The music industry ebbs and flows affecting – directly and indirectly – the lives of succeeding generations through an eclectic mix of genres, including R&B, blues, hip-hop, jazz, gospel, country and more. Memphis’ contributions to the industry’s evolution reflect a noteworthy flow via hometown record labels such as Sun, Ardent, Hi, and Stax, just to name a few.
During my childhood in the late fifties, I grew up listening to Otis Redding and the Bar-Kays of the Stax era. When Otis and nearly all of the Bar-Kays – with the exception of Ben Cauley – perished in a plane crash over Madison, Wis., I was tremendously impacted. It was a sad time in the music industry.
My family lived on College Street, not far from where Stax reigned. It was an integral part of the community and produced a number of legendary artists besides Otis and the Bar-Kays. During Stax’s heyday in the mid-60s, the Mad Lads and Isaac Hayes, both from South Memphis, cut grooves that reverberated throughout the industry.
I remember when I was in junior high and working at Slim Jenkin’s Place, which a cousin of mine had owned, I came into contact with the group Booker T and the M.G.’s. I was spellbound and soon developed a relationship with the members of the group. They even recorded a song and named it “Slim Jenkin’s Place” in honor of the lounge, where I’d met other Stax artists.
The community benefited immensely from Stax’s legacy. The chart-topping record label, which sat at the corner of McLemore Avenue and College Street, hit a financial roadblock and drifted into posterity. By my sophomore year at Fisk University, the label had folded.
No one wanted Stax to die. I certainly didn’t. Although the Stax Museum of American Soul Music is thriving and preserving the label’s rich history, I had to do my part. In 2008, I formed a group called McLemore & College to pay homage to Stax and what it meant to Memphis and the world.
The group is comprised of Jeff Howard, Melvino “Vino” Smith and myself. Our first album – “Where Do We Go From Here?” – is set for an August release and is being produced by former Stax musicians Lester Snell, Willie Hall and others. The title song, which bears the same name, is a reference to the uncertainty that engulfed so many when Stax went out of business.
Why form a group and call it McLemore & College?
I felt the music community died when Stax could no longer produce soulful music. I’d noticed over the years the void that was left in the community and the number of broken-hearted singers and musicians whose creativity was stifled because of a lack of opportunities. Many of them died penniless.
Jeff and “Vino” are mainstays on Beale Street, often singing at noon beneath a blistering sun. Gifted with song and stellar musicianship, they perform on Beale for tips.
Feeling a kindred spirit, I made the move to ask them about singing with McLemore & College.
“The many years of searching to find hope in spreading my talent in music wasn’t going anywhere. Now I can express what feels like a movement on the music scene,” said Vino.
Jeff made it plain and simple: “Let’s take McLemore & College and move straight ahead.” What one may glean from the single “Where Do We Go From Here?” is that Memphis is replete with great musical talent and entertainers who moved a country and the world with its sound.
Back in the day, people loved what they were hearing. Out of dens, backyards, band rooms and garages came a plethora of music that Stax was able to capitalize on. Also on street corners you could find someone, or some group, singing, or harmonizing, under streetlights.
From my vantage point, young people were inspired. They weren’t shooting and killing one another. All these years later, there is a lot of room to do better than we are doing when it comes to corralling Memphis’ wealth of talent.
I find myself asking, “Where Do We Go From Here?”