Saturday, January 07, 2012

Soul Education

From L to R, Booker T. & The MG's: Donald "Duck" Dunn, Booker T. Jones, Steve Cropper, and Al Jackson, Jr.

This post is the third installment regarding my trip to New York City back in late June 2011. 

I was attending a reception and I was getting a little antsy. The reception was winding down, the evening was very young, I was in New York City and I was itchin' to do something. Catch a Broadway play, catch a live music act, a limited release movie, or just walk and people watch. This was NYC, there is always something to do. Something is always going on!

I said my good-byes, excused myself from the reception, and proceeded to my hotel a few blocks away. En route to the hotel, I saw a newspaper box and it contained copies of the Village Voice.  I love the Village Voice! I read it many an evening back in college in the library when I should have been studying. I was attracted to the The Village Voice back in college because it always carried intriguing articles, funny and eyebrow raising personal ads, and entertainment wise, everything that was taking place in NYC. Eighteen to twenty years later,  it was fun to see that the format of the Village Voice had not changed. I opened the box and there was only one copy left, nice! I opened the paper and began perusing what the city had to offer this evening. I love being somewhere outside of my home and seeing what there is to do. It’s a great way to get a sense of a place. This evening, I was hoping to catch John Leguizamo’s one man Broadway show “Ghetto Klown,” but this evening the show was dark. So, as I kept going through the paper I saw it, "Steve Cropper, Donald “Duck” Dunn performing their hits from Booker T. & The MG’s tonight at The Highline Ballroom." Over the years, The Village Voice has always done a great job of surprising me with page after page of great shows. I knew Cropper and Dunn performed at the Highline the previous evening, but I didn’t know they had a two gig engagement there? The date for the show said tonight, but the time was not advertised. I picked up my pace, got back to the hotel, and quickly phoned the Highline.  The woman working the box office confirmed that the show was for this evening and it began at 8 pm.  I looked at my watch and it read 7:15. I said to myself, “I’m making this show.” I changed; suiting up sans tie. Had to suit up. Going to a club show in NYC, Steve Cropper/Duck Dunn, the circumstances called for a suit.  Made my way back outside, hailed a cab and I was off to the show. My cabbie, interesting cat. He was originally from St. Lucia and he is in the U.S. attending university, studying Biology.  We had a lively and engaging conversation as he was finishing what appeared to be his dinner while he drove. The first topic of conversation that he wanted to discuss was the Gay Pride Parade that took place that afternoon and the recent vote in NYC to legalize gay marriage. Then, it was the prospect of whether President Obama would be re-elected, then, the U.S. Government debt ceiling crisis, and government in general. Then, it was healthcare reform. I found myself not wanting the conversation to end when it was time for me to exit at the intersection for the Highline. I really enjoyed talking to this guy,  I enjoyed his perspective on different subjects.

I exited the cab and as I was approaching the intersection to cross the street, I noticed an older gentleman to my right who had a look about him. I would say he was in his 60’s, hair all white, he wore glasses, he had on a white t-shirt, shorts, and a backpack which looked like it contained many of his belongings.  He looked very unkempt.  Something about him looked a little off. The traffic signal indicated that pedestrians could proceed and the gentleman to my right just took off as if he was shot out of a cannon. He walked at a furious pace. I was also walking quickly because the time was approaching 8 pm and I didn’t want to be late for the show.  The gentleman turned off to speak with someone and I proceeded to the Highline.

Got to the Highline, paid my money at the box office, and found out that the Highline is more of a sit down/bottle/supper club. With Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn in the house I knew I didn't want to sit down, but get down. So for people like myself, we could stand in the back of the club or stand at the bar and watch the show. I decided to stand in the back. As I was leaving the box office, the unkempt cat that was next to me at the intersection was putting down some cash to catch the show as well. It appears that he was in a rush just like me to catch the show on time. As I stood at the back of the club, the unkempt older gentleman stood toward the front.

The Highline Ballroom, small club, had a good vibe to it. Within five minutes of arriving, two septuagenarians (Cropper and Dunn) slowly made their way to their respective places on stage, while the third person performing with them tonight drummer Anton Figg (Drummer on the David Letterman Show) got behind the drums and another gentleman (whose name escapes me) was on keyboards. Then all of a sudden, Duck Dunn laid down this phat, rhythymic bass line and the crowd (be it if they were standing or sitting) began boppin’ their heads and tapping their feet. I knew I was in the right place! This head boppin’ and toe tapping groove lasted for about 45 minutes. Throughout the show I loved how Steve Cropper gave a historical background to most of the tunes that they played. Ok, for the uninitiated, who are Booker T. & The MG's? They are an instrumental R&B band that was influential in shaping the sound of Southern and Memphis Soul. They were members of the house band at the legendary Memphis, Tennessee music label Stax Records and they played on numerous recordings for Stax artists such as: Isaac Hayes, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Bill Withers, Sam and Dave, Albert King, Carla and Rufus Thomas Eddie Floyd and many others. Booker T. & The MG's  was one of the first integrated rock/soul groups. Their famous tune (#1 record in the U.S. in 1962) "Green Onions" 

got its name because the tune reminded the band members of something old and funky like a bowl of onions. Isaac Hayes and Steve Cropper penned many a famous tune for artists on the Stax label. Cropper co-wrote Otis Redding's famous tune "Sitting On The Dock of The Bay" with Redding; he also played guitar on the tune and can be heard whistling at the end of it. Also, Dunn and Cropper are part of The Original Blues Brothers Band and they can be seen in movie. Little musical facts like this made the already enjoyable evening that much more entertaining. 

Then after about 45 minutes of funky instrumentals, singer Eddie Floyd came on and the show went into different direction. The show was now going to include some soulful vocals. Floyd was in a great mood, he was celebrating his birthday, but he wouldn't let on to how old he was. He played some of his own tunes and Stax classics such as, Wilson Pickett's "In The Midnight Hour," Sam and Dave's "Soul Man" and others. During Floyd's segment of the show; he, Cropper, and Dunn encouraged the crowd who was still sitting down, to get up and get down! The unkempt gentleman that I entered the Highline with had gotten down all evening in a style all his own. He was as fun to watch as the performers. As Eddie Floyd was about to go onstage Steve Cropper introduced him as one of his best friends along with Duck Dunn and how he has known both of those guys for almost his entire life. This statement stuck with me considering that these guys were the best of friends during the segregated South of the 50's and 60's and how their friendships have endured. These guys struck me as civil rights ambassadors for they have struck down quite a few racial, social, and musical barriers. 

As the show concluded, the crowd was in a festive mood and we did not want the gig to end. At the conclusion of the show, I began speaking with an older gentleman who was wearing a t-shirt with the iconic Stax logo. 

The gentleman said that he had driven down to the Stax studio and museum last summer and how he had a good time learning about the history of Stax records and he purchased quite a few souvenirs from the gift shop. He said that he heard that Cropper and Dunn could be found around the museum from time to time, but they were not present during his visit. The Stax Museum tour definitely sounds like an item I need to add to my ever expanding, "Places to Visit List."

Talk about a fun evening full of good conversations, great music, and some soul education. Below is a clip of the Booker T & The MG's with Eddie Floyd show taken the previous night at the Highline before I saw them. 

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