The Bo-Keys, with a spring-loaded, testifying Memphis vibe associated with Otis Redding, Rufus Thomas and Al Green, have put out an album that bubbles like a dark, spicy gumbo. There’s a reason for that: The band features many of the sidemen who helped craft that legendary sound.
Memphis bassist Scott Bomar, then just 24, helped form the Bo-Keys in 1998 as a backup group for Mack Rice, perhaps best known for writing “Mustang Sally.” But rather than assembling a group of contemporaries, Bomar went to the city’s musical fountainhead: Sidemen from the old Stax/Volt and Hi records sides.
Guitarist Skip “Bulldog” Pitts played with Thomas, Green and Isaac Hayes. Keyboardist Archie “Hubby” Turner and Howard Grimes were both sessions musicians at Hi, once the recording home of Otis Clay, Ann Peebles, Willie Mitchell and Green. Trumpeter Ben Cauley was the only survivor when a plane carrying Redding and the Bar-Keys crashed into Wisconsin’s Lake Monona in 1967 — and continued as the reformed group became Stax’s late-period house band.
That gives Got To Get Back this timelessly absorbing sound, like discovering a forgotten gem at an old-album shop — only everything here is brand spanking new.
The Bo-Keys, also featuring trumpeter Marc Franklin, and saxists Kirk Smothers, Jim Spake and Derrick Williams, set that tone from the first with the instrumental “Hi Roller,” with its whip-smart cadence, gurgling organ and gashing horns. Co-founder Pitts, known forever for his guitar contributions to the Isley Brothers‘ “It’s Your Thing” and Isaac Hayes’ “Theme from Shaft,” then adds a gravel-gargled vocal roughness on tracks like “Work that Sucker” — which, with its spoken-word interludes, works as its own sly tribute to Hayes.
Got To Get Back also includes guest turns by Clay (check out the rollicking title track), William Bell, Charlie Musselwhite (on “I’m Going Home,” a favorite cut) and Percy Wiggins. But the Bo-Keys never cede the spotlight for long, whether they are dashing through the chicken shack-rattling R&B of “Just Chillin,'” adding a lean swagger to Booker T. and the MGs-ish “Jack and Ginger,” or slowing up for the finger-licking soul blues of “Sundown on Beale.”
Every song, it seems, has its own shimmering moment of soul-lifting wonder. Grimes — who alternated with Al Jackson Jr. on Green’s sides, while also making important contributions to both Peebles’ “I Can’t Stand the Rain” and Syl Johnson’s “Take Me to the River” — is the propulsive force behind “90 Days Same As Cash,” helping shape a tornadic burst of funk. Cauley, who wrote the charts for the Staple Singers‘ classic “I’ll Take You There,” adds a bright sheen as part of the stomping horn section on “Cauley Flower.” Then there’s Bomar, who engineered Green’s more recent projects for producer Willie Mitchell and here provides the kind of bedrock support that makes everything bounce along nicely.
What we’re left with is a capstone moment in the young career of The Bo-Keys. Their music has already been featured in the film “Hustle and Flow,” on the Grammy-nominated “Soul Music” from soundtrack to “Soul Men,” and on the television documentary “I Am A Man: From Memphis, a Lesson In Life” — for which Bomar claimed an Emmy. The Bo-Keys also backed Cyndi Lauper on her recent Memphis Blues project.
Throughout, they’ve hewn steadfastly to their deep-fried Deep South roots, following an ageless path right up to the doorstep of this steamy concoction. Got To Get Back is simply bursting with throwback charm and old-school vigor. Dig in.
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