28 Aug 2013
- Written by Tony Jones
One of the most fun things in life is reminiscing, and this Friday (Aug. 30) the New Daisy Theatre, 330 Beale Street, will feel like the inside of a way-back machine, with a special musical performance by Home Grown Funk.
Quite a few Memphians have connection to the band that became a household name but never made it over the national hump.
"I've met so many people over the years who have come up to me and told me how they will never forget Home Grown Funk," said Jerry "Big Jerry" Jones, who formed the band in 1972, along with John Harris and Alvin Potts (keyboards). The trio then expanded to include Lee Chastain (bass) and James Lewis (guitar).
"Even Michael Cooper and Felton Pilot from ConFunkShun came up to me one night after one of their shows and told me Home Grown Funk is the reason they got in the business. I guess we touched a lot of people in our time. And that's what music is really supposed to be all about."
After bass man Chastain moved on, Sherwood Pate settled in, eventually giving way to Leon Aldridge, who had been in Brothers Unlimited. Pott's brother, Steve (who has gone on to major industry session and touring ensemble success) was the drummer.
"All those influences became Home Grown Funk. We had a real groove," said Jones, whose compelling tenor-baritone and Brazilian-influenced counterpoint on conga drums helped accent the band's signature sound.
Officially called the Home Grown Funk Family Reunion, the show will feature original members Lewis and drummer Steve Potts, along with Jonathan Richman on keyboards, and special guest, Ambric Bridgeforth, a Memphis alumnus from Wishful Thinking and Featherstone who went on to big success with the Dazz Band.
Bluesman Preston Shannon and showstopper Melvia "Chic" Rogers will open the show, conjuring memories of the musical heyday when clubs such as the Rosewood, Manhattan, Family Affair, Red Carpet, Paradise and the fantastically named Cobra's Bite were consistently filled with the excitement of a new young black America turned on and bouncing with freedom.
It was the 1970s. People seemed taller back then, courtesy of platform shoes and Afros in full bloom. Strange scents abounded, along with freedom of expression.
In Memphis, that freedom translated into a blistering live music culture often referred to as "the combo" scene. You could go out on almost any night and find somebody hot laying down some serious sound somewhere. Stax was still here and all the record labels had offices in town.
The Home Grown Funk band was a headliner, joining others such as Thumping Gizzard, Featherstone and especially the Bar-Kays – all seemingly destined to become the next "big thing."
"Man, those were the days," said Jones, laughing as he talked about his youth.
"We were so cool. True freedom had finally come to Black America ... reflected in our clothes, dress and expressions. The world was watching us and we were examining it. The music was expression (of) our souls busting free. It was a beautiful time to be alive, man!"
Home Grown Funk was a monster band capable of taking top 10 radio hits and putting its own signature on them. With Jones' out-front vocals and stage presence leading the way, an audition with Stax Records – the pinnacle for local musicians at the time – seemed like destiny. But just as the band's songwriting skills and sound came together, Fate chased that chance away.
"We left and went to Los Angeles and got signed by Arista. Our first release was a song called "Confrontation" and we were the session band on an album by Ike Turner called Party Vibes," Jones recalled fondly. "I don't care what the image of him is, we played with Ike for three years and for me, Ike Turner was a terrific and warm guy when we worked with him that would do anything for you.
"Working with him was a tremendous experience and I'll never forget him," said Jones. "Remember, they tried to get him to write a book about Tina, but he wouldn't and I never heard him say a bad word about Tina."
The eyes-wide-open 70s had started to wane and the group was trying to make its breakthrough, but it never really came.
"Our producer (for the first planned album) was Perry Kibble, the keyboard player with Taste of Honey. But changes in the (Arista) main office killed us. The guy that signed us left for Columbia two weeks after he signed us, so we had no one to push us through the maze. They had already changed our name (to Home Grown Syndrome) and we didn't get a drop of promotion budget. You have to have somebody to protect your interest."
The Home-Grown-Funk era petered out in L.A., but "Big Jerry's" fire remained alive. The band's work had attracted some industry fans, leading to a solo deal with Mercury Records, where the Bar-Kays landed after Stax folded.
"I had recorded a single at Cotton Row here that got close to breaking through. I sent it to a friend of mine, Ronald Bell, whose brother, Robert Bell, formed Kool & The Gang. He liked it and got me a deal with Polygram," Jones recalled.
A single titled "Mysterious and Sexy" got picked up immediately, becoming a pick hit on American Bandstand and earning him an exciting potential supporter.
"Remember Donnie Simpson, the guy that put BET on the map? He loved my record and called me, but the same thing that had happened at Arista happened again at Mercury. Right before I signed the contract my guy was fired, so the new guy had no involvement in it. The record was released all over the nation without an ounce of promotion," he said.
"The promo guy had taken a box of Polygram's new issues to Donnie Simpson and mine was the only one he liked. It made it to number 2 on the playlist at the station in D.C., where he worked back then, which was huge. His show was one of the most influential in the nation.
"He (Simpson) called me to see if I had a video (that) he could feature because he liked the record so much, but there was nothing to be done. I can be proud that I took my shot, but that was the beginning of the final end of it all."
Jones became a professional trucker after his trip through the light-not-so fantastic. He later married a loving woman, who (in the mid-90s) urged a move back home and settling down to let the music be just seasoning in his life instead of the main course.
Jones concentrates on gospel now, proud and grateful for his the journey. Friday night at the New Daisy, he will be joined by others for whom the sound of Home Grown Funk is a major portion of the soundtrack of their lives.