September 5, 2008

Rejuvenated Down to the Soul — Past is a Blast for New Generation of Fans

By Andria Lisle

Over the past 30 years, the punk-rock "do-it-yourself" ethos helped jump start a legion of bands as diversified as the Sex Pistols and Fugazi.

Now, that same DIY attitude is helping to revitalize the careers of forgotten Southern soul singers Herbert Wiley and Ralph "Soul" Jackson, who play the Hi-Tone Caf tonight.

In Wiley's case, it's been a direct influence: The Oxford, Miss., resident, who dominated the local frat circuit in the 1960s, had, by the start of the next decade, traded in his lam suit and matching cape for a job as a cobbler on Oxford's town square.

"I gave up on music, because I had a family coming in, and I thought I had to stop," says Wiley, 66. "I went back to it in 2001, when the children were grown. I heard the music of the Preacher's Kids, who were practicing right next door to my shop, and that sound filled me up with thoughts about what I used to do."

He initially recruited the garage rockers as his backing band, before assembling the Checkmates, a 21st-century version of the integrated group that once backed him at gigs at Ole Miss, the University of Alabama, and at Club Paradise here in Memphis.

With the assistance of several musicians half his age, including bassist Matt Patton, an alumnus of the Dexateens, and J.D. Mark, a guitarist who's worked with artists as diverse as swamp-pop band the Haunted Hearts, blues woman Precious Bryant, and dance-punk phenomenon LCD Soundsystem, Wiley has recorded a pair of albums, 2004's Introducing Wiley & the Checkmates, and We Call It Soul, released this year.

"The reason why this works is, in a lot of ways, because everyone has that punk-rock mentality, whether they're talking about putting on a show or making a mix tape," says Chicagoan John Ciba, co-owner of the Rabbit Factory, the independent label behind We Call It Soul and The Birmingham Sound: The Soul of Neal Hemphill Vol. 1, a compilation featuring material by Ralph Jackson, a 61-year old native of Phenix City, Ala.

Ciba, 29, has employed punk-inspired guerilla marketing methods to book and promote dates for Wiley and Jackson at alternative music venues ranging from a Chicago dive bar called the Hideout to the monolithic McCarren Park Pool in Brooklyn, N.Y.

In recent years, both musicians also have made appearances at the venerable South by Southwest music conference in Austin, and at the Ponderosa Stomp, an annual homegrown music festival based in New Orleans.

"People today want authenticity in music. They want something real, and it's getting harder and harder to find it. They're sick of the hype, and they want to find out about music by word-of-mouth," says Stomp founder Ira "Dr. Ike" Padnos, who, for one memorable performance, partnered Jackson with a group of multigenerational, punk-influenced musicians including guitarist Alex Chilton, organist Mr. Quintron, and Memphis bassist Scott Bomar.

"These shows are all interconnected," continues Padnos, 43. "The Stomp is not a museum piece - we want it to be a stepping stone for the musicians to get back out there. The (musical pioneers) we work with are fun, rebellious, and as fresh as it gets. If we can play a role in fostering the rejuvenation of their careers, then we're accomplishing what we set out to do."

"Ralph is an excellent showman, and he's still got a killer voice," Padnos says. "I've seen him in front of a 10-piece band, just killing it, and I've seen him alone on the piano, entertaining a class full of kids at the Good Shepherd Elementary School. He knows what he's doing, and he has fun doing it, which is key."

Ciba sees these concerts, which draw a mainly white audience of savvy record collectors and curious punk and indie-rock hipsters, as a way to initiate a broader dialogue about the past and future of American music.



The Rabbit Factory Summer Soul Revue

featuring Wiley and the Checkmates and Ralph "Soul" Jackson with DJs Chase One, Red Eye Jedi and Leroy are at the Hi-Tone Cafe tonight starting at 9 p.m.

Cover is $7.

For more information, go to RabbitFactoryInc.


Originally published by Andria Lisle Special to The Commercial Appeal .

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