Last Thursday night, April 3rd, the local chapter of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences held The 18th Annual Premier Player Awards, their regional version of the parent organization's Grammys. In honoring the legacy of Hi Records and handing out a bunch of awards, the local NARAS chapter managed to throw a shindig that felt very much like the Grammy awards themselves: There were memorable performances, the show ran far too long, some honorees were no-shows, and there was the mind-numbing drudgery of an address from a NARAS president. All that was missing was Faith Hill in a too-short skirt and Fred Durst murdering the English language.
Flyer music editor Chris Herrington and Local Beat columnist Andria Lisle filed the following report on the highs and lows of the evening:
The tone for the evening is set from the start by the entertaining but overlong opening performances from early Hi instrumental powerhouses Bill Black's Combo and Ace Cannon. The Combo spends an awful long time introducing themselves, stopping frequently for a lewd joke or two, explaining to a slightly bewildered but eventually appreciative audience that such humor goes over in the "juke joints" where they usually play; although, since saxman "Hot Lips" looks like he'd be more comfortable teeing off on the 13th hole than laying down a groove at Wild Bill's, one imagines that "casino" and "country club" are just as likely. As this segment pushes past the 15-minute mark, the Combo's frontman reveals the motive behind the madness: "We don't give a damn if we're running over. They ain't gonna invite us back again anyway." (Chris Herrington)
When local royalty Marvell Thomas takes the podium for his induction into the Premier Players "Hall of Fame," the moment turns somber, as the celebrated keyboard player uses the time to announce that his longtime friend Homer Banks is in the hospital and not doing well. "Pray for him," Thomas says, while Pat Snell, wife of Hi organist Lester Snell, whispers that she'd gotten a phone call from Banks' family, and the former Stax songwriter had just passed away. (Andria Lisle)
Before Premier Newcomer nominees The Porch Ghouls perform "Come to Papa," frontman Eldorado Del Ray thanks Hi Records producer "Poppa" Willie Mitchell "for inspiring us -- for better or worse." Percussionist Randy Valentine coolly leads the group through a dirty blues rendition of the song -- an Ann Peebles tune titled "Come to Mama" in its original version -- in front of 1,000 attendees, the biggest local audience the Porch Ghouls have had to date. "I just put it all out of my mind," Del Ray says after the band's performance. "I didn't want to freak out too much." The Porch Ghouls apparently gained a few new fans: "Jim Dickinson watched us from the side. He said we reminded him of the Regents," Del Ray says. "Marvell Thomas said, 'Good song.' I laughed, but he said he really meant it." (AL)
Accepting his second Keyboards award (and first since 1989), jack-of-all-trades Ross Rice gives the best acceptance speech of the night: "For those of you in the academy who voted for me, thank you. For those who didn't, I agree with you." (CH)
The night reaches a premature peak when The Hi Rhythm Section, led by guitarist Teenie Hodges, delivers a glistening performance of their signature hit "Soul Serenade," followed by presenter Wayne Jackson of The Memphis Horns offering a seemingly impromptu anecdote -- replete with the actual prop, which he strolls across the stage to retrieve -- about saxophonist James Mitchell's "volume knob": a Coke crate that he would stand on to get his horn closer to the microphone. (CH)
Steve Selvidge wins the Guitar award and Cory Branan takes home best Songwriter. Both had appeared on Late Night with David Letterman the night before, a fact alluded to onstage by local NARAS executive director Jon Hornyak and presenter Susan Marshall. Speaking to MADJACK label chief Mark McKinney prior to the ceremony, he says he'd spoken to Branan and Co. by telephone shortly after their performance and described the adrenaline in the post-performance Green Room as analogous to that of a football locker room after a big victory. Oddly, no one mentions the bizarre, presumably nerves-induced Travis Bickle-like glare on Branan's face that surreally marked an otherwise triumphant performance. (CH)
The night's revue of Hi artists Otis Clay, Ann Peebles, Don Bryant, and Syl Johnson kicks off with Clay: "Memphis is my second home," says Clay, a resident of Chicago. "If they said, 'You have the choice to choose your father,' there are two people I admire. Pops Staples and another man who taught me more than anyone -- Poppa Willie Mitchell."
Bryant opens with the hard-hitting "Everything Is Gonna Be Alright," a choice that prompts Poppa Willie's son Lawrence "Boo" Mitchell, standing backstage, to call his kids at home so they could listen in. "They love that song," Boo says with a smile.
Peebles, clad in a black-lace ensemble, starts with "I'm Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down." Her performance prompts open-mouthed admiration from fan Karen Foster, attending with Duke Baltimore of the Porch Ghouls. "She looks and sounds incredible," Foster says as Misty White, another member of the Porch Ghouls' entourage, dances in the aisle. (AL)
Syl Johnson performs the Hi staple "Take Me to the River," taking a detour along the way to boast of how often he's been sampled by The Wu-Tang Clan. "The Wu-Tang Clan did all of my songs," Johnson proclaims. "I got about 16 tracks with the Wu-Tang Clan." Then he drops a couple of lines from Ol' Dirty Bastard's "Brooklyn Zoo" before segueing into something more important, like plugging his daughter Syleena Johnson's nascent career. (CH)
By the time new Grammy honcho Neil Portnow takes the stage, the crowd has thinned out dramatically, but that doesn't stop him from reducing the audience to a couple hundred diehards with a long, dry speech in which we learn that the recent Grammy telecast's ratings "helped CBS win the sweeps" and that the compilation CD that accompanies the show achieved "the highest chart position ever for that series." By the time Grizzlies executive Andy Dolich and team booster Gayle Rose take the stage moments later to present a couple awards, The Orpheum is so empty that the pair must feel a lot better about the Grizzlies' own modest attendance figures. (CH)
Out on the street prior to the show, Peppa, Gangsta Blac's manager, jumped into a conversation to assure everyone that his artist was going to win the Premier Player Award for Rapper. Peppa was right, but when Blac's name is announced, the South Memphis hero is nowhere to be found. Instead, his aunt,Waurine Campbell, takes a rather circuitous route to the stage to accept in his honor, leaving just enough time for Blac to emerge from the lobby to claim his prize. "So this is how it feels to be a player," Blac cracks, all smiles when he finally reaches the podium. "I'm gonna take this back to South Parkway!"
At the after-party, Campbell, who raised Blac, is so excited she forgets hip-hop protocol: "Courtney started playing music in his grandmama's backyard," she says, referring to the star rapper by his real name, Courtney Harris. "Oops, I mean Gangsta Blac," she says. "I've got to remember to not call him Courtney." (AL)