What prompted Brooklyn-based guitarist Adam Levy's recent trip to Memphis? "The music, of course," he says. Levy -- best known as the guitarist in jazz upstart Norah Jones' band -- popped into the Bluff City a few months ago to record Get Your Glow On, just released on Lost Wax Records.
"I've been on a rhythm-and-blues kick since my teenage years," Levy confirms. "When I was 20, the band that I was in played a lot of Memphis stuff, and the group's leader turned me on to Steve Cropper.
"Booker T. & the MG's were like the Beatles for me," Levy says, "and I kept coming back to their sound. In New York, there's so much avant-garde jazz, which I love, but it's not real soulful. I'd go to clubs late at night and listen to this head music then come home needing to put on some body music. I'd always find myself coming back to Memphis soul."
When Jay Newland (Jones' engineer and co-producer) pressed Levy to cut a solo album, he encouraged the guitarist to dive deeper into the Memphis soul scene. "Jay said, 'Every time you're talking about music, you're saying Memphis this or soul that,'" Levy recalls. "I said okay, but I don't know many people in New York who play this stuff." So Newland suggested Levy just go to Memphis to record with local musicians. "My first reaction was, Are you high? I don't know anyone there. I've never been there. I don't know any studios there," Levy says. "I was already in Memphis in my mind, but it was Jay who really brought me here."
Newland assembled the band -- drummer Steve Potts, bassist Dave Smith, organist Rob Burger, saxophonist Jim Spake, and trumpeter Scott Thompson. Three days were booked at Sounds Unreel, and after a rehearsal, the band cut all 11 tracks during a break in Levy's tour schedule.
The group blasted through a handful of originals before Levy brought in a series of guest vocalists for the rest of the tracks. Gospel greats The Holmes Brothers tore through a funky version of Carole King's "No Easy Way Down" (lifted off Dusty Springfield's Dusty in Memphis album), while Hi vocalist Otis Clay delivered a heartfelt interpretation of Bob Dylan's "Tonight I'll Be Staying Here with You."
"I tried to make everything relate to Memphis," Levy says, citing Charlie Rich's "Graveyardville" as one of his favorite tracks on the album. "There's this Tom Waits song where he says, 'The jukebox is playing something by Charlie Rich/He sure can sing, that son of a bitch!'"
While Levy plays acoustic guitar on the number, he claims that the instrument -- a beat-up Martin -- is hardly his forte. "I'm really an electric-guitar player. I've only owned acoustic guitars when I've absolutely had to," Levy says. For most of Get Your Glow On, he plays a Gibson ES-335 and -- like his hero, Steve Cropper -- a Fender Telecaster.
One of Levy's favorite songs is "Even If It Takes a Lifetime," the album's closer. Featuring vocalist Susan Marshall, the final arrangement of this hot-and-heavy ballad absolutely blew Levy away. "I'd never heard of Susan," Levy admits, "but everyone said she'd be perfect for the song. She came in and just killed it."
"Obviously, I don't have to explain the connection between Elvis and Memphis," Levy says with a chuckle when asked about his take on "Love Me Tender." "That song was gonna be an instrumental. I recorded the basic tracks in Memphis, planning to do a Ry Cooder kinda thing to it later on. But after I got back to New York, it just didn't sound right," he says. "Jay finally said that it needed vocals. I thought, Yeah, but who could possibly sing it without sounding dumb? He said, 'Well, there's this girl Norah Jones '"
Local label Soul Is Cheap (the folks behind 7-inches from Staynless, Pezz, and Remus and the Romulus Nation as well as full-length CDs from Loggia and Lucero) are hosting their third annual music festival Saturday, May 17th, at The Premiere Palace at 296 Monroe. One of the last bastions of the local hard-core scene, Soul Is Cheap has assembled a baker's dozen of the best bands Memphis has to offer, including The Lost Sounds and The Coach and Four for the 15-hour festival.
Scheduled to appear: Akasha, 1 p.m.; Three Pipe Problem, 1:45 p.m.; Knifefight, 2:30 p.m.; Wet Labia, 3:15 p.m.; The Uninvited, 4 p.m.; The Glass, 5 p.m.; Dead City, 6 p.m.; Bury the Living, 7 p.m.; The Duration, 8 p.m.; Halfacre Gunroom, 9 p.m.; The Lost Sounds, 10 p.m.; The Coach and Four, 11:30 p.m.; Snowglobe, 1 a.m. The party will culminate with a DJ after-party at 3 a.m.
You can e-mail Andria Lisle at email@example.com.