developing the conversing-with-pop-radio
music on their new records, they were also playing this sort of music.
The same piano-bass-drums unit of the Robert Glasper Experiment plays
acoustic on saxophonist Kenneth Whalum III's To Those Who Believe, released in late 2010; Glasper and Experiment drummer Chris Dave also play on bassist Robert Hurst's trio album Unrehurst, Vol. 2 from earlier in 2010.
Conceived as the soundtrack to a new book, this inspired compilation
celebrates Chips Moman's American Studios, whose Sixties productions for
a variety of labels made it a major Memphis hit factory.
There's 24 songs, from soulful pop (Dusty's "Son of a Preacher Man")
to soulful country - (Danny O'Keefe's immortal "Good Time Charlie's Got
the Blues"), but the real deal is hard-core southern soul from studio
stalwart Bobby Womack, James Carr and many more.
"Some of it is country, although very heavy country," she laughs. "Some of it is like Ray Charles and the Supremes doing some of Ray's country stuff. And we've got a
song called 'Tennessee Time' that sounds like Porter and Dolly, which I
The collaboration with Auerbach came about when June's manager played some of her songs for the manager of another hot producer, Kevin Augunas, who has recently worked with similarly rootsy acts such as Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros and Florence and the Machine. Augunas thought to call up Auerbach, whom Augunas credits with helping June tighten up her sound.
"When we got together and started arranging stuff, one goal was to get
to the point quicker, get in, get out. Her natural solo style can be a
bit loose-ended, and we wanted to tighten things up," says Augunas. "She
took a risk letting Dan and I push her, but I think we came out of this
with a great album that has a lot of commercial potential."
So what's next for Valerie June? The album is being mixed in Los Angeles, and Augunas and June's manager say the plan is to release the album first in Europe -- where June has an established backing band and has already toured -- and "let the buzz she built over there work its way back to America." Fans in Memphis can also catch June on Saturday, May 5, at the Memphis in May Beale Street Music Festival.
PICTURED: Valerie June performs last March in Austin, Texas, during the South by Southwest music festival. (Photo by John Anderson)
David Fricke of Rolling Stone checks in today with a short review of the deluxe re-issue of Alex Chilton's lost 1970 solo recordings, "Free Again: The 1970 Sessions."
In 1969, even before the end of his Top 40 band the Box Tops, singer
Alex Chilton started making his first solo album. In 1970, he abandoned
it to co-found Big Star, the Memphis version of the Beatles. Free Again
finds Chilton, not yet 20, in fast bloom. The title track, "The EMI
Song (Smile for Me)" and "Every Day as We Grow Closer" are ravishing,
original amalgams of the Beach Boys, the British Invasion and country soul.
The sessions for this material took place at Memphis' Ardent Studios while Chilton was between The Box Tops and Big Star, and at a professional and personal crossroads, as explained on the Ardent website:
For the past year, Chilton had been strapped in a creative,
professional, and personal straitjacket. He was the lead singer of a
million-selling band, The Box Tops, but felt like little more than a
puppet of the group's producers. In the era of free love, he'd been
pressured into a shotgun marriage and fatherhood. And he'd ultimately
come to see himself as the pawn of an unscrupulous business machine,
sent to grind it out on the road in a series of silly lip-synched TV
performances and one-night stands while someone else cashed his checks.
As he entered the studio that summer to make his first solo recordings,
the man who would come to define the very spirit of musical independence
was still bound in chains. At a time where liberation and
self-expression were rallying cries, Alex Chilton was about to break
PICTURED: Alex Chilton is shown in a 1970 promotional photo from Ardent Records. (By Michael O'Brien)
Memphis rock band Skillet has found popularity among both radio-rock and Christian-pop audiences, as well as touring successfully on both circuits. But it's all the same to the band, frontman John Cooper says in a piece for Audio Ink Radio:
Memphis hard rock quartet Skillet are currently headlining the 2012 Winter Jam tour, which also features fellow Christian acts Sanctus Real, Peter Furler, Kari Jobe, Newsong, Building 429 and more. The trek spans dozens of dates and wraps April 1 in Grand Rapids, Mich.
While Winter Jam is a bona fide Christian tour, Skillet are also a regular on mainstream bills alongside the likes of Puddle of Mudd, Three Days Grace, Papa Roach and other modern rock heavy-hitters.
Frontman John Cooper says he treats all of the Skillet's tours the same, and he has always found good company in the band's tour mates, no matter the type of tour. "We toured with Papa Roach on a co-headlining tour. They didn't come up to us and say 'Hey, you can't talk about Jesus when you're on stage,' and we didn't say to them 'Hey, you guys can't cuss during the show,'" Cooper told GoUpstate.com. "We could do whatever we wanted and they could do whatever they wanted. It's a mutual respect."