Memphis Funk 

A nice vacation from chicken pickin'

A nice vacation from chicken pickin'

Today’s special is Memphis Soul Stew. We sell so much of this, people wonder what we put in it. We’re gonna tell you right now.—King Curtis, 1967

For Christmas 1966, my father, Jabo Jowers, gave me a cherry-red Gibson hollow-body ES-330 TDC electric guitar. Inside of a year, even though I was just slipping into puberty and still singing kind of a low alto, I found myself making a living with the thing.

I played in a seven-piece horn band called The Fleshmen. (I did not name the band.) We played mostly weekends, mostly in Georgia and South Carolina. We played teen clubs, frat parties, and a few down-and-dirty nightclubs. We wore gold double-breasted suits, ruffly white shirts, and black patent leather shoes. The band had a regional hit, “Go Funky,” when I was 13.

If Jabo had given me a banjo, I’d probably be a peckerwood right now today. If he’d given me a piano, I’d probably be working for Martha Stewart, or at least wearing sweaters with elbow pads and teaching college English. But no. Jabo gave me the 330, and that supported me all the way through college. If I hadn’t been in the college jazz band, I wouldn’t have met wife Brenda, and I wouldn’t have daughter Jess.

Right behind Jabo, I’ve got Memphis to thank for my life today. That’s because The Fleshmen played mostly Memphis soul tunes. We opened the show with “Soul Finger.” Before the night was over, we’d play “Soul Man,” “Knock on Wood,” “Funky Broadway,” and “Mustang Sally.” When I get a chance today, I still play “Mustang Sally,” and my own funkier-than-Memphis arrangement of Otis Redding’s “Hard to Handle.”

I can’t say for sure, but I think I’ve been able to hold down a few writing jobs because, on a good day, my words have a little rhythm to ’em. I figure it’s a Memphis rhythm, something that stuck in my brain around 1967.

I’ve only been to Memphis twice. A few years back, I was there for a day. A few weeks back, I was there for two days. I’ll tell you what I like about the place: First, there’s an earnest molecular-level funkiness about Memphis. The best example I saw was a bar, Ernestine and Hazel’s. It’s an old whorehouse, and proud of it. Every floorboard creaks, the stairs are soft and crooked under your feet. The paint on the walls is peeling in a pattern that only happens after long, purposeful neglect. The windows are dirty, and people have written messages in the window dirt. The messages are old, they overlap. The neon sign works, but it’s got a little sizzle to it. The place smells like beer, grease, old wood, dirt, and sweat. Ernestine and Hazel’s is like a Bizarro garden: Over the course of many decades, people have put in so many hours of neglect, indifference, and utter disregard, the effect is stunning, artful, and unforgettable.

The other thing I like about Memphis: Its music does not suck. Understand, I love living in Nashville. I’ve been here for almost 20 years, and I’ll probably live the rest of my life here. Nashville has been very, very good to me. But everywhere you turn, there’s hillbilly caterwaulin’ coming out of the speakers. If I go to hell, they’ll play that country tribute to the Eagles CD over and over again. (Just what the world needed—a slower, twangier version of “Desperado.”)

I know, I know. There are many talented folks here, and it makes this town all the richer. The best music I’ve ever heard in my life came from porch swings, back decks, and living rooms in Nashville, when writers and players weren’t trying to make a hit record; they were just trying to enjoy themselves. But when they punch the clock, a whole lot of these folks have to put on a cowboy hat and a coat with a picture of a cactus on it. Somebody tell me what’s honest about that. What real members of American society ever put on a Liberace-meets-Goober getup to go to work?

Music-wise, give me Memphis: Last time I was there, somebody walked over to the jukebox and played Percy Sledge’s “Out of Left Field” and Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness.” When I heard Percy and Otis begging and crying, I felt sorry for them. Even 30-plus years after they laid down the tracks, their words still have passion and honesty.

Maybe I enjoy Memphis because Memphis rhythms were the first ones laid down in my head. Maybe I like Memphis because it doesn’t try too hard to gussy itself up. Whatever it is, it’s kind of like that hot chicken place in the distressed part of town—I like the sound of it, I like the smell of it, and every now and then, I just want a taste of it.


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