Fans of local trio The City Champs rejoiced last week when the group's guitarist, Memphis native Joe Restivo, announced on social media that the original lineup was rehearsing again. Having gained popularity between 2008 and 2010, the group's subsequent appearances were limited after drummer George Sluppick left town. With his recent return, the group has been woodshedding, writing new material, and making plans for bigger things.
The City Champs were distinguished by primarily being an instrumental group. This arose naturally from the group members' passion for organ trios and quartets of the 1950s and 1960s, as featured on classic records by Jimmy Smith, Brother Jack McDuff, or guitarist Grant Green. Early on, Restivo found kindred souls in brothers Al and Chad Gamble (on organ and drums, respectively), Muscle Shoals-area natives who had relocated to Memphis. "It was a jam situation," says Restivo. "In the late '90s, Al was in town as well as his brother. ... And we would just get together at Al's house."
Soon after, Restivo left Memphis. His return in 2006 also marked the return of Sluppick, another Memphis native, whose life in New Orleans had been disrupted by Hurricane Katrina. Al Gamble, Restivo, and Sluppick began playing together, and when not on the road, saxophonist Art Edmaiston would join them. They formed The Grip, mixing 1960s Latin-tinged boogaloo sounds with Memphis roots, as with their cover of the Mar-Keys' "Grab This Thing." When Edmaiston hit the road again, The City Champs were born.
The new group focused squarely on the stripped-down, funky organ trio sound. Notes Restivo, "We were all fans of that music before we met each other. And so it was a natural fit." The new combo soon was honing its sound on the road in 2008, opening for the North Mississippi Allstars.
The Champs' debut album, The Safecracker, was released on Scott Bomar's Electraphonic label in 2009 to glowing reviews. It was marked by their eclectic approach to the organ trio sound, with inventive versions of "Ol' Man River" and Amy Winehouse's "Love Is a Losing Game." Their 2010 sophomore release, The Set-Up, further expanded their palette, adding horns, Latin percussion, and a cameo from Motown legend Jack Ashford on percussion.
The combo developed a devoted local following, but Sluppick was lured to Los Angeles by the Chris Robinson Brotherhood. The Champs would continue to play Memphis occasionally when Sluppick was in town, but these appearances were rare. Restivo began working with The Bo-Keys and his own quartet, and Gamble began touring and recording with soul revivalists St. Paul and the Broken Bones. While these affiliations remain, things changed last year when Sluppick settled in his home town once again.
Now the group is once more developing new material, with an even more eclectic bent. Restivo notes the influence of "Willie Mitchell Dance Party records ... a little bit of that honky-tonkish Memphis instrumental thing." He adds that they're perfecting their own take on the 1971 classic Blackrock "Yeah Yeah" and exploring more psychedelic flavors as well. The Champs are itching to record their third album, planned for later this year.
"Since we started this project, it's been 10 years," Restivo says. "We've all played in a ton of different groups and played a ton of shows with a lot of different artists. So, there's a lot there to add. I know I'm a much more seasoned musician than I was when I started this thing. I think we're just a better band. But at the end of the day, it's a labor of love. More than any band I've ever been in, we have more fun just going over to Al Gamble's house and just cooking up songs and arrangements. And we try to present that in our shows and our records."