(Editor's Note: Founded in 1973, The Recording Academy Memphis Chapter is celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2013. In the coming weeks, GRAMMY.com will publish a special content series paying tribute to the Chapter and the surrounding region's rich musical legacy, which encompasses the deepest roots of American music and the birthplaces of blues, jazz, ragtime, Cajun, zydeco, and rock and roll. The Chapter will host a 40th anniversary celebration featuring musical performances on July 13.)
It's the U.S. city that has produced countless music legends and transformed rock and roll into a culture-shifting force. Now, in the technology-crazed 21st century, Memphis is inspiring yet another musical trend — tribute albums and hits compilations dedicated to the classic R&B of the fabled Tennessee town.
In March Wu-Tang Clan rapper/producer RZA released The RZA Presents Shaolin Soul Selection: Volume 1, a compilation of legendary soul tracks from the vaults of Memphis' legendary Stax Records label. Featuring tracks by Booker T. And The MG's, Isaac Hayes and Albert King, The RZA Presents… underscores the crucial role Memphis R&B has played in the evolution of rap music.
The album is one of the latest releases in a string of Memphis-related soul recordings. In 2011 British pop legend Cliff Richard issued Soulicious, a compilation of R&B interpretations that was partially recorded at the renowned Royal Studios in Memphis. Meanwhile, Huey Lewis & The News have earned rave reviews for Soulsville, their 2010 collection of covers commemorating the Stax sound. Recorded at the legendary Ardent Studios, the album features interpretations of Memphis R&B classics by Otis Redding ("Just One More Day") and the Staple Singers ("Respect Yourself"), among others.
A more recent indicator of Memphis' lasting musical influence is Boz Scaggs' 2013 release Memphis. Featuring deep soul interpretations of pop, rock and R&B songs by artists including Steely Dan, Al Green and Moon Martin, the album takes its title from the city in which it was recorded (and the birthplace of Scaggs' grandfather, father and wife) and peaked at No. 17 on the Billboard 200.
Growing up in Texas in the late '50s, Scaggs' influences include pioneering Memphis R&B artists such as Syl Johnson and Mable John, and Stax staples Booker T. & The MG's, Sam & Dave, and Redding, among others. In sharp contrast to the smoother jazz-influenced songs of Motown, the appeal of Memphis soul for Scaggs lies in the music's rawer sensibilities.
"Memphis music has more of the deep South/Delta blues feel," says Scaggs. "Stax grew more out of a tradition that incorporated horn bands from juke joints. It's a little more roots, a little more of a roadhouse tradition."
Scaggs discovered that the bluesy Memphis sound can still be tapped in the right atmosphere. He and producer Steve Jordan chose to record Memphis at Willie Mitchell's Royal Studios, the same facility where Green recorded timeless hits for Hi Records.
"That room was once used by a specific producer, a specific group of musicians, and just a couple of engineers," Scaggs says. "They got a sound. If you go into that room now, they haven't changed it."
Royal Studios hasn't changed much since its '70s heyday because the studio is a family enterprise. When Mitchell died in 2010, the studio was inherited by sons Lawrence "Boo" Mitchell and Archie Mitchell. The family has retained many of the studio's original instruments, and much of the vintage analog recording gear. Under the Mitchell brothers' guidance, Royal has hosted sessions by notable contemporary artists such as Cody Chesnutt, John Mayer and My Morning Jacket. When asked to speculate about the studio's enduring mystique, Lawrence "Boo" Mitchell could only hazard a likely guess.
"I think most of them know that Royal is a legendary place where a lot of hit records were made," says Mitchell, who is currently President of The Recording Academy Memphis Chapter. "So not only are they trying to achieve that Memphis sound, but also get some of that hit-making vibe that was around back in the '60s and '70s, but is apparently still there today.
"Most times that you go to a studio, you have to take your inspiration with you. But when people come to Royal, they get inspired because the room hasn't changed in 40-something years. When you come here, it just gives you this magical feeling."
A similar magical feeling that resonates through much of the classic blues, soul, jazz, and rock and roll emanated from Memphis. The city's tremendous contribution to music cannot be overstated. A staggering number of performing legends got their start in Memphis, including greats such Howlin' Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Jimmie Lunceford, Ike Turner, Jerry Lee Lewis, Green, and rock icon Alex Chilton, among others.
Akin to Hi Records and Royal Studios, the Stax Records label and its studio cast a long shadow in Memphis musical lore. Initially founded in 1957 as Satellite Records by Jon Stewart, Stax formally emerged in 1959 with assistance from Stewart's sister, Estelle Acton. The label earned mythic status for maintaining a roster of integrated R&B acts in the racially charged Jim Crow South.
Stax holds special meaning for Lewis, who attributes the timeless appeal of Memphis soul to the excellence of the songs and the conviction of the performers.
"They're all great singers, but there's something about when they're singing," Lewis says. "Their life story is infused in those songs. You know they're serious. It's, 'I'm not kidding. I'm a soul man.'"
Lewis describes Stax music as "an American treasure" because of the way the songs unwittingly chronicled Memphis' own evolution. "Memphis was like a melting pot of people, this weird combination of Celtic people from the hills of Kentucky, and blacks coming up from places like New Orleans, Western Arkansas and Tunica, Mississippi," he says. "[Stax music] came together through this wonderful mélange of immigrants getting together [and] playing in the neighborhood."
In the 50 years that have passed since its inception, Stax songs have been covered by a vast number of musical artists, including Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner, Eric Clapton and Aerosmith. Owned today by Los Angeles-based Concord Music Group, Stax remains true to its Memphis music roots, releasing recordings by contemporary blues artists such as Angie Stone, Ben Harper and Warren Haynes. The label recently came full circle when it re-signed legendary Stax organist and bandleader Booker T. Jones.
"We have two big initiatives when it comes [to] Stax," said Joel Amsterdam, senior vice president of publicity for Concord Music Group. "Number one is maintaining and burnishing this amazing catalog, and number two is the new artists [who] we've signed to Stax. There is a desire to embrace the legacy and bring it forward."
Concord's efforts notwithstanding, famed performers such as Scaggs, Lewis and RZA are drawing the Memphis R&B tradition into the 21st century. Legendary rock vocalist Paul Rodgers (Free, Bad Company) recently announced that he is recording an album of Memphis soul classics at Royal Studios. The as-yet untitled album is expected this fall and will feature Rodgers applying his soulful shout to Memphis classics by Sam & Dave, Ann Peebles and Redding, among others.
Lewis believes there's a simple reason why Memphis soul continues to inspire musicians and spawn interpretative albums.
"There's an urgency and a commitment in those records," he says. "Will they be around forever? Absolutely."
(Bruce Britt is an award-winning journalist and essayist whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, USA Today, San Francisco Chronicle, Billboard and other publications. He lives in Los Angeles.)