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Listen Up: Ben Abney

Ben Abney’s first audience was a church congregation in Millington.

“My dad was a Southern Baptist minister, so I was on stage at the church when I was three or four years old,” said Abney, 34. “I had this little three-piece suit with the vest and everything. I had little wingtip shoes.”

His dad, Terry Abney, a songwriter, taught Ben how to play guitar. “(He) had some minor success in the ‘90s. He’s a pretty traditional guy in the vein of Marty Robbins and George Jones. That’s what I grew up on.”

Ben got into Nirvana “and whatever was cool in the ‘90s” when he turned 13.

His dad wasn’t happy about that. “Secular rock and roll was definitely not encouraged in our house.”

That lead to confrontation. “I was in high school and I had my stereo blasting away some ‘Free Ride! Come on take a free ride!’ I thought my dad was going to lose it.”

His dad, who referred to the music as “that ‘70s rock and roll stuff,” made him turn it down. “I was a teenager. Nobody’s parents are cool when you’re’ a teenager. I realized later that he was pretty cool because my first concerts were Porter Waggoner and Jerry Reed. That kind of stuff.”

Ben began writing poetry in middle school. “It was probably about being sad about something. That’s still kind of what I write.”

When he turned 15, Ben got into punk rock. “I kind of discovered it through Navy brats who had moved to town.”

They introduced him to Blink 182, the Vandals and NOFX. “I wasn’t a great guitar player at the time, but I could play that. I could play three power chords. I think, for me, it was the energy. I was always pretty energetic and silly and goofy as a teenager, especially.

“A son of a Southern Baptist preacher man, there was a lot of rebellion just in listening to that music. I didn’t have to do anything crazy or against the law, but just listening to that music, for me, was like a small rebellion.”

Ben and a couple of guys “who’d gotten into punk rock,” including Chris Wagner, who went on to play in 7 Dollar Sox, formed a punk rock band, Punks for Christ. “We got a couple of churches that let us play.”

They weren’t really a Christian band, Ben said, but his mom and dad were supportive. “I think they were probably afraid of bearing down too hard on me. They wanted to give me some leeway. They actually drove us to a couple of shows.”

After Punks for Christ, Ben started a band, Bedford Falls. “Still very pop punk stuff.”

He began writing music when he was 16. “I think I was just writing about whatever I knew about in high school. Going to punk rock shows. Wearing Converse All-Stars.”

Ben moved to Memphis when he turned 18 and helped start a new band, Hold Me Yesterday.

He also got his first tattoo - a black star on his back.

He held down two jobs - waiting tables at Spaghetti Warehouse and Hard Rock Cafe, but he couldn’t pay his rent and moved back to live with his parents in Millington.

Joining the Navy was next. “Part of it was I just didn’t know what I was doing. I had kind of flunked out of my first couple of semesters in college.I was back in Millington and I didn’t really have a lot of job prospects. My car had broken down and I didn’t have any money to fix that. I just joined up because that’s kind of what kids that don’t have any money do.

“I finished boot camp. I graduated top of my class. I was in a performance division. I got to play marching snare at one of the White Sox games.”

Ben only was in the Navy for four months. He went home because of medical issues. But he wrote a song about his experience, “Teenage Anarchism.”

He joined a new band, While I Breathe I Hope, but the Navy still was on his mind. “I actually did go back and talk to a recruiter about joining back up. I was pretty well covered up with tattoos at that point. They were like, ‘No, man. You can’t.’ They had changed their policies of how much you can show in the uniform and they wouldn’t take me back. It’s like, ‘Alright. Cool.’ I just started playing music more.”

Ben worked construction jobs and at UPS and Two Chicks and a Broom. He continued to play in bands. After three years in While I Breathe I Hope, he joined another punk rock band, First Wave.

He also played in the Angel Sluts. “Contrary to the name, it was just a bunch of really nice guys. We just had fun. We played music just to hang out with our best friends.”

How did “Angel Sluts” go over with his mom and dad? “Not my parents’ favorite band name.”

They continued to be supportive, Ben said. “I feel like as long as I wasn’t in jail they were like, ‘OK.’”

His first band tour was three-months on the road with First Wave. “While I was on that tour, I met a girl in Los Angeles. I ended up moving out there and getting married.”

He was in an indie rock band, The Chase, in LA, but after moving to Memphis, Ben started a punk rock band, The Drawls.

He got a job as an archeology tech for Pan American Consultants, a private cultural management company. “I started taking all these contract jobs through them for the National Forest Service and Army Corps of Engineers and basically wAS doing archeological survey work.”

He only was home eight days a month. “I was still playing music, but it made it harder to be in a band. So, I started taking an acoustic guitar with me on the road. Being gone and being in a marriage that was not healthy, I started writing songs to get through that stuff.”

Those songs were country. “I don’t know any other way to write that kind of stuff without it coming out as just country-folk-Americana.”

After a few years, Ben and his first wife divorced. He met his future wife, Cat Allen, and they now have a daughter, Lily.

Ben began playing more solo shows - and got a good reaction from the audience. “I do have a lot of tattoos and I’m sort of a former punk rock dude who’s playing acoustic guitar. That seems like kind of a standard these days except I don’t have a gravelly voice. I have a pretty tenor register. It’s a pretty clear voice.”

Even his punk rock friends were supportive. “Everybody that I’ve ever played in bands with were like, ‘Man, you should have been doing this the whole time.’”

Ben doesn’t really consider himself ever being a “punk.” “I played punk rock music, but was I ever really a punk? Did I ever really think that punk rock music was going to become a political revolution? No.”

So, what is Ben Abney’s favorite style of music? “I really like singing gospel. I like the way that it’s written. I like the musical structures, especially Southern gospel. That has a lot of roots in working people. I feel like that’s some of the most emotional music ever written.”

Ben continues to write. “I write a lot of stuff about struggling with faith. And whether or not to believe or not to believe.”

He’s working on several albums. “I already have an album written and I’ve started writing the one after that. And then I already have the concept for the one after that.”

Ben recently completed his first year teaching music at Holy Rosary Catholic School. “I absolutely love it. I also cantor for Mass three days a week.”

And, he said, “I have sort of a middle school choir club. We meet on Tuesdays and then they sing with me on Wednesday mornings.”

So, what do the kids think about Ben’s tattoos? “They don’t, really. The administration and I haven’t gotten any sort of negative feedback.”

But, he said, “I wear long sleeves to work.”

Ben Abney & Familiar Faces will play with Kitty Dearing & the Dagnabbits and Justin Vinson & the Wayward Saints at 8 p.m. July 28 at Canvas, 1737 Madison. Cover: $7 at the door.

Dead tribute raises awareness & donations for MIFA
(image) If there is a rule book for Memphis music, the following are surely included: Memphis bands share members, and they love tribute shows like nothing else.

From the recently released, Luther Dickinson-led Sun Records tribute, Red Hot: A Memphis Celebration of Sun Records to Graham Winchester’s “Memphis Does Bowie” show, to last year’s star-studded lineup for the Talking Heads tribute concert, musicians in the Bluff City usually jump at the chance to pay tribute to their heroes and legends — both the local and international varieties. And what else do all the aforementioned concerts and records have in common? They all raised money and awareness to benefit local charities. Proceeds from sales of Red Hot go to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, as did the proceeds from the Memphis Does Bowie benefit show. And the Talking Heads tribute benefitted the  National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

So local psychedelic jammers Left Unsung will be honoring a Memphis tradition when they pay tribute to the Grateful Dead by accepting canned goods as admission, for use by the Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association (MIFA).

Left Unsung is John Day on guitar and vocals, L.J. Cates on guitar, Michael Shelton on drums and vocals, Chris Hardy on bass, and Nathan Powell on pedal steel. The members of the tribute group all play in other local bands; they met after a Dr. Brown show. “We all kind of share each other around here,” drummer Shelton says. They also share a passion for the Dead, and, as Memphis was somewhat lacking in the long-and-improvisational tribute band department, they set about to remedy what they saw as a serious deficit in the usually lush Memphis music landscape.

But the jam-heavy musicians are more interested in playing music than in earning a buck. The members of Left Unsung have day jobs and gigs in other Bluff City bands, and the Grateful Dead tribute project has more to do with a passion for the Dead than with a paycheck. “It’s never been about the money,” Shelton says. So, after their first two performances, Shelton and the group decided to partner with local organizations to bring attention and donations to charitable causes. “We have an opportunity here with a captive audience and one who is focused on conscious change.” With that in mind, Left Unsung have partnered with MIFA for their upcoming Growlers show.

MIFA is one of the local organizations partnered with the Mid-South Food Bank – an organization that typically sees a “food drought” in the summer as donations slow down until the next school year (see article below). MIFA is the organization behind the Meals on Wheels program, which delivers nutritious lunches daily to senior citizens. “We want to remind [the audience] that we have this service in the community,” Shelton explains.
As for what to expect at the Growlers show, Shelton says the band has been steadily adding songs to the set list since their last performance at the Cove. “We focus on learning songs that not only span the band’s discography from the ’60s and onward, but also on varying styles of structure through playing songs like ‘Brokedown Palace’ and ‘Dark Star’ all the way to ‘Casey Jones’ and ‘Scarlet Begonias.’”

Shelton says the band intends to perform only every two months, with the intention of keeping the shows special – and giving the musicians time to learn new songs. They plan on adding 15 or so songs to their repertoire for each new performance so that, much like the concerts of the Grateful Dead themselves, no two shows will be the same. “Our goal is to keep the crowd guessing about what we’ll play at each show,” Shelton says. “We value learning well-known songs as well as deep-cut, obscure originals from the band. We keep an integral focus on transitioning and improvising through songs throughout our sets, so the music flows similar to the way Grateful Dead’s sets flowed. We’ll be dropping some newly learned songs at Growlers and will continue to expand our song base every show we play.”

Left Unsung Grateful Dead tribute and MIFA benefit at Growlers, Saturday, July 29th at 9 p.m. $5 or two canned goods.
Lineup for Halloran Centre's On Stage Music Series Announced
Halloran Center Veep Ron Jewell gets excited. He gets excited talking about the night he saw newgrass mandolin virtuoso Sam Bush play the Grand Ol' Opry: "He must have hit those strings 10,000 times!" He gets excited talking about Hamilton star Mandy Gonzalez: "She's leaving the stage after performing in Hamilton, doing a show here, then flying back to New York for the matinee!" He even gets excited about presenting acts without much name recognition: "I don't know how many people know the Muddy Magnolias now, but people are going to know them!" Mostly, he gets excited about booking acts that will sound great in the Halloran Centre's intimate, acoustically sophisticated theater space.

Speaking of which, today, the Halloran Centre shared Jewell's lineup for the second annual On Stage at the Halloran Centre music series. The list includes marquee names like country super trouper Marty Stuart, and Eagles songwriter JD Souther alongside emerging acts like the Muddy Magnolias and the A cappella group Naturally 7.

"There's no theme," Jewell says of a season bookended by tributes Memphis soul and ends with a tribute to  And then he gets excited and offers one that's as good as any "Memphians love music."

A Tribute to the Women of Soul
 Friday, September 8, 2017 7:30 p.m.

An Evening with JD SOUTHER
Singing hits made famous by the Eagles
Saturday, September 23, 2017 7:30 pm

Contemporary crooner, pop and piano payer drawing from a variety of styles.
Friday, October 13, 2017 7:30 pm

Legendary country sideman turned star and storyteller supreme.
Wednesday, October 18, 2017 7:30 pm

Rock and soul duo.
Saturday, January 13, 2018 7:30 pm

Star of Hamilton and in the Heights, straight from Broadway.
January 19, 2018 7:30 pm

An Evening with NATURALLY 7
A capella
Saturday, February 3, 2018 7:30 pm

Guitar virtuoso, vocalist, mouth trumpet.
Friday, March 2, 2018 7:30 pm

Newgrass All-Father, mandolin virtuoso.
Saturday, March 24, 2018 7:30 pm

JIM WITTER’S Fire & Rain
Celebrating the Era of James Taylor & Carole King
Saturday, April 20, 2018 7:30 pm

Tickets are on sale now. Series packages are available for purchase through the Orpheum box office. Single tickets can be purchased online at the official Orpheum Theatre website,, the Orpheum Box Office (901.525.3000), and Ticketmaster.

Crosstown Arts: August Events

Friday-Saturday, August 4-5
Crosstown Arts, 430 N. Cleveland 
Works by Danielle Sierra, Heidi Walter, and Andrea King

Opening reception: Friday, August 4, 4-9 pm
Artist talk: Saturday, August 5, 1-3 pm

Organized by the artist

August 12, noon to 6pm
Visual artist and photographer Rod Kirby presents new work
Light refreshments will be served
Organized by the artist

August 15, 6-8pm
Program begins at 6pm
Complimentary food and drinks

Saturday, August 194-10 pm
Crosstown Arts, 430 N. Cleveland 
Third annual exhibition of skateboard artwork featuring more than 50 longboard and skateboard decks designed by 30 Memphis-based artists. Works will be on display and for sale. MadAir merchandise will also be sold.

 Food | Drinks | Local vendors
$5 door fee (includes 2 drink tickets)
Organized by the artist

Friday-Saturday, August 25-26
Crosstown Arts, 430 N. Cleveland 
Second annual art show and sale hosted by TN Craft Southwest. Featuring works by Mary Batholemew, Dale & Brin Baucum, Brandy Boyd, Pat Chafee, Hallie Charney, Rose Conway, Katie Dann, Jeanine Hill, Debbie Lovett, Joshua Samuels, Angela Schneider, and Catherine Stevens.

 Preview party: August 25, 5-8 p.m.
Main event: August 26, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.
Circa Survive Rekindles Magic At Growlers
(image) From existing as the dojo where Elvis Presley practiced karate to the venue where Elvis Costello and The Imposters filmed a live performance when The Hi-Tone called the address home, 1911 Poplar Ave has stood as a sanctuary for both acclaimed artists and local musicians. After The Hi-Tone changed locations, however, the magic of that room fell away as the rebranded Sports Junction struggled to find footing.

But when Circa Survive took the stage Saturday evening at Growlers, the venue's latest rebranding, the allure of the space was tangible — it felt just as it did the last time I caught a show there years ago. Growlers was the perfect stop for Circa Survive, too, who are spending the off-days of a larger tour with AFI and Citizen playing club dates. The last time they played Memphis was a near sold out show at The New Daisy in 2014. To see them on a small stage, not long after they announced their sixth studio album, was one of those rare experiences that don't often arise.

"Somebody told me this was Elvis' old karate studio," Anthony Green said as the band took the stage. "Me and my buddy went to Graceland today. We found a trap door and rummaged through all of Elvis' shit."

Local band Jadewick opened the show. It's hard imagining another Memphis band that would have fit the bill better than they did. Having only seen them play on floors or in living rooms, they took to the stage well. The band reveled in the frills of a room more suited to handle their dynamic and the nuances that get lost against the walls at a house show.
If you haven't stepped into Growlers yet — do so. At the beginning of this month, the venue hosted Spiral Stairs, or singer and guitarist Scott Kannberg of Pavement. The magnetism of 1911 Poplar Avenue is just as present as it's ever been. Hopefully Growler's coming shows continue to do it justice.

The Secret Service rides again
(image) Roughly a decade ago, the Secret Service – a hard-rocking pop quartet featuring singer/guitarist Justice Naczycz, guitarist Steve Selvidge, bassist Mark Edgar Stuart, and drummer John Argroves – were one of the biggest and busiest bands in Memphis. But after riding high on the success of 2006’s The Service Is Spectacular, the group inexplicably broke up in 2009, leaving behind a well of unfinished material, much of which has been lost to history.

“We did a reunion at Neil’s in 2011, and could only remember two of the new songs – ‘Teenage Mustache’ and ‘Outsiders,’” says Naczycz. “We tried to record them a couple of times, but it never worked out.”

When the Secret Service re-united last year to open for the Subteens at the Levitt Shell, the band played those two songs again. This time, they caught the ear of Misspent Records co-founder John Miller, who proposed recording a new single with the band on the spot.

“(The show) reminded me how much fun the Secret Service had been live. They always went full-tilt,” says Miller. “After talking with Justice and Steve and realizing there were a couple of live staples that had never been released, it all came together pretty easily. Chaney (Nichols, Misspent co-founder) and I are excited to get another shot of Memphis rock and roll out there.”

This Friday, the Secret Service will unveil the long-awaited new single (available on 7” vinyl and in digital formats) for “Teenage Mustache” b/w “Outsiders” at a release party at Minglewood Hall’s 1884 Lounge. But from there, the future of the band remains to be seen.

“Things are up in the air, we haven’t really talked about it,” says Naczycz. “If the band is excited, I’d love for us to play more. I’d hoped to. But we haven’t really discussed it except for jokes.”

The Secret Service 7” release party
w/ James and the Ultrasounds
Friday, August 21, 10 p.m. All-ages
$7 advanced/$10 day of show/$15 for ticket & vinyl

Vital Ingredients

Vital Ingredients
An exhibition of work from local artists
July 14 - July 27
Opening reception July 14, 6-9pm
Closing reception and artist talks July 28, 6-9pm
An exhibition of work from local artists. 
The art in the exhibit will include painting, sculpture, and photography. 
20% of all proceeds will benefit the Dorothy Day House Memphis.
Learn more about the organization here:
"We welcome the whole family at the Dorothy Day House and we encourage the strengthening of family bonds during this time of trauma. Because we house several families at a time, our residents are able to offer mutual support and encouragement as they face and overcome the shared obstacles of poverty and homelessness. Families work together to clean and maintain the house and to cook meals. This home-like atmosphere provides a sense of security, especially for the children, fosters self-esteem and uplifts the human spirit. It creates one of the most VITAL INGREDIENTS for escaping poverty—hope."

Wild Magnolias!
(image) A New Orleans “tribe” brings NOLA funk to Cooper-Young.

A trip to New Orleans is a regular pilgrimage for many Memphians in search of novel music, cuisine, and culture. Visiting the Big Easy scratches an itch that can't be satisfied elsewhere. But it's rare that we get a slice of New Orleans coming up our way. This Saturday, July 15th, will be a notable exception, when the Wild Magnolias bring Mardi Gras to Cooper-Young to cap off the Beauty Shop's 15-Year Anniversary Party. As one of the premiere African-American "tribes" that emerge in full-feathered glory at Carnival time every year, the Wild Magnolias bring a long tradition of deep funk and street marching with them.

Karen Carrier, the Beauty Shop's owner, has always drawn on Crescent City culture for inspiration, and music has always been central to her experience. It was at the 1976 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival that she met her future partners in the original Automatic Slim's eatery in Manhattan, and she has attended dozens of Jazz Fests since. During one of these visits, she befriended Bo Dollis Sr., the Wild Magnolias' Big Chief from 1964 until just before his death in 2015. Now his son, Bo Dollis Jr., leads the group. "We played when she first opened her restaurant," he recalls. "I was young at the time, but I still remember it."

That, of course, was before Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and scattered most members of the Mardi Gras tribes. It took little time for them to regroup. "Me and my tribe, we came right back the same year as Katrina. That was the hardest Mardi Gras ever. You saw more people crying because they thought this or that person was dead." It was also a challenge, says Dollis, because tribes typically work for a full year readying themselves for Mardi Gras, and months had been lost. Now, with the tribes in full swing again, such preparations still preoccupy him. "Everybody's sewing right now, trying to get ready for Mardi Gras," he notes. "These suits take a long time. It takes all year to get these suits together. Right now in New Orleans, it's sewing season."

The tribe's handiwork will be on full display this Saturday night: a five-piece band accompanied by two "Indians" in all their feathered splendor. At 6:30 p.m., they will lead a second line parade on Cooper, followed by a performance later that night at the Beauty Shop's sister venue, Bar DKDC.

While the group naturally performs Mardi Gras parade music, they have been associated with more eclectic sounds for decades. The first Wild Magnolias album, released in 1974, was a clarion call for Crescent City funk, with the band, known as the New Orleans Project, led by the legendary Willie Tee. The sounds of percussive clavinet and metallic vocoder vocals gave a near-disco quality to their biggest hit from that era, "Smoke My Peace Pipe (Smoke it Right)."

Their releases since then have been few and far between, but 2013's New Kind of Funk showed that the spirit of experimentalism was alive and well. By then the group was led by Bo Dollis Jr., but, as he recalls, "That last album was dedicated to my dad. Some of the songs are his that I just revamped. Some of it's hip-hop, some of it's country, some of it is just straight Mardi Gras Indian. There were two originals that were mine, and the rest, like 'Coconut Milk' or 'New Kind of Funk,' were songs he did a long time ago, and I just revamped them." Unpredictable synthesizer and guitar textures abound, though all are grounded with powerful live drumming.

Dollis says the group is now working on a new album. "For the next album, it'll be straight Mardi Gras and Mardi Gras Indian. We're just getting in the studio. It's been like a month now that we've just started working on it. I'm looking at probably Mardi Gras time that we'll release it, so probably around January; if not that, then maybe Jazz Fest time."

And as for this week's performance? "It ain't just Mardi Gras, because I put some funk into it. I might put some oldies-but-goodies into it. It's just a big party. So I tell anybody who comes to my show, don't never come dressed up, because you gonna be dancing. My Indians gonna make you dance. I'm gonna make you dance. I might even get in the crowd with you and dance. It's just a big, fun type of party, but at the same time it's the New Orleans beat behind it." Dollis' parting words of advice: "Let 'em know to come comfortable, because you gonna get a workout."

Price Is Right: Last Dance

Price Is Right: Last Dance
Friday, August 4, 6-8pm
David Lusk Gallery, Memphis

This summer, the highly anticipated Price is Right exhibition returns to David Lusk Gallery for one final installment. On the walls during the month of August are works all priced at $1000 or less, by around 20 artists.

Easily recognized DLG artists and a few new names will present a wide mix of art -- drawings, sculpture and c-prints, in a limitless scope of subject matter that is refreshing and creative.

For example, Greely Myatt’s humorous sculptures mix alongside Carlyle Wolfe’s delicate drawings of Southern summer plants. Tad Lauritzen Wright and Hamlett Dobbins have works on paper from their collaboration Mellow Mountain Coalition, while newcomer and recent MFA graduate from the University of Memphis Desmond Lewis’s concrete and steel sculptures explore the industrial contributions of African Americans in the construction of the United States.

Artists include:
Bruce Brainard
Catherine Erb
Veda Reed
Dwayne Butcher
Leslie Holt
Kit Reuther
William Christenberry
Desmond Lewis
Anne Siems
Maysey Craddock
Mellow Mountain Coalition
Jared Small
Tim Crowder
Luisi Mera
Mary Kay Van Gieson
Beth Edwards
Greely Myatt
Carlyle Wolfe
WYPL brings you the Memphis Sound
(image) I recently stopped by the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library to see a local legend at work. No, it wasn't some superhero librarian working the stacks. I was down in the basement, where George Klein was celebrating the taping of his 150th episode of Memphis Sounds on WYPL, the library's broadcast wing (channel 18 on local cable, 89.3 on your FM dial, and streaming on the internet).

Klein was every bit the professional and in very fine fettle as he wrapped up the broadcast. Of course, he's an old hand at such things, having started in television with 1964's Talent Party, not to mention his years of DJ'ing before that. He recounted to me how he first persuaded Talent Party's producers to integrate the show. “They said, 'Okay, we'll do it. But you've got to get a big star to start with. I called Fats Domino, who was an old friend, and he agreed. He insisted that I personally pick him up at the airport. So as we were on our way to the station, he tells me to stop at a liquor store. I told him, 'Fats, you know that's against FCC rules to drink on the show.' He said, 'I know George, but here's what we'll do. You get me a little paper cup and I'll keep it down on the floor while I'm playing, and then I can take a little sip now and then'.”

Once he'd hosted Fats, it was an easy matter to get James Brown and many other great African-American artists on the show, which was on the air until 1973.

But while Klein was one of the first to take the Memphis Sound to the airwaves via WYPL, he's now being joined by other DJ's on the station's radio channel. Every night of the week is dedicated to a different aspect of Memphis music, drawing on the library's deep archive of local artists' output. There are shows on Memphis music of the 60s, the 70s, gospel, soul, Sun Records, and current sounds. And with the radio programs live-streamed online, WYPL is taking these sounds around the globe.

“Honestly it all comes from the upgrades we've done in the last two years,” says station manager Tommy Warren. “The city of Memphis has put in a lot of upgrades. You can do so much more with the latest computer software; we're actually able to do more with the same amount of staff.

“The Memphis music programming promotes the Memphis music collection that we have here in the library. Over the last few years while we've been doing that, I've had my two radio producers working on those shows, but with all the equipment upgrades and reevaluating what we do, we decided that the Memphis music programming is now what we need to focus on as far as building up. And that's where we've started having people come in and start volunteer hosting these shows. And we've gotten really good feedback in the short amount of time we've been doing it. And I think the streaming of the shows has a lot to do with it. Everybody knows how much people love Memphis music. We look at ourselves as a marketing branch for both the library and the city of Memphis.”

But Warren adds that the daytime programming of live readings of current magazines and newspapers, a public service for the vision and reading impaired, is still important to the station. “We have readings 365 days a year. People overlook the significance of that program, until you need that program. The audience that we have for that depends on our programming more than other radio audiences do.”

The Masqueraders Got Talent!
Some readers may recognize the Masqueraders from their many years on Beale Street, often at the Blues City Café, sometimes playing with only a keyboard to back up their sublime harmonies. Others with a historical bent may recognize them as featured artists on rare and collectible singles from the La Beat, Wand, Bell, AGP, and Hi record labels, stretching back over 50 years. You might also know their background harmonies on albums by the Box Tops and Isaac Hayes, and even an LP of their own on Hayes' Hot Buttered Soul imprint.

Either way, you may have done a double take if you happened to see them two weeks ago on NBC's America's Got Talent! It was heartening to see them playing before the huge studio audience, not to mention the millions tuning in on their televisions and devices. I'll let you be the judge, but for once I tend to agree with the celebrity panel: they killed it!

Note that with the judges behind them all the way, they will advance to the "Judge Cuts" rounds, which begin on Tuesday, July 18th. Tune in to see how they fare, and we'll keep reporting if and when they advance through future performances.
Another Shot at Glory for the Masqueraders

Things were not looking positive for the Masqueraders a year ago. A vocal trio in the vein of the Impressions, who had put out records through most of the 1960s and '70s, their last hurrah had been on Isaac Hayes' Hot Buttered Soul label. When that business went under, so did their career. After a final album on Bang Records in 1980 failed to chart, the Masqueraders went back to their day jobs, and though they did the occasional session in the 1990s and began to sing on Beale Street by the early 2000s, they had not performed together for some time when 2016 rolled around.

Then a friend heard one member of the group, Harold Thomas, singing at a Christmas party. That led to a gospel producer inquiring about back-up harmonies for an artist he worked with, so Harold called fellow band mates Robert "Tex" Wrightsil and Sam Hutchins, and soon they were back in the studio — as a favor. The producer offered them their own deal, but the group was not satisfied with the recordings. Nonetheless, they were up and running again. Tex heard that America's Got Talent (AGT) was holding auditions at the Cook Convention Center, and, as they were well-rehearsed anyway, they thought they'd give it a shot.

On audition day, the wait was so long they almost went home, but Thomas rallied his comrades. Finally, their name was called. They had chosen Sam Cooke's classic "A Change Is Gonna Come," a song deep in their musical DNA, to which they applied their trademark sheen of fluid harmonies. The producers were floored. By the time the group taped their performance, AGT had added strings to their minimal backing track, making for a swelling, emotional performance. Singing for the audition audience reminded Thomas of playing a massive soul revue in Philadelphia during their late '60s heyday, but that was nothing compared to the audience they reached when their moment was broadcast and posted to YouTube. To date, the clip has been viewed over a million times. As Thomas recalls, "My daughter said, 'Dad, I think y'all have gone viral!'"

Even more important, the judges — clearly gobsmacked — loved them. As we go to press, the Masqueraders' second performance for AGT, "Bring It on Home to Me," will be airing on Tuesday's "Judge Cut" episode, and the judges' verdicts will then determine if they go on to perform live in the competition rounds. That will be when fans around the world can vote for them in real time and propel them into the finals.

It's been a long, meandering road to this point. The group left Dallas, their hometown, for Detroit in the mid-1960s and auditioned for Motown. When Hitsville passed, the Masqueraders headed over to La Beat records, which released several sides of theirs. But Detroit winters were too much for them, and soon they showed up in Memphis with two-dozen songs they had written for themselves. Stopping first at American Sound Studio on a whim, they ended up working there for years. Not only did they release their own material, including their biggest hit, "I Ain't Got to Love Nobody Else," in 1968, they added their harmonious blend to other artists' records. That's the Masqueraders you hear on Arthur Conley's "Sweet Soul Music," on Wilson Pickett's "I'm in Love," and on several tracks from the Box Tops' album, Cry Like a Baby.

Many years later, when the group was playing Blues City Cafe regularly, singing the usual batch of tourist-friendly covers, they were surprised to meet British fans who said their early work, and the '70s material they cut for Willie Mitchell and Isaac Hayes, was popular in the "Northern Soul" scene. This ultimately led to three trips to Europe in recent years, for which they had to scramble to re-learn all their own songs. But such appreciation in the U.K. was too sporadic to support them, leading to the long spell of inactivity that preceded their AGT audition.

Thomas is convinced that this most recent success grew from their initial generosity in helping that gospel producer for free: God has seen fit to reward them. Even if they go no further, the notoriety thus far could lead to a lot more work. "We got calls from Canada, New Jersey — even my man over in Spain," says Thomas, "but we can't do nothing right now while we're still involved in AGT."

That's fine with Thomas. He's looking to heaven when he says, "Lord, it's up to you. Whoever you want to win gonna win. I won't be mad. I'll just be happy that we got as far as we got."

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