The Alabama Shakes were playing One Eyed Jacks to a crowd so thick that late arrivers like myself bumped into a wall of backs about three steps into the showroom. As a result, I listened to the show from the front bar through the open doors (the band’s charisma and soul held up despite the distance), where I bumped into Scott Bomar, bass player and band leader of the Memphis R&B band the Bo-Keys. The band was most recently in town as the backing band in the Ponderosa Stomp’s Stax Revue, when it backed Eddie Floyd, William Bell and Otis Clay. The Bo-Keys return to New Orleans Friday to play d.b.a.
For Bomar, the band has been an occasion to immerse himself in R&B history. Not only does he meet and perform with such greats as Bell and Clay—who also sang on last year’s Got to Get Back! album—but the band is heavily populated with long-time R&B pros, guys who made the records that bands such as the Dap-Kings were inspired by, including members of the Hi Records’ rhythm section and guitarist Charles “Skip” Pitts, best known for having come up with the wah-wah guitar intro for Isaac Hayes’ “Theme from Shaft.”
How did the band come together?
I had an instrumental group called Impala in the ’90s, and the last recordings that band did were really Booker T. and Willie Mitchell inspired. I started getting more and more into the ’60s Memphis instrumental sound, and when the band broke up, I wanted to keep playing music. I formed the Bo-Keys, and it was originally a bit of a different line-up. John Stivers, who played guitar in Impala, was in the Bo-Keys originally. Mark Franklin, a trumpet player who played with Bobby “Blue” Bland, was also an original member. He, Mark, and I are basically the three original members that are still in the group.
A little bit of time went by and guys got busy with other projects and day jobs, but Mark and I kept doing it. I started working at the Stax Music Academy teaching bass about 11 years ago, and while I was working there I met Willie Hall and Charles “Skip” Pitts. I was the only person working there who wasn’t a session player at Stax when it was still open in the ’70s.
Around the same time, the guys in the Bo-Keys had other gigs and obligations that were taking up their time so I started to use Skip and Willie, and it really clicked with those guys. We went in to Royal Studios and recorded our first record with Willie Mitchell [best known for his recordings with Al Green, Ann Peebles and Syl Johnson]. That started an amazing run of doing projects with [Mitchell], and we really hit it off with him. That was an amazing relationship, and I learned a whole lot from hanging out over there with him.
What did you learn from him?
I’ll never forget the first time I ever met Willie. I played on a session over at Royal. I walked in, and Willie was sitting with his feet propped up on the front desk drinking vodka and smoking a Kool cigarette listening to Clifford Brown. I was like, “Man, is this Clifford Brown?”
“Yeah man, how’d you know that?”
We immediately hit it off because I knew it was Clifford Brown.
I would say the New Orleans equivalent to Willie would be Allen Toussaint—someone whose musical talent and genius is on a whole other plane. There are not too many people I put in that category, but he and Allen are the two people that I would say are operating on another level than everybody else musically.
Willie was really funny. He had an amazing sense of humor. Working with him in the studio wasn’t work at all. He had amazing ears, amazing taste, and an amazing insight into what makes a hit record. He knew better than anyone how to put the right song with the right singer and the right musicians. He was a master producer and writer. Willie was a genius.
What was Willie’s role in what you were doing?
To me, he was the total package producer from top to bottom. Willie would first start off with the artist in mind. Second, he would work on songs for the artist and custom tailor the songs for them. Third, he would get all the right musicians in the room. He tended to use a lot of the same guys, but sometimes the song would call for something different to mix it up a little bit. Lastly, he was very much up on the technical end of it. He was definitely a proponent of tape. He wouldn’t use anything but tape up until the day he passed away. He would not record digitally.
So you played on sessions that Willie produced?
Yeah, he essentially produced the Bo-Keys’ first record. He doesn’t have a producing credit on it, but he definitely gave us a lot of guidance on that. I was an assistant engineer on more stuff that he produced and I played on.
I didn’t really play on much of anything that he produced, but I was over there for the last two Al Green records that he did. I also worked on the last two for Blue Note. The Bo-Keys recorded three songs for the soundtrack of a film called Soul Men with Samuel L. Jackson and Bernie Mac. We cut the tracks in my studio, but we did horn overdubs with Willie. Skip Pitts and Mark Franklin played on a lot of stuff over there the last 10 years or so. Of course Howard Grimes, our drummer, as well as Archie Turner, played on tons of stuff because they were in the Hi Rhythm Section.
Are you the youngest person in your band?
I think Mark Franklin might be a little bit younger, but he and I are both around the same age. We’re both 37.
How old is the oldest?
Howard Grimes is 70.
Does working with an older band pose challenges?
I don’t think it does. When we’re on the road, the older guys just want to get to the hotel room and chill out and relax. I think if we were on the road with younger guys, they’d probably want to stay out all night. The next day when it came time to go to the next town, I’d probably have to be hunting the younger guys down.
We absolutely love playing with the older guys in the group because they have so many good stories and they teach us so much. They have such a wealth of information. When we’re working together, I’d say 90 percent of the conversation consists of those guys schooling us on everything they have learned in their careers, and it’s super invaluable.
In the time I’ve been playing music in Memphis, we’ve lost more and more people as time goes by, and I see how important it is that we have gotten to work with the older guys and learn what we’ve learned because I think it would get lost like any other art form or music form like jazz or anything like that. I think that we’re really fortunate that we have been able to get a little bit of the craft to keep playing that kind of music the right way.
What is the right way to play Memphis soul?
Well first of all, you have got to have the right feel. That’s the most important thing, and the second thing is to not get too busy. Don’t clutter it up; play simple. Simplicity is one of the most important things. Each musician needs to know what their role is and what their part should be.
Is it harder to play simple than it sounds?
For people who are used to playing music and trying to put as many notes into it as they can, it could be difficult. The more time I spend playing with a drummer like Howard Grimes, I realize it’s not about trying to fill every measure up, it’s more about the one and the two, and the three and the four, instead of trying to fit a million notes into every bar. A lot of it is about tone.
Is tone one of those things you learn from talking to the old guys?
I definitely think it is. The other thing about playing with the older guys is—I remember talking to Jim Dickinson once about the Bo-Keys, and he said, “There’s nothing that will make you a better musician than playing with those guys, because when you mess up, they’re going to let you know real quick.” He told me it only takes getting yelled at a couple times before you start playing the right stuff, and he was right about that.
The last record is largely new material?
Yeah it is. It took us about six years in between this new album and our first album. What took us a lot of time is that immediately after our first album was released, we started doing a lot of film work. We did the score for Hustle & Flow a few months after we released our first album. After that, we had a whole string of film work, which was really amazing to do, but it definitely cut in to time that we had to dedicate to the Bo-Keys, though we still toured and played shows here. We’d come down to do the Ponderosa Stomp, and do shows for the Stomp in New York and other places, but it just made it difficult for us to schedule the time to write and record a new album.
Two years ago, the film work slowed down, and I backed away from doing that for a while because I really wanted to make a new Bo-Keys album. We took about a year to get material together and concentrate on writing for a record. The new record is all original material except for two covers.
There’s a song we did with Charlie Musselwhite called, “I’m Going Home”, that was originally cut by a gentleman named Prince Conley for the Satellite label. Howard actually played drums on the original recording when he was about 16 years old. It was a great song, and I thought it would really make a good cover. We wanted to collaborate with Charlie Musselwhite for the record, and when I was talking to Charlie about possible songs, I told him about “I’m Coming Home.” I told him it was a pretty obscure song doubting he’d ever heard of it, and he goes, “Oh, I have that record.” His mom was a friend of Estelle Axton, one of the owners of Stax, and when he was a kid, she came over and gave him a copy of it. That one was just meant to be.
The other cover is a song by the 5 Royales that was cut in Memphis by Willie Mitchell in the ’60s. It was for a label called Home of the Blues, and its called, “Catch That Teardrop”. After the Five Royales left King Records, they came down to Memphis and cut a couple of sides for this little label down on Beale Street where Willie Mitchell did his first production.
Is it hard to write in the voice of old classic soul records?
Doing gigs like the Ponderosa Stomp and doing shows where we back up William Bell and Eddie Floyd and Otis Clay while seeing the audience reactions to those songs really gives you an insight as to why certain songs were hits. It’s helped us tremendously to have the opportunity to experience playing behind so many great artists.
For me, the easiest part for writing is coming up with the concept or idea for a song. Those come to me pretty frequently, and they tend to come from the ether. The hard part is sitting down and actually finishing the songs—arranging them, taking lyrics and choruses scratched out on napkins and turning them into a full song. That’s where being in a band with like-minded musicians really helps, because the collaboration is really great. Everybody in the group is on the same page, and we really compliment each other’s writing.
On the title track from the new record, we collaborated with a really great writer named Darryl Carter who lives here in Memphis. He was a staff writer at American Studios in the ’60s, and he has a really amazing story about the night that “The Letter” by the Box Tops was recorded. He also engineered American, and him and Dan Penn stayed up an entire night trying to get the airplane noise in the beginning of the track synched up right. He said it literally took them the entire night to get it right. Having someone like Darryl who is a top-notch songwriter really makes a difference too.
A big part of the fun of the being in this band must be to listen to these guys tell stories that include so much music history.
It’s amazing. Sometimes I think I should have a video camera or tape recorder running the entire time. They tell amazing stories of a really rich history.
Hooking up with Howard Grimes about two years ago was one of the best things that has ever happened to our group. He said ever since Hi Records closed, he’s been waiting to join a band that does what we do. He’s such a wealth of history and loves this music so much. Talking with him, you really learn how connected all the different musical cities in America are. His history goes back to pre-Stax, and he was there when Stax was getting off the ground, and he worked with Willie and did all the Al Green stuff. It’s amazing to hear his history and how everything—New Orleans, Chicago, St. Louis, Memphis—they’re all connected.
Do you feel like the older guys are more motivated by playing with a multi-generational band?
Howard would agree with that. As much as his stories and his music knowledge are inspiring to us, I think our energy and optimism inspires him and makes him feel like he’s doing something relevant and new. I know it’s the same for Percy Wiggins, Skip Pitts, and all the guys in the group who are older. It means a lot to them.
Floyd Newman is the gentleman who played a lot of baritone sax on our album, and he’s 84 years old. He was in B.B. King’s original band, and there’s a famous photo of B.B. and his entire orchestra in front of their tour bus on Beale Street. Floyd and B.B. are the only two guys in that photo who are still alive. Floyd went on to do tons of sessions at Stax, Muscle Shoals, and down in Miami at Criteria. He was one of the Atlantic Records go-to session players in the ’60s and ’70s. He has the most amazing tone on the baritone, and at 84, he came in and knocked it out. I know it meant a lot for him to still be working and making a record.