Willie Mitchell's Royal Studios
Memphis soul is the sound of Soulsville, USA. It is the sound of the South, of a shimmering, sultry style and an unstoppable force, which is the beating of the human heart in rhythm with the drums. It is the melodic sensation of horns playing in unison, of voices vibrating with pleasure, and with pain, song after song after song. It is rhythm and it is blues. It is America, this Memphis sound that broke down barriers and brought people together during the volatile era of the 1960s and 70s.
The Lorraine Hotel, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, was the place where classic songs were written, songs like “Knock on Wood”, “The Midnight Hour”, and “Your Good Thing us About to Come to An End”. Memphis soul was local, and it traveled far. It was a produced on McLemore Avenue, at the center of a segregated city, at Stax Records, which was integrated every step of the way, from studio musicians to upper management. The label included artists such as Otis Redding, the Staple Singers, Luther Ingram, Johnnie Taylor, Albert King, Wilson Pickett, Booker T. and the MGs, Sam & Dave, and Isaac Hayes.
To honor the legends of Memphis soul, Thom Gilbert has just released Soul: Memphis' Original Sound (Officina Libraria), a stunning collection of portraits, still lifes, and environmental portraits that bring us deep inside an incredible world. Photographs from the book will be on exhibit at the Stax Museum of American Soul Music now through June 15, 2015.
Gilbert set up a photo studio at Royal Studios in Memphis, home of the famed Hi Records. The studio's "green room" was filled with soul music royalty: Bobby "Blue" Bland in his signature nautical cap, several of the Hodges brothers who make up the incomparable Hi Rhythm Section were on hand, Stax Records musicians Bobby Manuel and Lester Snell were there actually working on a recording, but pausing to have their portraits taken. From Rev. Jesse Jackson, who recorded spoken word albums on Stax's Respect Records label to the lesser known but equally vital session players, writers, engineers, publicists, and even the local beautician, Gilbert has captured images of what seems like every living person related to Memphis soul music.
Gilbert’s love of photography goes back to his early years. He first learned about photography as a young boy at summer sleepaway camp. He recalls, “They had a little shack with a darkroom in it. I wondered how this magic occurred with film and ending with the photographic print.
“Photography made its way home that summer and my father built me my own darkroom in the basement. I took pictures of anything and everything. My best friend and I teamed up later and began taking pictures for the school newspaper and yearbook. When I got a little older I started going to concerts in New York City. I had to have my camera and photographed some of out most beloved musicians.
"I’ve always been into music as long as I can remember. My parents loved show tunes and classical music. I was extremely lucky to be able to be exposed to all the arts from a very young age. They brought us to concerts, museums and theater. My brother actually played drums before I did and when he moved to lead vocals I grabbed his drums. We had a band together in grade school. Drums and other musical instruments I have found are a big part of many photographers. I’m always hearing that this one plays guitar or that one plays in a jazz band. I think they’re both very parallel aesthetically since one you use your eyes to create and the other your ears. Both paint pictures. It’s great to keep both sensitized.
“My dad gave me a choice: ‘You can go to music college [I played the drums] or art school for photography.’ I was self-taught for drums; the logical decision was art school. I didn’t really think that rock and roll needed to be studied on my instrument. Wow, was I naive. I also loved jazz and that really needs a life time of study. On the other hand, photography I saw, at that time, as a studied art and needed an environment to grow in with a college setting. I started out at RIT, which was very commercially based. They wanted to know how you got an image technically rather then what the image was about. I then transferred to the Museum School of Fine Arts in Boston. That’s a world I could thrive in and I did. It’s all about sharing your art and talking about what you have created. My images were documentary. Picking a subject and sticking with it for a semester.
“Photography has a wonderful instant gratification on a few levels. It starts by seeing something your interested in and getting excited about, and then having the chance to capture it on film. What I love the most at the end of its process is sharing that realization of that I photographed with others. I can’t live with photography unless I can share it. I want to have the opportunity to connect with people the way I have with what I have photographed. It’s the same for writers with their expressive words. We can all paint in many ways.
“I have been photographing around the country many people that have common denominators. These are people who I call Iconic Americans. They are the ones that make up the backbone of America: the coal miners, oil drillers in Texas, fisherman, Detroit auto workers, and cowboys, to name just a few. They stick with what they have been handed to them for many generations and are passionate about there skills. They believe in what they do regardless of the human conditions. These musicians fall into that as they too were and are extremely devoted to their contributions.
“I don’t differentiate musicians as a special group to photograph for me. The reason is I don’t show and tell what they do with any kind of props that help the portrait along. For me it’s just capturing the heart and soul of their existence. This can only result in what I call an honest portrait. We get to see them one on one right in front of us and feel we know just a little more about who they are.
“My interest in photographing musicians for this book really gets subcategorized. It’s not so much they are musicians but where and what they produced for the reasons in their place in history. The musicians of Memphis in the 1960s and 70s were faced with much segregation and discrimination and getting their music to be placed in a broad market was part of their enormous challenge.
“At that time in the 1960s, when racial tensions were at their highest, musicians were getting together. The amazing thing was, they were getting together integrated. If I could single out one absolutely amazing thing that happened in Memphis during that time was musicians saw no color of skin. You had Steve Cropper and Donald Duck Dunn and the Memphis horns playing with Otis Reading or Book T or Al Green. You just couldn’t make this stuff up.
"If I can sound some what like a cliché, music is the universal language. It doesn’t matter what your class or ethnicity is, music moves us in all the same ways. It’s emotional, it has velocity, it slows us down, and it makes us think. I know in history that in the worst of human conditions, people sang songs as they worked to get through the day. They did it during in slavery, as prisoners on chain gangs. Music is one of the most powerful tools to help people unite. It not only has it’s rhythms but lyrics that preach the message in a way we can all understand. By inventing that new music Soul, with interracial artists in Memphis in the 1960s and 70s, demonstrated we now could all be together and create together. It’s was historic.
“While portraiture speaks for itself, still life is another story. There had to be a complete story of who from this era were the ones that made up this musical machine in Memphis. With many years gone by it would be a big hole in the project not to include those not with us anymore. I wanted to stay away from typical stock photography to represent those artists.
“My goal was to photograph articles belonging to the artists. My theory was, photograph anything of theirs that I call ‘having their DNA on it’. Some of those were Andrew Loves’ sax, Albert Kings’ stage jacket, Wilson Pickett’s passport. The great thing about the passport is it had his picture on it as well. I really got excited about photographing these things because I thought it was the next best thing to actually having them there with me to photograph.
The greatest pleasure I had for the Soul book was seeing these wonderful musicians being paid homage to for their accomplishments. So many of the ones we usually talk about are because they had hit songs. There were many behind the scenes people I included. That included backup musicians and especially the songwriters that might get overlooked. I also had a feeling when I left someone’s house after doing their portrait that I had a new friend. I may not have been a long visit but they got that I knew really who they were and I recognized them for it.
“I think that Soul music as it was then and marketed in the 1960s, was a triumph that no one could have planned. It just simply happened. Black and white musicians got together and what came out is what we call Soul. When I hear many of the songs that came out of Memphis from that time it usually puts a big smile on my face. It just never gets old.
Ben Cauley Jr.
Steps of B.B. King's Tour Bus
Denise LaSalle Ablum Cover Artwork by Eastin