Leave the divas to VH1. Thanks to local label Inside Sounds, we've got the Memphis Belles.
"Sometimes, ideas just come to you," says label head Eddie Dattel, who assembled 20 of the best female vocalists the city has to offer for the compilation The Memphis Belles: Past, Present & Future.
The album, which runs the gamut from country blues (Jessie Mae Hemphill) to Beale Street shouters (Ruby Wilson), jazz vocalists (Kelley Hurt and Joyce Cobb), soul superstars (Carla Thomas and Ann Peebles), and singer-songwriters (Carol Plunk and Nancy Apple) -- and features a rockin' granny (Cordell Jackson), an opera singer (Kallen Esperian), and a movie star (Cybill Shepherd) -- was released two and a half years ago. The big celebration, however, will come this weekend, when seven of these local chanteuses perform at a Cannon Center benefit for the restoration of the Memphis Belle WWII bomber.
"The Memphis Belle Memorial Association called me three months ago and told me they'd gotten a copy of the CD," Dattel explains. "They were wondering if we could help them with a fund-raiser, but before they could get the question out, I told them, well, I had this idea to do a show all along. I had it all sketched out in my head, and I was ready. It's a perfect match."
Cobb, Hemphill, Hurt, and Thomas will join blues dynamo Sandy Carroll, jazz singer Reni Simon, and rocker Gwin Spencer for the Saturday night concert, "An Evening With the Memphis Belles."
"Some people might think of this in terms of a belated CD-release party, but this is a much bigger event," Dattel says. "Ultimately, I'd like to see it on PBS. To have this kind of musicianship and diversity onstage in one night --it's going to be incredible."
Pausing for a chuckle, Dattel admits that, although all of the performers have checked their egos at the door, "juggling seven women can be difficult."
Dattel has a right to sound slightly harried. He's just wrapped up a quick rehearsal with the Memphis Jazz Orchestra, which will be backing performers for the first half of the show. In a few days, he'll run through a practice session with a combo -- "a house band, really" -- which will anchor the second part of the evening.
"The Cannon Center has a great stage for a jazz orchestra," Dattel enthuses. "But even though the room is so well tuned, I didn't want to have a whole evening of big-band music. So we've got a night of jazz and R&B mixed in with elements of soul and rock. And although Cybill Shepherd can't perform, she taped an introduction for us.
"I don't know if Memphis has more female vocalists [than other cities] proportionally, but we do have blues and R&B for our musical background. Those genres allow for a lot of women singers," Dattel says. "The first successful blues artists were female," he continues, citing women like Ida Cox, Bessie Smith, and Alberta Hunter, who sang the blues on Beale Street in the 1920s. "The image people have of a man from the Mississippi Delta with a guitar in his hand actually came much later.
"Specifically in Memphis, you have to talk about the churches," Dattel says, with a nod to Lucie Campbell, who was the musical director of the National Baptist Sunday School and also an English teacher at Booker T. Washington High School for more than 50 years. Soloist Queen C. Anderson, who sang during services at the East Trigg Baptist Church, was also a pivotal influence on the local music scene -- particularly for a young Elvis Presley, who often attended services at the African-American church. "And Aretha Franklin was born in Memphis, when her father [Reverend C.L. Franklin] was preaching here," he continues. "As far as I'm concerned, she could be a Memphis Belle!"
Dattel also raves about the women he worked with for this particular project. "A few of the songs we included on the CD were kind of unusual, like Kallen Esperian's song, 'Long Time Ago,'" he says. "But I ended up with a group of artists who really wanted to work on this. They were all so warm and respectful to each other, and it's been wonderful to get [these seven] performers together for the concert.
"Many of the women involved here have been so receptive that I plan to make this the beginning of a series," Dattel says, mentioning Di Anne Price and Susan Marshall among the artists he hopes to work with in the future. "Of course, the intent is to be profitable, but I also just want to capture the diversity of the local scene. Some things I do for marketability, but other times, I have to follow my heart."
Tickets for the concert are $20 and $35 and are available at the Cannon Center box office and at all Ticketmaster locations. All proceeds go to the restoration of the famous WWII bomber.