The Shakespearean Story of Soulsville, U.S.A. Focus of New Book

Jesse Jackson introduces Isaac Hayes - "Black Moses" - at the 1972 Wattstax concert.

Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion
By Robert Gordon
384 pp.

It's a story that any novelist or screenwriter would find fantastical. A white, middle-aged banker and part time country music fiddler with a hankering to get into the music business convinces his older sister (and her skeptical husband) to mortgage their house so he can open a recording studio.

Then, the pair buy an abandoned movie theater in a downtrodden area of blacker-than-black Memphis, build said studio, and also an in-house record shop. And from that studio come some of the most treasured music of the '60s and '70s, heard around the world.

Stax Records (from the names of the banker/fiddler Jim STewart and sister Estelle AXton) would ultimlately put its name on some 800 singles and 300 albums from 1960-1975, launching the careers of dozens of performers including Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Booker T. and the MG's, Isaac Hayes, Rufus and Carla Thomas, Sam and Dave, Luther Ingram, Albert King, The Staples Singers, the Bar-Kays, and many, many more.

The more polished and palpable Motown may have called itself "Hitsville, U.S.A.," but there was no mistaking the meaning when Stax put up the proclamation "Soulsville, U.S.A." right on the old theater's marquee.

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Soul Screamer Barrence Whitfield Will Make You "Bleed From the Eyeballs"

Categories: Soulsville

Photos courtesy of Bloodshot Records

Attention, those of you planning to go the Barrence Whitfield and the Savages show tomorrow. Want to visit backstage or get in good with the screaming fireball of a soul man? All you need to do is cater to his sweet tooth.

"There was this club we used to play right outside of Houston and there was this restaurant nearby. And they made the best banana cream pie ever!" Whitfield says just before a sound check in New Orleans.

"And they would bring it to us backstage," he adds. "I remember one time I ate it before the second set, but had to rush out. I came onstage and there was cream all over my mouth. I just told the audience, ' that banana cream pie!"

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The Rocks Off 200: Flash Gordon Parks, DJ as Funky Professor

Welcome to The Rocks Off 200, our portrait gallery of the most compelling profiles and personalities in the far-flung Houston music community -- a lot more than just musicians, but of course they're in there too. See previous entries in the Rocks Off 100 at this link.

Photos courtesy of Flash Gordon Parks
Who? If you see Flash Gordon Parks around a set of turntables -- which you can often do on "The Island" around 3700 Main or other spots like Leon's, Boondocks or The Flat -- it's better than even money you're in for a funky good time. Parks pours an encyclopedic knowledge of soul, funk, jazz, hip-hop and more into sets that will make you think as much as they make you sweat. That's no easy feat, but he makes it sound that way.

Parks is also an acclaimed photographer who started at his Third Ward alma mater, Jack Yates High School. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Photography at Sam Houston State University, and in 2005 published a book, The Beautiful Side of Ugly, with poet/emcee EQuality. Combining EQuality's verse with Parks' images, the book aims to, according to its co-creator, "document the beauty of urban areas in Houston, Texas."

Parks says he sees his role as a DJ as "not only to entertain, but expose the audience to music that may not be accessible in familiar arenas." He wants his sets to be a mixture of music-history lesson, memory-jogger and new-artist spotlight, "all the while compelling you to lose your inhibitions and dance."

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Soul Brother Lee Fields: Singing "Brings On the Sweats"

Photos courtesy of Truth and Soul Records
Whatever you may be doing right now, Lee Fields is having more fun than you are. In January the sixtysomething New Jersey-based soul singer will perform in Australia, meaning his high-energy delivery (now backed by his airtight band the Expressions) will have thrilled audiences on every continent outside Antarctica. He'd probably play a research station down there if it had a PA system.

Fields' enthusiasm is catching; you can practically hear him grinning over the phone.

"I feel like Superman," Fields glows from a recent tour stop on the way to Madison, Wisconsin. "Everything's been going so well for me. Everything's just been so wonderful, seeing so many places in the world. The more places the merrier, you know? I'm just having a grand time."

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Lionel Richie at Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, 10/12/2013

Photos by Marco Torres
Lionel Richie
Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion
October 12, 2013

With a career that has spanned more than four decades, Lionel Richie has been helping us dance, cry, and love better than the sum of all of our current pop stars combined. The talented singer/songwriter/pianist need only deliver the first few words of each song and his fans will automatically fill in the blanks.

At age 64, the man from Tuskegee, Alabama still shakes, rattles, and rolls with the vigor of a much younger superstar. Mr. Richie hit The Woodlands fresh off his headlining performance on Weekend 1 of the 2013 ACL Music Festival, where I wrote the following:

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Andre Williams, Black Godfather, Is Still Slick as "Bacon Fat"

Categories: Soulsville

Photo by Marc Brubaker
Andre Williams at the Continental Club, September 2011
Andre Williams is a true musical journeyman. Now a most ripe 76 years old, he's had the kind of career that seems like it could hardly be real to us 21st-century folk. He came of age in a time of segregated lunch counters and when musicians -- particularly ribald ones like him -- couldn't even title a song "Shake a Tail." So he called what went on to be one of his early R&B hits "Shake a Tail Feather" instead.

Williams has worked in the music business, both as a performer and behind the scenes, for more than five decades now. He spent some time under Berry Gordy before Motown Records became "The Sound of Young America" (but not long before), and even a couple of years in Houston as A&R director for Duke/Peacock Records. He had near-final say over which artists were offered contracts by the label, and would supervise recording sessons for the likes of Bobby "Blue" Bland. Mostly, Williams remembers, he hoped he didn't incur the wrath of notorious label boss Don Robey.

"Working for Don Robey, anytime you missed the ball, the consequences were great," he laughs. "Don Robey was a very, very hard man to work for."

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A Fistful of Soul's Top 25 Solid Gold Tracks

Photo by Mars Varela/courtesy of A Fistful of Soul
The A Fistful of Soul brothers
If you're seeking a scene, maaaaaaaaaan, you could do a hell of a lot worse than A Fistful of Soul, the monthly where some of Houston's grooviest DJs drip rare (and not-so-rare) vintage wax all over Midtown. Now steered by Joe Ross, Stewart Anderson and Alex LaRotta, Fistful dates back to the Mink in 2009. It hopped next door to the marginally bigger Big Top some time later and soon enough spilled over onto the Continental Club patio, where it celebrates its fourth soul-spinnin' anniversary next Friday night. (Enter through the Big Top.) It's always no cover, and always all 45s.

"We get comments on that every time we play," LaRotta says. "We realize that some of our youngest patrons likely never grew up with a turntable in their house -- much less obscure soul/R&B 45s, so there may be some old-school DJ 'hipness' attached to our analog ethos."

This thing is a happening, we assure you. Recently Rocks Off asked the Fistful guys to come up with a list of their Top 25 tracks from four groovy years, only the tightest of the tight and the funkiest of the funky (but in no particular order). Dig it.

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Dr. John at Miller Outdoor Theatre, 9/7/2013

Photos by Daniel Kramer
Dr. John
Miller Outdoor Theatre
September 7, 2013

Happy birthday, Miller Outdoor Theatre. This year the Hermann Park amphitheater marks its 90th year of providing all manner of cultural offerings for the low cost of absolutely free, said to be the largest program of its kind in the nation.

But municipal arts budgets and modern tour routing being what they are, Miller doesn't see a pop artist of Dr. John's caliber very often. Needless to say, the Night Tripper's performance Saturday night was enough to provoke significant pangs of regret that it doesn't happen more. The weather was unseasonably cool -- it rained directly before he went onstage shortly after 8 p.m. -- the music was just right and the audience enjoyed itself without being rude.

Such a night. It's hard to imagine the conditions being any better unless the admission was free. Wait a minute...

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Maze Feat. Frankie Beverly, Isley Brothers & Kem at Toyota Center, 8/16/2013

Categories: Soulsville

Photos by Justin Avery
The Isley Brothers
Bounce TV Music Festival
Feat. Maze w/Frankie Beverly, the Isley Brothers & Kem
Toyota Center
August 16, 2013

Soulful, upbeat sounds in combination with sultry "baby-making music" combed through the spirits of the reminiscing concertgoers at Friday's Bounce TV Music Festival, a delightful exhibition of timeless rhythm and blues by two timeless acts, the Isley Brothers and Maze featuring Frankie Beverly.

"This one is for the lovers," said Kem, the youngster among Friday's trio of performers. "Where are the lovers tonight? I want to see the couples," Kem stated as he began to sing the lyrics to the love ballad "Share My Life.

He also added an element of comedy to his performance when he said, "I sing these songs for the ladies... but I'm working for the fellas. My hope is that once you put on the Kem record, 50 percent of your work is done."

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Tedeschi Trucks Band at House of Blues, 7/12/2013

Photos by Jim Bricker
Tedeschi Trucks Band
House of Blues
July 12, 2013

At its best, live music can be a life-affirming, soul-nourishing, and joy-inducing experience. Those may sound like empty platitudes, the kind of catch-all catchphrases that might be printed on a plaque at the Hallmark store of spew from the mouth of Stuart Smalley.

But Friday night at the House of Blues, the Tedeschi Trucks Band delivered all three of those things and more in a sonic stew that mixed rock, blues, jazz, funk, R&B, and gospel, touching on material from their debut record Revelator, tracks from the upcoming Made Up Mind (due August 20) and choice covers that added something to the originals. And it offered the faithful and kind of spiritualism not found in many houses of worship.

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