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April 2004

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The Bo-Keys
The Royal Sessions
Yellow Dog Records

The Bo-KeysAs a youngster, I was exposed to many different types of music, but the one style that has stayed with me the longest, other than the blues of course, is the incredibly funky, often euphoric sound defined as Memphis Soul.  Like many folks, I was first exposed to a lot of this great sound via the Blues Brothers.  Unlike many folks, my infatuation with the music didn't stop there and I tried to find the source of their act.  I was always more enamored of the musicians in the band than Jake and Elwood. 

In my early college days, I was fortunate enough to stumble onto a copy of Peter Guralnick's excellent book, Sweet Soul Music, which  is a pretty concise history of soul music (but heavy on Memphis and Stax) as well as some old collections of Stax Records songs, that had been recently reissued by Atlantic.  Any music that came from Stax in the '60s and early '70s had healthy doses of soul, funk, gospel, and any other styles that would fit.  Stax featured such great acts as Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, William Bell, Isaac Hayes, Carla Thomas, and my favorites, the instrumental groups, the Mar-Keys, the Bar-Kays, and Booker T. & the M.G.ís. 

The first time I ever heard "Green Onions" (I can even remember it was on a Sunday night, while listening to WLAC-AM out of Nashville), I was hooked. 

It didn't stop with Stax Records either.  There was also some fantastic music coming from Hi Records and Goldwax Records in Memphis, too.  Sadly, not much has been done with the Memphis sound over the past couple of decades, other than the occasional release from some of the stalwarts of the genre, but they've been few and far between for the most part. 

That's why Yellow Dog Records' upcoming (May 4) release of The Royal Sessions by The Bo-Keys has definitely (and literally) put a hop in my step.  The Bo-Keys consists of some of Memphis' finest session players from the earlier era, as well as some outstanding up-and-comers from the current Memphis music scene. 

The Bo-Keys were originally formed as a backing unit for Sir Mack Rice, but have slowly jelled into a separate unit.  Their playlist consists of Memphis instrumental soul, pure and simple.  This session was recorded at Willie Mitchell's Royal Studios in Memphis (where the Memphis legend recorded much of his Hi Records output). 

The Bo-Keys veterans are drummer Willie Hall (known from his days drumming for Isaac Hayes as well as the aforementioned Blues Brothers), keyboardist Ronnie Williams (who played on many Stax recordings, including the Rufus Thomas classic, "Funky Chicken" and the Rance Allen Group's "Up Above My Head"), and guitarist Skip Pitts (who played with Green, Wilson Pickett, the Isley Brothers, and contributed that wicked "wacka -wacka" guitar on Hayes' "Theme From Shaft"). 

These guys haven't lost a step.  Hall's drumming effortlessly recaptures his classic sound, Williams' incredible Hammond organ simmers and pops throughout and simply left me with goose bumps, and Pitts (who didn't even rehearse with the band, but played off-the-cuff on these tracks) is marvelous.  Hall, Williams, and Pitts all contribute occasional vocals on some of the tracks as well.  Bassist and group leader Scott Bomar is a relatively young man, but he lays down some of the meanest bass you've ever heard, and there's also a tight and energetic horn section (Marc Franklin on trumpet, Jim Spake on tenor and baritone sax) as well as additional percussion by Hector Diaz. 

There are ten songs, a mixture of classics like Jimmy Smith's "Back to the Chicken Shack" and James Brown's "Doin' It To Death," a.k.a. "Funky Good Time") and exciting originals like ''Under the Table," "Deuce and a Quarter," and "Coming Home Baby." 

There's also a pensive "I Remember Stax," and a nod to modern sounds with "My Country Loves Me."  By the time the funky closer "Bling Bling" wraps things up, you'll be reaching for the "Play" button to hear it all over again. 

Capturing the classic Memphis Soul sound, as well as spicing it up with a few modern touches, The Bo-Keys' The Royal Sessions will make you feel nostalgic, while getting you up on your feet at the same time. 

It's available at Amazon or at Yellow Dog's website (   Don't miss this one.

--- Graham Clarke

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