What I’ve Been Listening to: Mick Hayes/My Claim to Fame

If you’re a frequent visitor of the blog, the name Mick Hayes may ring a bill. I included him and a tune from his fantastic new album My Claim to Fame in the last installment of my Best of What’s New feature. On his website, Hayes gave the record the tagline “Southern Soul Music with a California Finish.” I’m not sure I understand the California finish, but folks who are aware of my music taste know that I’m all ears when it comes to southern soul.

One of the truly remarkable things about this album is that Hayes recorded it at FAME Studio in Muscle Shoals, Ala. on vintage equipment, together with musicians who backed artists like Ray CharlesEtta James and B.B. King during their recording sessions at the legendary studio. I’m mean, think about this for a moment, how friggin’ cool is that!

As I complained in my previous Best of What’s New post, Hayes doesn’t do a great job to put out some information on his background, such as a bio. Why still beats me! But at least his website has links to some reviews, and the folks who wrote them apparently got some insights from him.

Additionally, when you google Hayes, his birthday pops up as June 17, 1978, which means he’s 42 years old. Apparently, he was born in Buffalo, N.Y. A review by American Blues Scene notes Hayes became interested in the Muscle Shoals scene while browsing record stores as a young man and seeing albums by the likes of Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Duane Allman and Wilson Pickett, who were recorded at FAME. So using different sources, one can kind of get at least a blurry picture of him.

The American Blues Scene review also reveals some of the above studio musicians and artists they backed: Bassist Bob Wray (Ray Charles, The Marshall Tucker Band), electric piano and organ player Clayton Ivey (Etta James, B.B. King), trumpet and flugelhorn player Vinnie Ciesielski (Gladys Knight, Lyle Lovett), saxophonist and flute player Brad Guin (Jason Isbell) and rhythm guitarist Will McFarlane (Bonnie Raitt, Levon Helm). I mean, damn, let’s face it, Hayes isn’t exactly Stevie Wonder, so having gotten all these musicians is really something!

And the list continues. Also on the record are backing vocalists Marie Lewey and Cindy Walker, aka The Muscle Shoals Singers. Moreover, Hayes secured some impressive “outsiders”: Trombone player Billy Bargetzi (The Temptations, The Four Tops, The O’Jays, Bobby Vinton) and trumpet player Ken Watters (Natalie Cole, W.C. Handy Jazz All-Stars). Hayes provides lead guitar and vocals. And, as I stated in my last Best of What’s New, he co-produced My Claim to Fame with John Gifford III, who assisted with engineering Gregg Allman’s final studio album Southern Blood. Okay, on to the real fun part!

Here’s opener Sweet to Me. Like all tunes on the album, it was written by Hayes. He’s definitely got soul. I also think his voice isn’t bad.

Parking Lot Romance is another great tune. It openly pays homage to Ray Charles, undoubtedly one of Hayes’ musical heroes.

Want a bit of funky soul with a message? Ask and you shall receive! Hey, hey, hey, hey, here’s Political Funk.

Next up: No Second Chances. Frankly, I could have picked any other tune. They all sound great, in my opinion!

The last song I’d like to highlight is the album’s closer Saddest Picture of Me.

You might say, ‘Hayes isn’t exactly reinventing the wheel on this record.’ That’s certainly true, but it doesn’t bother me at all. In fact, I feel these recordings are beautifully executed, making My Claim to Fame a joyful listening experience. I’m curious to see what Hayes is going to come up with next. I feel with this album he set a high bar for himself.

Sources: Mick Hayes website; American Blues Scene; YouTube

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Clips & Pix: Southern Avenue/No Time To Lose

I’ve written about Southern Avenue before, for example here. Together with Greta Van Fleet, this five-piece funky blues, R&B and soul band from Memphis, Tenn. is one of the very few younger contemporary music acts I’m truly excited about. I had a chance to briefly chat with guitarist Ori Naftaly and lead vocalist Tierinii Jackson at a gig in New York last August, and apart from being talented artists, they are such nice and regular people – not necessarily a given in the music world, especially for a band that appears to be received enthusiastically wherever they perform. These guys are keeping it real!

Co-written by Jackson and Naftaly, No Time To Lose is included on Southern Southern’s eponymous debut album that appeared in February 2017 on Stax Records – yep, that Stax where the likes of Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett and Sam & Dave released their music. That in and of itself is pretty cool in my book. I also think this tune rocks: great guitar riff and superb singing. The sound of the keys played by Jeremy Powell is right up my alley as well. Tierinii’s sister Tikyra Jackson on drums completes the band’s core lineup. Bassist Gage Markey is a touring member.

Speaking of touring, Southern Avenue seems to be on the road most of the time. They’re playing in many parts of the U.S. and occasionally even oversees. You can check out their current schedule on their Facebook page here. They are also scheduled to release their sophomore album later this year.

Sources: Southern Avenue website and Facebook page, YouTube

Stars of Stax

Some of my favorite artists who recorded at the legendary Memphis record label

This year marks the 60th anniversary of Stax Records. I’ve always been impressed with the amazing array of artists who are associated with this record label: Booker T. & the M.G.’s, Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Albert King, Carla Thomas, Wilson Pickett, Isaac Hayes, Kim Weston and The Staple Singers, to name some of them. I thought this would be a great theme for a list, but before I get to it, a bit of history is in order.

Stax Records was originally founded as Satellite Records in 1957 in Memphis, Tenn. by Jim Stewart, a banker who played the fiddle in a country band on the side. Initially operating in a garage, Stewart started out focusing on country, rockabilly and straight pop. In 1958, his sister Astelle Axton co-invested in the company by mortgaging her family home.

Jim Stewart & Estelle Axton

In 1959, Satellite set up a small recording studio in Brunswick, Tenn. and released its first record in the summer of  that year, Fool In Love, by R&B band The Veltones. Following the release of the record, Satellite moved back to Memphis and set up shop in an old movie theater. In the summer of 1960, Rufus Thomas and his daughter Carla became the first artists to record at the new facility. Their record Cause I Love You was nationally distributed by Atlantic Records, laying the foundation for an important yet fateful distribution partnership.

Stax Records Museum

Due to a legal dispute, Satellite Records changed its name to Stax in September 1961, using the first two letters from the siblings’ last name – Stewart and Axton. In addition to a recording studio in the movie theater’s former auditorium, the company also set up a record store in the cinema’s old foyer. The store carried records from many different labels and became a popular hangout for local teenagers, which gave the company valuable insights into what music was selling.

Stax also established a house band that backed up the company’s artists during recordings. Eventually, that band consisted of the members who formed Booker T. & the M.G.’s in 1962: Booker T. Jones (organ), Steve Cropper (guitar), Lewie Steinberg (bass) and Al Jackson Jr. (drums). They served as the session band during most recordings until 1970.

Booker T & the MGs

In 1962, Stax also signed Otis Redding, who would become its biggest star until his untimely death in 1967. By the mid ’60s, Stax had also signed other major artists, including Sam & Dave, Carla Thomas, Wilson Pickett and Isaac Hayes. Stax’s Booker T. & the M.G.’s and other ethnically integrated bands, along with a racially integrated team of staff and artists was unprecedented amid the civil rights-era racial strive and deep-seated tensions of the late ’50s and ’60s, especially in Memphis and the South.

In 1968, Stax ended its distribution deal with Atlantic Records and in the process lost the rights to all recordings Atlantic had distributed between 1960 and 1967. A new co-owner, Al Bell, stepped up and substantially expanded the label’s operations in an effort to better compete with its main rival Motown Records. In 1972, Bell got a distribution deal with CBS Records, but CBS lost interest in Stax, which eventually forced the label to close in 1975.

In 1977, Fantasy Records purchased the post-1968 Stax catalog and some of the pre-1968 recordings. In 1978, Stax under Fantasy’s ownership began signing new acts. But by the early ’80s, no new material appeared on Stax, and it became strictly a reissue label. In 2004, the Stax label was reactivated after Fantasy had been acquired by Concord Records. Today, Stax continues to be owned by Concord and issues both new recordings and its 1968-1975 catalog. Atlantic Records still owns most of the Stax material from 1959 to 1968.

Following is a selection of songs from some of my favorite artists whose records have been issued on Stax, old and new:

Booker T. & the M.G.’s/Green Onions (1962)

Otis Redding/I’ve Been Loving You For Too Long (1965)

Wilson Pickett/In the Midnight Hour (1965)

Sam & Dave/Soul Man (1967)

Isaac Hayes/Theme From Shaft (1971)

The Staple Singers/I’ll Take You There (1972)

Albert King/That’s What the Blues Is All About (1974)

Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats/S.O.B. (2015)

Melissa Etheridge/Hold On I’m Coming (2016)

Southern Avenue/80 Miles From Memphis (2017)

Between its initial establishment and 1975, Stax has released more than 800 singles and nearly 300 LPs, winning eight Grammys and an Academy Award. The label has had 243 hits in the Top 100 R&B Charts and more than 167 hits in the top 100 Pop Charts. In April this year, Concord and Rhino Entertainment, which manages the Stax catalog owned by Atlantic Records, announced a joint campaign to celebrate the 60th anniversary with multiple albums, boxed sets and live performance releases throughout the year. Among others, this includes the Stax Classic Series, which consists of collection albums for each of the label’s 10 biggest stars, the Complete Stax Singles boxed set series, as well as a 4-CD anthology of Isaac Hayes to coincide what would have been his 75th birthday.

Sources: Wikipedia, Stax Records website, YouTube