Magnificent (Unsung) Men Of Memphis

What is it about Memphis? The musical luminaries who were born, raised or recorded there would probably fill an entire wing of several different Halls of Fame: W.C Handy, B.B. King, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Booker T., Steve Cropper, Otis Redding, Rufus and Carla Thomas, Sam & Dave, Al Green – who knows how long I could go on. With so many giants, there were bound to be some awesome talents who were overshadowed and thus largely overlooked except by true cognoscenti and hard core fans. Today I want to tell you about three men, one whom I’ve followed since the 1970’s and two who came to my attention only in recent years. All three have long terms “leases” on my regular playlists.

Sid Selvidge – I Should Be Blue

Well loved and well known in Memphis, Sid Selvedge eschewed the life of a major label, constantly touring performer after getting a glimpse of that life in the wake of a couple of moderately successful records in the 1970’s and some rave notices for performances in Greenwich Village. Instead he chose a rather low profile path playing small folk clubs, teaching in Memphis, and working behind the scenes in the music business. While he put out the occasional album every decade or so, I didn’t run across him until around 2010. I read about I Should Be Blue in a blog called Jazzwax written by Marc Myers. I mentioned him in an earlier posting because, while Jazzwax is primarily devoted to jazz, Myers occasionally writes about other music that catches his ear. (Note: I’ve added a link to Jazzwax on the blogroll in the sidebar to this page.)

Sid’s album certainly caught my ear, and I couldn’t wait to share it with brothers and friends on our trip to the Alligator River a few weeks later. The undeniable hit with this group was “A Blonde Headed Girl” in which the singer confesses to the judge that he “was a fool for a blonde headed girl in a convertible automobile” later described as the devil in disguise behind the wheel with “her skirt rolled up and the top rolled back, she had legs that went right on up to her neck.” We all fell in love with the blonde, of course, but also with his slightly fragile yet facile voice that perfectly matched the plight of our hero.

Beautifully produced by Don Dixon, the album features songs by blue ribbon writers like Fred Neil, Tom T. Hall, Townes Van Sandt and Duke Ellington along with a couple of originals by Sid and one by his marvelous duet partner on several tracks Amy Speace. They’re an especially great pairing on Van Sandt’s “I’ll Be Here In The Morning” and Donovan’s “Catch The Wind.” I have to agree with one reviewer who called this the best recording ever of the latter song. Other personal favorites are Hall’s “That’s How I Got To Memphis,” Sid’s “Lucky That Way” and “Fine Hotel” and the Ellington classic “Do Nothing ’Til You Hear From Me.” But every cut is a keeper thanks to the material, the singer and Dixon’s careful mix of instrumentation – always additive, never overpowering. Is it country; is it jazz; is it folk; is it pop? Nah man, it’s cowjazz.

Sadly Selvedge was diagnosed with throat cancer while touring behind this album and subsequently passed away. It’s really a shame because this warmly engaging performer seemed to have found the perfect partner in Dixon to up his recording game, which no doubt would have brought his gift to a wider audience. Thank goodness we do have this recording. Strongly recommended.

Spencer Wiggins – The Goldwax Years

Imagine how a four story office building might feel surrounded by the skyscrapers of mid-town Manhattan. If you can, then perhaps you can imagine how the owners and artists at Goldwax Records in Memphis in the 1960’s felt hidden as they were in the shadows cast by hometown Stax and Hi Records (i.e. Al Green) not to mention Atlantic which practically set up camp there. Spencer Wiggins could have been a star at Stax , and Goldwax head Quentin Claunch knew as much about writing and producing soul records as anybody in town. But they hardly saw the light of day much less the spotlight. Wiggins gave it a shot, but ultimately gave it up by the early 1970s and moved to Miami where he became a deacon and choir director for his church and sometime gospel singer. Today at 73 he remains, as his Wikipedia bio puts it, “one of the best kept secrets of soul music.”

Well, now the secret is out. Best of all, this collection lays all his best work out for you to hear. There are twenty-two cuts on the album. I figured when I bought it on iTunes that I would probably end up deleting at least seven or eight of them, but try as I might, I’ve only been able to part with three. Whether the songs are deep soul ballads or stirring up tempo shouters, Wiggin’s voice handles them with ease, and the production and horn driven band are equally up to the task.

He released eight singles for Goldwax, but none of them hit the charts, so they’ll likely seem brand new to you as they did to me. You might recognize a couple that were hits for others, notably “Take Me (Just As I Am)” by Dan Penn and Spencer Oldham, and a gender switched version of Aretha Franklin’s first Atlantic hit here presented as “I Never Loved A Woman (The Way That I Love You.)” The latter was recorded at Muscle Shoals based Fame Recording Studio with Duane Allman on guitar. Spencer nails both tunes.

Other favorites of mine include the beach music shuffle “The Kind of Woman That’s Got No Heart,” an uptempo “He’s Too Old” that recalls Otis Redding or Wilson Picket with a bit smoother vocal style, a good old Memphis blues “Anything You Do Is Alright” (could that be B.B. on lead guitar?) and another pleading soul ballad by Penn and Oldham called “Uptight Good Woman.” Bottom line: if you like deep southern style soul but tire of repeatedly listening to old hits, do yourself a favor and dig into Spencer Wiggins. And who knows, maybe we can finally shine a little of that spotlight on Spencer. I think you’ll agree he deserves it.

Jesse Winchester – A Reasonable Amount of Trouble

In some ways, Jesse Winchester doesn’t fit as neatly under the title of this post as do Spencer and Sid. For starters he was neither born nor recorded much in the city, and after graduating from Williams College in Massachusetts, he spent most of his adult life in Canada. Still he did grow up in northern Mississippi and Memphis, and the country, folk and r&b he heard there clearly influenced his music. Moreover, can I really call a man “unsung” who, in addition to his own multiple albums over several decades, is the subject of a tribute album, Quiet About It, by stars as varied as James Taylor, Jimmy Buffett, Allen Toussaint, Vince Gill, Lyle Lovett, Rosanne Cash and Elvis Costello? Maybe not, but I can say that only rarely when I mention his name does anyone really know who he is.

You see, Jesse never had a big hit record, never wore outrageous costumes, never engaged in tasteless self promotion. As the tribute album title infers, he just quietly went about crafting and singing wonderful songs. His voice – both in his singing and writing- was often gentle, always clear, sometimes slyly humorous, strong when it needed to be, and every now and then it could bite. I first encountered him in the late 1970s via his album Nothing But A Breeze, and his music strikes me today in the same ways it did then. It makes me smile, makes me wistful, makes me think, makes me move, makes me hum along and makes me laugh. Most of all, it makes me happy. And when I read of his death in April, 2014, the news made me cry.

But Jesse left us a gift with his posthumous release A Reasonable Amount of Trouble. He had beat cancer of the esophagus in 2011, and when his voice was strong enough, he had gone back in the studio to record a wonderful set of songs. Thus, to introduce you to Jesse, the end is a good place to start.

Like most of his albums this one is dominated by his originals with a few covers blended in harmoniously. His voice is a tad rougher from his illness and the mood has hints of reflection and nostalgia, no doubt owing to the inclusion of three covers from early rock ’n’ roll vocal groups, the Dell Vikings’ “Whispering Bells,” the Cascades’ “Rhythm of the Rain,” and the Clovers’ “Devil or Angel.” Still nothing about this album is a downer. Rather it sounds like a man who is glad to be alive and happy to be able to once more do what he loves. Jesse is having fun here as you hear in his own songs as well as the oldies. He’s making the most of the moment as he encourages us to do in the bright opener, “All That We Have Is Now.” Yet there is an enigmatic mix of resignation and hope in the closer, “Just So Much.” Perhaps he sensed it would be his last.

The great lap steel by Jerry Douglas and tasty guitar by producer Mac McAnally signal that this album is in the same vein as Sid Selvidge’s I Should Be Blue, while Jim Horn’s sax ever so slightly hints at Spencer Wiggins’ soul sound. Jesse Winchester’s music is hard to categorize but easy to love.

You may be wondering about the album’s title, since the collection includes no song by that name. According to his web site, it was taken from one of his favorite movies, “The Maltese Falcon.” Humphrey Bogart’s character Sam Spade asserts, “I don’t mind a reasonable amount of trouble.” Jesse loved the line and frequently used it – as if you needed another reason to like this guy. To borrow another of Bogie’s lines from the same movie, Jesse’s music “is the stuff that dreams are made of.”

I’m going to close this post with footage of Jesse’s appearance at Jimmy Buffett’s summer of 2011 “Concert For The Gulf” following the BP spill. Although Jimmy had recorded several of his songs starting with “Biloxi,” and they had exchanged emails and phone calls, the two had never met before Jesse volunteered to help. The giant crowd knew Jesse through Jimmy, so when he took the stage they greeted him warmly. What they saw was a thin, pale, grey haired man simply dressed, soon to undergo cancer treatment, who looked like the antithesis of a rock star about to perform before well over 35,000 dancing, singing fans. Regardless, in moments he had them enthralled with his delightfully rhythmic “Rhumba Man,” which Jimmy had included on 2009’s Buffett Hotel. Jimmy stays in the background here allowing Jesse to bask in the crowd’s adoring glow. Clearly everyone is in a joyful groove.

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