Amy Black has always been drawn to soul singers. But it wasn’t until she began exploring her own southern roots for her last album, The Muscle Shoals Sessions, that she found her musical sweet spot — and knew her next stop had to be the place where blues and soul converge (and where she herself was conceived); where Al Green, Otis Redding and so many others spun grit and groove into some of the world’s most beloved tunes. So she traveled from her Nashville home to Soulsville U.S.A. and joined forces with several top musical architects to lay down the sound she was meant to make — the sound of Memphis.
Releasing June 2, 2017 on her own Reuben Records, Memphisputs Black — already considered “a bluesy, R&B heavy hitter” byElmore magazine — on the same continuum as soul sisters fromDusty Springfield, Ann Peebles and Mavis Staples to Bonnie Raitt and Shelby Lynne.
On seven originals and three well-chosen covers (by Otis Clay, Bobby “Blue” Bland and Ruby Johnson), Black goes from silky smooth to raw and rough with ease, perfectly balancing Saturday-night sultriness and Sunday-morning gospel, slow-dance sexiness and fast-dance exuberance.
The album was recorded old-school analog style at producer/engineer Scott Bomar’s Electraphonic Recording studio and mixed to tape by Adam Hill at Ardent Studios. Bomar, a Grammy-nominated, Emmy-winning film composer, also leads Memphis soul band the Bo-Keys. That outfit includes Hi Records rhythm section drummer Howard Grimes, who joined fellow Hi greats the Rev. Charles Hodges (piano and Hammond B3) and his brother, Leroy “Flick” Hodges (bass), along with Staxguitarist Bobby Manuel, on many of these 10 tracks.
Bo-Keys guitarist Joe Restivo, St. Paul & the Broken Bones keyboardist Al Gamble and ex-Chris Robinson Brotherhood drummer George Sluppick also contributed. Bo-Keys trumpeter Marc Franklin, a former Bobby Bland sideman, handled horn and string arrangements, adding further power. Together with Black, they capture the passion that flows through this town like the mighty Mississippi, making Memphis is as authentic as it gets.
“I love the music of Memphis; everything that came out of there in the ’50s, the ’60s, the ’70s … I love the grit and the guts and the soul and the groove,” Black says. “And getting to record with some of the guys who made that music was amazing.”
Black’s route to Memphis was one she never imagined when she decided, only 10 years ago, to leave behind a successful marketing career and pursue her first love. Her initial recorded forays, One Time and This Is Home, leaned more toward Americana and country than rhythm and blues.
“I wasn’t looking to evolve my sound,” she explains. “I liked what I was doing. But I always knew I had a very soulful, bluesy side to my voice.” She discovered just how much when she headed to Muscle Shoals, Ala., in 2015 to record The Muscle Shoals Sessions, featuring keyboardist Spooner Oldham, one of Muscle Shoals’ original “Swampers.” What started as an EP grew into a full album and Black’s touring Muscle Shoals Revue.
Once she was hooked, she kept exploring; eventually, her journey led her from the music of FAMEand Jackson Highway to the music of Stax and Hi Records.
“The Hi rhythm section and the folks who recorded with Willie Mitchell are now favorites of mine, but a year ago, I didn’t know about them,” Black admits. “Now I’m also a huge fan of O.V. Wright andOtis Clay. And Ann Peebles — oh man, I just love the feel of her music; I love what it does to me. That’s the coolest part of this project — the exposure to these artists that have become a part of me.”
The Muscle Shoals experience also taught her she could take risks, which proved even more exciting when she explored the Memphis vibe. “It’s definitely a little bit dirtier, more from your gut,” she says. “I am so drawn to that feel and sound. I didn’t know that I could sing this music and now it’s what I do.”
She also never thought about horns before the Muscle Shoals album, and now, she says, “I’m addicted.”
They assert their presence right from the opener, “It’s Hard to Love an Angry Man,” an original intended “to show a little love to my man Bobby Bland; he’s so smooth, yet powerful, and so Memphis.”
Black shows him even more love with her saucy, high-spirited cover of “Further on Up the Road.”
She and fellow Nashvillian Karen Leipziger co-wrote the slow-burning Peebles tribute, “What Makes a Man?” But she’s referring to herself on the album’s first single, “The Blackest Cloud.” With an uplifting groove riding on baritone sax and trumpet notes, it’s a study in how music about sadness can make us feel happy — for a few minutes, at least.
Black’s gospel-infused version of Clay’s “If I Could Reach Out (and Help Somebody),” one of several tracks enhanced by backing vocalists Reba Russell and Daunielle Hill, has a similar effect.
“I had to do this song. The whole attitude is how I feel about life,” Black reveals. “In my darkest times, I’ve gotten out to help others, and it puts everything in perspective.”
It’s followed by “Let the Light In,” which sounds like something the Staple Singers could have written for the civil rights movement. It carries the heft of an anthem — with show-stopping power.
“I had no idea how much we, as a country, would need this song,” Black says. “I wrote it for myself, to make sure that I’m letting light into my own darkness. But with events being what they are, it’s a good time to sing it. I always dedicate it to Mavis. Her spirit and music inspire and educate me. They represent the fight against darker forces and the need to persevere.”
Black first heard Staples when the gospel-soul icon toured with Raitt, one of Black’s favorites since high school; she often covered “Love Me Like a Man” while performing in Boston, her former home and the place where she launched her music career. Her Nashville move was to be closer to family, but fortuitously, it also put her in close proximity to Memphis — a city to which she now feels spiritually connected.
Black says she hopes Memphis inspires listeners to dig into this music as she has, and to explore “the history, the people and the stories” of this fabled place. With her live Memphis Music Revue, she’s ready to carry that message far and wide. But no matter how you get there, when Amy Black takes you to Memphis, it’s a journey you won’t forget.
Amy Black’s Memphis Music Revue tour dates
Mon., June 5 CLEVELAND, OH The Beachland Ballroom
Tues., June 6 WORTHINGTON, OH Natalie’s Coal Fired Pizza
Sun., June 11 NASHVILLE, TN City Winery Nashville
Mon., June 12 ST. LOUIS, MO Off Broadway
Thus., June 15 KANSAS CITY, MO Knuckleheads
Sun., June 18 CHICAGO, IL City Winery Chicago
Wed., June 21 NEWPORT, KY Southgate House
Fri., June 23 OKLAHOMA CITY, OK The Blue Door
Sat., June 24 DALLAS, TX AllGood Cafe
Tues., June 27 AUSTIN, TX The Townsend
Thurs., June 29 HOUSTON, TX The Mucky Duck
Sun., July 2 ATLANTA, GA City Winery Atlanta
Thurs., July 6 MEMPHIS, TN Lafayette’s Music Room
Fri., July 7 BIRMINGHAM, AL Workplay
Thurs., July 13 AUBURN, AL Pebble Hill
Fri., July 14 ASHEVILLE, NC The Grey Eagle
Tues., July 18 WASHINGTON, DC Gypsy Sally’s
Wed., July 19 ASBURY PARK, NJ The Saint
Thurs., July 20 PHILADELPHIA, PA World Cafe Live
Fri., July 21 CAMBRIDGE, MA Regattabar
Thurs., July 27 PORTLAND, ME One Longfellow Square
Thurs., July 27 PORTLAND, ME One Longfellow Square
Fri., July 28 PLYMOUTH, MA The Spire Center for the Arts
Sat., July 29 NORTHAMPTON, MA The Iron Horse
Sun., July 30 NEW YORK CITY, NY City Winery NYC