Melissa Etheridge with the Cincinnati Pops
Taft Theatre, 317 E 5th St, Cincinnati, OH
7pm show, Buy Tickets
Melissa Etheridge has done some pretty gutsy things in her stellar career. She’s shown no fear in forthrightly standing up for her truths, both in her songs and her life.
But as an artist she’s never quite laid it on the line like she does on MEmphis Rock and Soul, scheduled for release on October 7, 2016 via Stax Records, a division of Concord Music Group. Sure, she’s sung songs by some of her biggest heroes before. But Otis Redding? Mavis Staples? Sam and Dave? Rufus Thomas? These are some of the names, some of the voices of music at the pinnacle of an era in American music, the people indelibly identified with the songs on this album. Captured at the historic landmark Royal Studios with a band of some of the preeminent figures in the Memphis scene, the album includes veterans of some of the city’s most cherished recordings. The songs themselves are all core to the famed Stax Records label, and the album is Etheridge’s loving tribute to the role the music of Stax played in her life, and in modern American life.
“You have no idea!” she says of diving into this project, which also features John Mayer’s deft guitar talents on two songs. “It took a lot of soul searching.”
But powering her musical soul is her memory of dancing around her Kansas City childhood home to the music of Memphis via WHB on her AM radio dial, transfixed and transported by the power and mystery, the joy and ache of those great songs, enhanced as she grew up by the impact this music had on the rock bands she embraced — the Beatles, the Stones, Led Zeppelin.
“It’s something that directly influenced me, and indirectly,” she says. “So much a part of what I’ve always wanted to be and wanted to sing and show that emotion, that intensity that knows no color. It comes from your soul. Each of us knows the heartbreak of ‘I’ve Been Loving You Too Long’ — ‘Please don’t make me stop now!’”
On MEmphis Rock and Soul Etheridge brings her powerful voice and passionate vision to some of the era-defining treasures of modern music — the Staple Singers’ “Respect Yourself,” Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now)” and “I’ve Got Dreams to Remember,” Sam and Dave’s “Hold On, I’m Coming,” Albert King’s “Born Under a Bad Sign,” Johnnie Taylor’s “Who’s Making Love” — as well as some real discoveries she found in her explorations deep into the Stax catalog. The latter yielded such delights as “Memphis Train,” which opens the album, and the irresistible dance-inducing “Wait a Minute.” The writing credits are no less monumental: David Porter and Isaac Hayes, William Bell, Mack Rice, Booker T. Jones, and B.B. King among them.
Whatever pause the task may have given her going in, it was forgotten immediately upon her arrival in Memphis for what turned out to be a buoyantly inspired and inspiring experience: 10 days of recording that exceeded even her most hopeful dreams. Just being in the studio, built by the late Willie Mitchell in an old vaudeville theater and still run by his son, Lawrence “Boo” Mitchell, was treat enough.
“It hasn’t changed much since 1964, which is part of the magic,” she says. “It’s right in the middle of a neighborhood. You step outside and people are walking by. It’s the heart of Memphis, where everything is.”
Capturing that environment was key from the start for her and her co-producer John Burk, President of the Concord Label Group, whose production credits range from Ray Charles to Mel Tormé to Tito Puente. But most magical were the people, the musicians and Stax insiders, who took her into the family for the sessions. And what a family! The Rev. Charles Hodges on organ, Leroy Hodges on bass and Archie “Hubbie” Turner on keyboards were part of the famed Hi Rhythm Section which backed Al Green, Ann Peebles, Rufus Thomas, O.V. Wright and many others. Guitarist Michael Toles played with the great Stax band the Bar-Kays and, perhaps most famously, gave us that much-copied wah-wah riff for Isaac Hayes’ “Shaft.” And drummer James “JRob” Robertson’s crisp playing has powered sessions with Bobby “Blue” Bland, Johnnie Taylor, Little Milton, Z.Z. Hill and many other greats. As a finishing touch, John Mayer was brought in to add some blues sting to “Rock Me Baby” and “Born Under a Bad Sign.”
“The musicians were so totally respectful the first day I came in,” she says, with clear mutual affection. “The Rev. Charles Hodges! He plays organ on all the great Al Green records. He had the organ he always played and as soon as he sat down and played a note I just melted. He’s the sweetest, lovingest man. Before the sessions began I would be in there as they told their stories, how they were touring in the ’60s and ’70s, would be laughing about how they got stopped by the cops in Alabama, taken to a farmhouse with a judge there, looking for ropes on the trees. And they’re laughing! I’m horrified, but they love it and it’s their life and it’s there in the soulful groove of the music.”
It went well, beyond her expectations.
“Most of the songs were no more than three takes, and most of the vocals were live,” she says. “It was 10 days of recording. We took Sunday off. That evening we played at a club called the Warehouse in Memphis, got together and played these songs we’d been recording, and the horns came in and played. They hadn’t been with us yet. And after that we came in the next day and did ‘Hold On I’m Coming,’ ‘I’ve Been Loving You Too Long.’ We nailed them. We were tight!”
And there were some great perks.
“Yvonne, Willie’s daughter, cooks,” she adds. “To be in the session all day and then you’ve got salmon and black-eyed peas and cornbread… Amazing! And you eat and go back to work again. We were in love with each other by the last day. Just didn’t want it to be over.”
But through it all she never lost sight of just how big a responsibility she’d been given with these songs and these musicians, with this legacy. It was at times daunting.
“If you were to say, ‘Name one vocalist, just one, as your top,’ I would really have to say, ‘Otis Redding,’” she says. “This is the man. His live version of ‘I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,’ it’s what I aspire to in my performances. What he did to an audience! His Monterey Pop performance was just ridiculous. You see Janis Joplin watching him, and then at Woodstock two years later doing him. So my thought was, ‘Wow, I really have to either totally redo this, or I’ve got to nail it, with as much passion and intensity and soulfulness as I could.”
There’s another aspect to the legacy that she took just as seriously, and that’s what the music and the artists stood for, culturally, in a very crucial time in American history. The one that brought the greatest challenge in that regard was “Respect Yourself.” Though the song, written by Luther Ingram and Mack Rice (who passed away just this year) and turned into a core hit by the Staple Singers, expresses universal themes and dreams, Etheridge thought that it was so much of its time, place and perspective that it was not proper for her to sing the original words. Instead, Etheridge enlisted songwriter Priscilla Renea to team with her on a reworking of the song’s words to address the matters in ways that were true to both the original’s context and the world of today.
“For me to sing that word for word right now would somehow dilute the energy of the movement from the time,” she says, citing in particular references in the original version to the deepest aspects of the civil rights struggles. “It’s very similar to what we’re still working through, this fear of the other, the racism and homophobia, fears of religious extremism. I wanted to take that song and infuse it with those energies and repeating what was true then is true today, and that begins with respecting yourself. You’ve got to look inside and start with respecting who you are, and when you can find gratitude and respect for yourself you can see it in the world and believe in good in the world, and that helps you too. I love what they wrote back then: Respect yourself. That’s how you stop the cycle.”
The four-piece horn section gives the songs that classic Memphis punch, and on “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” “These Arms of Mine” and “I Forgot to Be Your Lover,” a string quartet arranged by Lester Snell adds the mix of sweetness and sadness that is at the core of so many of these classics.
Having John Mayer add some guitar was a key touch as well, the idea coming when he and Etheridge were both appearing at a San Francisco concert benefiting Sammy Hagar’s Acoustic for a Cure cancer charity.
“John had never seen me perform and went nuts,” Etheridge says. “I said, ‘What are you doing this weekend?’”
Etheridge also flashes some mighty harmonica chops on a few songs, notably the opener “Memphis Train,” a churning Rufus Thomas number that makes for a great curtain-opener on this set, and the giddy “Wait a Minute.” Both of those songs are among the handful that may be less familiar to many fans, if familiar at all. And the joy of discovery is every bit as strong as the affection already there for the better-known songs — for us and for her.
“Even the people at Stax were saying, ‘What is this?’ with a couple of them,” she says. “But there was one woman, Deanie Parker. She spearheaded setting up the Stax Museum. She jokingly says that she had wanted to be a star but didn’t have enough talent. But she became part of Stax, helped run everything and was the historian. She recognized ‘Wait a Minute.’ Barbara Stephens sang it originally. It was a very, very minor hit. And I’d never heard ‘Memphis Train.’ We had half a day left and thought, ‘Hey, we could do another song. John Burk, my co-producer, said, ‘What is this one?’ It’s Rufus Thomas and has got that Memphis snare on all fours. We listened to it three times and cut it. So much fun, and here it is starting off the album! Come on, get on the Memphis train!”
Etheridge could not be happier with the results: an album that completely captures the spirit she felt as a kid hearing these songs. And now she’s thrilled to share her MEmphis Rock and Soul.
“I really loved doing all this,” she says. “I want people to put it on cleaning the house, or late at night with their loved ones, or driving down the road. I just want to move them.”