It's been a good year for Memphis instrumental soul. Not only did original groover Booker T. release a great album (The Road From Memphis), but The Bo-Keys, featuring Stax, Hi Records, and American Studios pros Floyd Newman, Floyd Newman, Archie "Hubby" Turner, Archie "Hubby" Turner, a cast of younger Memphis soulsters, and lead by bassist Scott Bomar and guitarist Skip Pitts (the theme from Shaft), released Got to Get Back, 12 greasy tracks of funky soul that would define the term "retro soul," if it weren't for the fact that the players are the guys who defined the soul records younger musicians try to mimic.
Bomar, a Memphis native who cut his teeth in garage, surf, and punk bands at a younger age, leads the band with reverence for classic Memphis sides. "The year I was born was the year that Hi, Stax and American pretty much all went out of business," Bomar says. "I guess I just have a real love for that era, when Memphis was making a lot of big records."
Bomar and I talked as he pulled off the road to stretch his legs, leading the band on a tour that will find them playing The Rhythm Room on Monday, November 7. We discussed the vintage Memphis sound, the band's new record, and capturing a live take on tape.
Up on the Sun: You guys played in New York last night. How did it go?
Scott Bomar: It went great. There was a lot of friends there, and we played a venue Joe's Pub, which is a room I've always wanted to play in. It was our first show on the tour. It was the perfect way to get everything kicked off. God, it was a great show. Are you guys touring with any of the vocalists from the album [Otis Clay, William Bell, Charles Musselwhite] or are you guys just doing the instrumental thing?
Percy Wiggins is going to be with us, so he'll be doing "Catch This Teardrop," a lot of his Atco/RCA stuff from the '60s, some Stax tunes that Howard and Skip played on, some Hi tunes that Howard [Grimes] played on. He'll also do the title track, that Otis [Clay] sang on, "Got to Get Back." When we perform live and we don't have Otis with us, he'll do that song.
That's one of the most exciting songs on the record. There's a scene in the mini-documentary, [where] right as Otis finished his vocal, everyone starts cracking up and smiling. It's a really great moment. It's cool to see that on film.
We had a lot of fun. That was the name of the game. It was the day before Thanksgiving, or it might have been the day after, [but] Howard's wife is a great cook, and Otis was just as excited to come and eat her cooking as he was to cut the track. It was nice having him there.
Growing up in Memphis, I'm sure you heard records that blew you away growing up. But you didn't start off doing the soul thing in bands like Impala and The Compulsive Gamblers. What influenced you to move into the soul thing completely?
Well, the last two [records] that Impala did, we were cutting stuff that kind of had that sound. That was the sound we were going for. The very last single or EP we did was all R&B instrumentals. With The Bo-Keys we just kind of continued that sound. I think a lot of it had to do with the guys who came in the band to play. There were so many records that influenced me wanting to do that kind of music; some of the very first records I heard that I really got into. Soul Finger by The Bar-Kays; Green Onions by Booker T. and the MGs; a records that my mother had called Scratchy by this guy named Travis Wammack, a Memphis record that this engineer named Roland James, that Impala worked with recorded...a lot of those Memphis instrumental records like that got me to want to play that type of music.
And then you ended up with these legends, guys who had cut those sides, in your band. Had these guys been playing since the Stax/Atco days? Still playing around town?
Everyone was. Skip was definitely the person who had been the most active because he continued to play with Isaac [Hayes] up until he passed. Howard was essentially retired when he started to play with us. He hadn't really been working that much. Ben Cauley worked a little bit, but Skip never really took a break [thought the other members] they had kind of tapered off a little bit before they started playing with us.
But once you go the band together...
It's like riding a bike. Those guys, man, put so much time into what they do. They are artists, in the truest sense of the word. Especially in the studio. It's just...it's special. They put in so many hours in the studio, they know how to cut records.
You guys recorded most of this record live, right?
It was pretty much all live. Even some of the horns we did live. There's some of the record that's entirely live, horns, vocals, everything.
Seems like that's something that is missing in a lot of recorded music: that sense of live energy and interchange.
I think that's one of the number one things...that's a big component that's missing. Everything is Pro-Tooled, mixed, and edited to death. There's something real special about people in a room, capturing a performance, and doing it live. You get that, you capture that moment. You have to have it right out on the floor, and if it's not, you've got to do another take.
With groups like the Daptone bands making waves, a lot of people have been labeling things "retro soul." What are your thoughts on that term?
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I know that term bothers a lot of people. I think with us it may not apply as much...because most the people in our band were people who were playing in the bands that everyone is trying to emulate. Couldn't say it's so much retro...frequently in interviews people ask me about the Daptone bands, but I really admire what they've done, and what they are doing. I have a lot of respect for them, and I'm a fan of what they do. I think they make great records, real records. They've turned a lot of younger people on to soul music, that otherwise...it gives younger audiences a point of reference for a band like us. Any comparisons between us and them I would say we both like the same kind of music.
On a professional level, you've done work with movies like Black Snake Moan and Hustle and Flow, both incorporate a lot current music.
I listen to a lot of new music, too. I love music in general, but with what the Bo-Keys do, my favorite is Memphis soul. Stax and Hi Records; old wax, the stuff done in American Studios. The year I was born was the year that Hi, Stax and American pretty much all went out of business. I guess I just have a real love for that era, when Memphis was making a lot of big records. It was really an important town musically...so much great music still comes out of there. Still does.