Saturday, November 24, 2007

Read Bob Mehr's article on the Hi Rhythm Section and Don't Miss Monday Night's Show!

Just a reminder that the Hi Rhythm Section with Syl Johnson and other special guests are playing together at the Stax Museum Monday, night, November 26th, 7-10 p.m. Read this terrific article below by music writer Bob Mehr that appeared as the Playbook cover story in Friday's Commercial Appeal.

Back in the Hi life
Rhythm section together again at museum for a soulful jam session on Monday, Novemeber 26th!

By Bob Mehr
Friday, November 23, 2007

The Hi Rhythm Section: Theirs was the sound of seduction and sorrow, of romance and reverie. Their playing defined the pleading charms of "Let's Stay Together" and the sweet surrender of "Here I Am (Come and Take Me)." They gave the world the steamy showers of "I Can't Stand the Rain" and the gospel ache of "A Nickel and A Nail."

In an era (the mid-'60s to the mid-'70s) and a region (the South) that produced some of the greatest house bands of all time -- the American Studios group, the Muscle Shoals Swampers -- the Hi Rhythm Section stood out as a singular-sounding unit. Its languid, dreamy grooves became a signature that helped propel the careers of Otis Clay, Ann Peebles, Syl Johnson, and most notably Al Green.

Led by producer/arranger Willie Mitchell, the group included the three Hodges Brothers -- guitarist Mabon "Teenie," bassist Leroy and organist Charles -- keyboardist Archie Turner, and drummer Howard Grimes. Their work on classic Hi Records albums like Green's I'm Still In Love With You and Peebles' Straight From The Heart helped carry the torch for Memphis soul music into the '70s, even as their South Memphis neighbors at Stax fell by the wayside.

On Monday, the full Hi Rhythm section reunites for the first time in over a decade, to play a special show at the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, part of its "Last Mondays In Studio A" concert series. The show will feature the Hi group doing its own set as well backing up classic collaborator Syl Johnson for a performance.

In the hands of Mitchell and his men, the melding of jazz chords and R&B beats marked a shift in the sound and feel of soul music as it entered the "Me Decade." "Between Stax and Hi, the music moved from the dance floor to the boudoir, and everything changed," says Memphis music historian Robert Gordon, who produced the 1997 Al Green box set, Anthology. "The lights got turned down and it got a little softer and a little warmer."

Part of the power of the Hi band derived from the close-knit nature of their players, who'd come up under the tutelage of patriarchal "Pops" Mitchell and were family in one way or another. "The fact that the same blood -- literally the same blood -- is pumping through most of their hearts, makes the beat sync up in a family way," says Gordon. "There's a level of closeness in what they do and who they are as people and their history together, that means they can take the music to a tighter place than other groups can get to."

The story of the Hi Rhythm Section goes back more than half a century. The Hodges brothers came from a family of 12 children, raised in what were then the farm lands of post-World War II Germantown. Their father, Leroy Sr., led his own blues outfit, the Germantown Blue Dots. Most of the Hodges boys apprenticed in their father's group -- including Teenie, who began playing guitar with the band at the age of 12.

While Teenie continued working with his dad, Leroy formed his own R&B band, the Impalas, with a group of young musicians who included Tommy Lee Williams and Archie Turner, the stepson of noted Memphis trumpeter and band leader Willie Mitchell.

In the early '60s, Teenie, then just an eager-to-please teenager, turned up at Mitchell's home where the Impalas were rehearsing. "I really wanted Willie to hear me play," says Teenie. "He said 'no, you can't play worth a damn! Your problem is you use a thumb pick, you need to start playing with a flat pick.' So that's how I started playing with a flat pick. I was 16 when he told me that."

That was the first of many musical lessons Mitchell would offer Hodges. Within a few months, he had unofficially adopted Teenie, who came to live with and learn from the band leader for the next seven years. "I'd go with him to his gigs at the Manhattan Club (in West Memphis)," recalls Teenie. "Sometimes I'd just sit there and watch. Sometimes I'd play a set. Then, eventually he hired me to play on the weekends. Then I went out of town to a show in Ohio. And I played with him everywhere after that."

Within a year after Teenie became a full-fledged member of Mitchell's band in 1965, his brothers Charles -- who had been playing with O.V. Wright -- and Leroy would also join. A few years later they added drummer Howard Grimes, one of the pioneering young players who'd helped shape Stax's earliest recordings, thus birthing the core of what would become Hi Rhythm. .

In between their live dates, the band would develop their sound recording sides for Mitchell as well as a selection of his fellow Hi Records artists including Ace Cannon, Charlie Rich and Jumpin' Gene Simmons.

In the late '60s, Mitchell and the band cut back on their touring schedule to focus more on the work at Mitchell's Royal Studio.
While he had been a popular and accomplished dance-band leader and artist, Mitchell's innovations in the studio and the changes he brought to the language of soul through his recordings would be his greatest lasting achievement. It was through his group of young charges -- the Hodges brothers, Grimes and Turner, back from a military stint in Vietnam -- that he helped fashion this new musical landscape.

"See, I used to be a jazz player," says Mitchell. "And so I was using jazz chords against R&B music -- and it worked...."

"Willie set the tone, and his background as a horn player was influential in that there was a kind of brass patina that's over the whole thing," says Robert Gordon. That brassy element was further fueled by the horn contributions of Mitchell's sax-playing brother James, and the Memphis Horns trumpeter Wayne Jackson and saxophonist Andrew Love, whose work added the final ingredient to those classic Hi recordings.

Although the Hi Rhythm section had success with a stable of R&B and soul stars, from Don Bryant to O.V. Wright, no artist better captured or more intuitively understood the mood of the music than the man who would enter their world in 1969: a young Arkansas-born singer by the name of Al Green.

"I had cut Otis Clay, Syl Johnson, and everybody. But with Al, I was looking for a specific sound," says Mitchell, who discovered Green during a gig in Midland, Texas. "And he was the only one that could hear jazz changes and really sing in that style. Once we got that together, I just kept making arrangements like that and that was just hit after hit."

"The thing was that Al could slow down enough to play with those guys," says Gordon. "He was able to play his voice like a jazz instrument, which fit in really well with Willie's concepts. In addition to being a vocalist, his throat becomes an instrument in the band."

Green's pipes were so distinctive that even familiar fare, such as the Beatles' "I Want To Hold Your Hand" or the Box Tops "The Letter" were made new in his hands. "He's one of the best, if not the best, to ever style a song," says Teenie. "He can do a song that's sold a million copies, but once he does it you never even know it's the same song."

By the time the Hi Rhythm Section had reached its mid-'70s peak, their work with Green and others had helped define nearly 20 gold and platinum albums and countless chart hits. In 1976, the group recorded its own little remembered but fiercely funky LP, On The Loose, which found

Teenie, Charles and Archie Turner handling vocal duties. But the following year, Hi Records was sold to Southern label mogul Alvin Bennett (who also purchased the remains of the bankrupt Stax) and in the transition to new ownership -- as well as the loss of Al Green to the church -- the studio band broke-up. "After that, I kinda stopped playing for a couple years," says Teenie. "Then in '79 we started back playing again."

The Hodges continued to play throughout the '80s and '90s, working with bluesman Albert Collins, touring Japan with Otis Clay, and periodically reforming the Hi Rhythm Section with Grimes and Turner for the odd tour or session gig. Charles Hodges would eventually head off to a life of church work, becoming an ordained minister and devoting himself to gospel music. More recently, Leroy and Teenie spent much of the 2005-2006 in the studio and on the road with indie-pop chanteuse Cat Power, as part of her Memphis Rhythm Band.

Monday's Stax show marks the first time all three Hodges brothers have played together in nearly years, mostly due to Charles' ministerial obligations. But, it appears that he's ready to make secular music again, and Teenie adds that the group is planning to secure a booking agent and make more regular appearances as a unit. The upcoming show will also see several old friends, including Impalas co-founder Tommy Lee Williams join them onstage, bringing Teenie and the Hodges brothers full circle from their roots 50 years ago.

"It's very strange, but I just feel blessed to have been doing it this long," says Teenie. "I didn't have nothing to do with it, really, God did it. But, yes, I do feel blessed I was able to make this music and make a lot of people happy."

--Bob Mehr: 529-2517
Music preview
The Hi Rhythm Section with Syl Johnson
Monday 7-9 p.m. at Stax Museum of American Soul Music, 926 E. McLemore Ave., for the Last Mondays in Studio A series.
General admission, $20; Stax Museum members $5. Call 946-2535.

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