Friday, April 25, 2003

Anatomy of a Lie

Former managing editor says owner faked stories at the Tri-State Defender.

Posted By on Fri, Apr 25, 2003 at 4:00 AM

Plagiarism at the Tri-State Defender was much more extensive and, at times, malicious than we reported last week, according to additional research and interviews with former staff members. And the former managing editor, Virginia Porter, said it was carried out by the African-American newspaper's current owner, Tom Picou, using the aliases Larry Reeves and Reginold Bundy.

Picou, who lives in Chicago, is the nephew of the late John Sengstacke, founder of the Tri-State Defender and the Chicago Defender and other newspapers that serve the black community. Picou is the CEO of Real Times, which bought the Tri-State Defender and three other newspapers in Detroit, Chicago, and Pittsburgh earlier this year for a reported $11 million.

Picou told the Flyer last week that Larry Reeves was an unpaid freelance writer whom he never met in person although Reeves authored 142 articles in the Tri-State Defender. Picou said he believes Reeves was an elderly white man who has since moved to Arkansas. He declined to speak to the Flyer this week. Asked if he is Reginold Bundy and Larry Reeves, he said, "Absolutely not. I'm finished with this issue and that's the end of it," before hanging up the phone.

Like "Larry Reeves," "Reginold Bundy" was a prolific plagiarist, changing datelines and place-names to relocate stories to Memphis or other cities in the Mid-South. By doing a computer search, the Flyer was able to conclusively establish that several stories were stolen. We offered to show the evidence to Tri-State Defender publisher/editor Marzie Thomas at her office. She declined three times.

· In 1995, Bundy stole parts of a story about crimes of passion in Miami from Miami New Times and transposed it to Memphis, changing real Hispanic people to fictional African Americans and editorializing about violence in the black community.

· In 1995, he stole parts of a story, "Open Hearts," about an autistic child, from the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel.

· In 2001, he stole parts of "Who's Sorry Now?," about the Rev. Jesse Jackson's mistress, from The Village Voice.

But "Reginold Bundy" was a much more creative and complex persona than "Larry Reeves." Reeves was a space-filler, "author" of long, front-page stories that were lifted nearly verbatim from other weekly newspapers far enough away that the actual reporters probably would not notice the theft. Bundy had an agenda. In 54 stories found in our computer search, he often editorialized about actual politicians and events in Memphis or West Tennessee and apparently constructed passages of dialogue to embellish his creative efforts.

For example, in 1995 Bundy stole part of a feature story about donating cheap cameras to the homeless in Miami from Miami New Times. But he transposed the story to Memphis, inventing tourists and locals who crassly shot pictures of a homeless man in Court Square "who goes by the name Tattoo George."

"Tattoo George" speaks to "Reginold Bundy" in a pathetic parody of black dialect, saying, "It's like dey got nothin' else to shoot. So day shoot us."

In a 1996 story, Bundy writes about the burning of four black churches in rural West Tennessee: "In fact, in many rural counties in Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi, the TSD learned, the state of social conditions haven't really changed over the past 40 years despite changing laws and national mandates. To target Black churches in the wake of exceeding racial intolerance is no more of a novelty than the alleged continued lynchings in the Mississippi Delta region."

Sources include "the FBI's Hate Division," "documents released in 1968 by the Congress of Racial Equality," and "an official who preferred not to be identified."

A 1,415-word 1995 Bundy story attacking state Sen. John Ford includes no sources other than "a close friend" and "one unidentified man in a local restaurant."

Porter, 62, told the Flyer she was managing editor at the Tri-State Defender from 1995 until 2002, when she was laid off. She now lives in Kankakee, Illinois. She formerly worked as a copy editor for The Sacramento Bee and other newspapers.

She said "I would stake my life on it" that Picou is Reeves and Bundy. She said anyone who questioned procedures at the Tri-State Defender "was abruptly let go."

"He [Picou] was the big boss," she said. "Why fight with him over his product?"

She said the make-up work for the Tri-State Defender's front page, page three, and jump page (where front-page stories are continued) was done in Chicago and sent to Memphis.

"I used to tell him [Picou] all the time, 'One day you're going to get the Tri-State Defender sued because I know this stuff is either made up or ridiculous,'" she said.

The Chicago Reader, a weekly newspaper that has written about Picou, describes him as going to work for the Chicago Defender as a teenager and rising from baseball writer to editor to president of Sengstacke Enterprises before leaving the company in 1984 "because he couldn't put up with the boss."

Marzie Thomas has been advertising director of the Tri-State Defender since 1991 and was named editor/publisher this year. In a Commercial Appeal profile in February, Thomas, 50, says, "Our mission has always been to tell the truth. We have no other purpose but to make sure the truth gets out."

In an editorial last week, Thomas wrote that "a free-lance reporter may well have plagiarized stories" and that the Defender "was not the culprit, but rather the victim."

Friday, April 18, 2003

Identity Theft

The Tri-State Defender has an interesting approach to news.

Posted By on Fri, Apr 18, 2003 at 4:00 AM

The Tri-State Defender, the oldest and most prominent African-American newspaper in Memphis, is a thief.

For several years, the weekly newspaper that calls itself "The Mid-South's Best Alternative Newspaper" on its editorial-page masthead has been ripping off other weekly newspapers' stories, changing the datelines and place-names, and running them as its own "lead story" under the byline of Larry Reeves.

What its readers were led to believe was hard-hitting reporting about crime or civil rights violations in Nashville, Jackson, the Mississippi Delta, or other Mid-South locales was in fact the work of reporters in such faraway cities as Cleveland, Los Angeles, or New York. The actual reporters were never credited and, until this week, were not aware that they were being plagiarized.

Reeves is something of a mystery, and it is by no means certain that he actually exists. Although his byline appeared on over 140 stories between 1995 and 2002, no one at the newspaper can recall meeting him in person or knows where he is today.

"I've never met him," said publisher/editor Marzie Thomas, editor since January 2003 and formerly advertising director since 1991. "If he ever shows up here he cannot work for me."

Asked if Reeves exists, she said, "I don't know," and hastily referred questions to Tom Picou, the president and CEO of Real Times, which bought the Tri-State Defender and four other black community newspapers for $11 million in January from the Sengstacke trust.

Reached in Los Angeles, Picou said he too had never met Reeves face-to-face.

"He's a white guy, probably about 80 years old now," Picou said. "I have not talked to him since 1996." He amended that to say he assumed Reeves was white by the sound of his voice.

Picou, the nephew of the late Tri-State Defender founder John Sengstacke, said Reeves "did some research pieces for us" but was never paid. He submitted his stories electronically, Picou said. He believes Reeves moved to Little Rock or Hot Springs. He said he told Thomas she was not to use him any more when she took over this year.

Asked why Reeves would write so many stories for free, Picou said, "Writers are a dime a dozen, and I don't mean to be facetious. But we had a lot of people who wanted to write for the Tri-State Defender. Some people just like to write."

Longtime Tri-State Defender editor Audrey McGhee suffered a stroke last year and is unable to do interviews.

The fraud was discovered last week by the East Bay Express, a weekly newspaper in Oakland, California. One of its reporters found that a long Express story on police corruption published last November appeared the very next week in the Tri-State Defender almost verbatim but under the byline of Larry Reeves.

When the Flyer learned about that incident, we did our own computer search of other Tri-State Defender stories supposedly by Reeves. Within a few hours we had found more stolen goods, with newspapers from California to New York being victimized in the same manner.

Most of the stories are gritty enterprise features about black people getting a raw deal. The East Bay Express story was headlined: "Bum Rap: Vernon Joseph wanted to be a force in hip-hop. Then he met Frank Vazquez. His story changed dramatically."

Even that was plagiarized by the Tri-State Defender , which added a large front-page color illustration and a "lead story" tag line above the story, which ran in November 2002. All Reeves did was change references to Oakland to Nashville and eliminate references to Alameda County. The Metro Nashville Police Department, according to the East Bay Express, was "pissed off" when informed of the fraud.

Subsequently, the Flyer discovered the same thinly veiled deception in other stories, all of which were also lengthy pieces.

• In "Family Woes," the Tri-State Defender copied a story called "Family Cries" that was reported by the Cleveland Scene in August 2001. Cuyahoga County was changed to West Memphis, an indication, perhaps, of how few read the Tri-State Defender .

• In "Unfortunate Son," a tale of a 13-year-old boy charged with killing his father, references to Shaker Heights and Cuyahoga County were changed to "Jackson." Once again, the victim was the Cleveland Scene, which published the story in November 2001. The Tri-State Defender lifted it two weeks later.

• In "Rape of Innocence," a story by New Times Los Angeles in May 2000 about a sexually abused 13-year-old girl, the Tri-State Defender changed references to Los Angeles to "the Delta" and "Mississippi" and ran it two weeks later. For good measure, it even had the audacity to add a tag line, "Article copyright Tri-State Defender Publishing, Inc."

• In "Scandal in the Mosque," the Tri-State Defender ripped off The Village Voice's September 2000 story "The Shame of Mosque No. 7" about Louis Farrakhan. The Tri-State Defender put Reeves' byline on the story but generously gave the Village Voice credit in a tag line that read, "Excerpts of this story from the Village Voice." In fact, the whole story was from the Village Voice.

• In "Mommy dearest, what have you done?" the victim was Seattle Weekly and reporter Rick Anderson, who authored a story in January 2002 called "Little Girls Lost" about a 14-year-old girl accused of murder. The Tri-State Defender reran it under the Larry Reeves byline two weeks later, with an interesting touch.

In an "editor's note" at the beginning of the story, the newspaper solemnly wrote, "The following is a true story. It took place somewhere in the Mid-South, but its true location is being withheld because of the uniqueness of the case. The names of the characters have also been changed so as not to influence the case's outcome."

The victimized newspapers are, like the Flyer, members of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies. Member newspapers often reprint one another's stories if they are of local interest. The newspaper and reporter that produced the story are fully credited and compensated. The Tri-State Defender is not an AAN member.

Pete Kotz, editor of Cleveland Scene, was more amused than outraged when the Flyer told him about the plagiarism.

"You can't get that mad because the whole operation is like amateur night," he said. "It's so bad it's amusing. It's bad for America that we've fallen so low that we can't even steal properly. Whether the paper knew about it or not, they've gotta be run by huge morons."

Kotz said it would be up to his parent company, New Times, to take legal action.

A Flyer computer search found the Larry Reeves byline on 142 Tri-State Defender stories from 1995 to 2002. Often he would write the lead story on the front page of the newspaper. Other times he wrote commentary or analysis, usually quoting anonymous sources such as "a Baptist minister" or "a local health-care official."

Thomas, the editor, said she was unaware that Reeves had so many bylines or that he was in the newspaper nearly every week in 1995.

The self-described "Mid-South's Best Alternative Newspaper" claims to have won several journalism prizes. It has respectable feature sections and a professional layout and is supported by local and national advertisers including Kroger, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Nissan, and Union Planters Bank. It is, however, lightly regarded by Memphis journalists as a news product because its coverage is so thin, it has no full-time news reporters, and its sourcing is often nonexistent. If it were not so little read it could not have gotten away with its serial plagiarism for so long.

Still, it carries a measure of clout by virtue of being the largest and oldest black newspaper in a city of 650,000 people which is majority black while other print media, including this newspaper, are predominately white. A former contributor is Gale Jones Carson, who is executive assistant and media spokesperson for Mayor Willie Herenton and head of the Shelby County Democratic Party. Carson said she, too, never met the mysterious Larry Reeves.

Told that the Flyer was doing a story, Picou asked, "Why would you want to do that?"

He then said he would try to make amends.

"The only thing I can do is call these people and apologize," he said.

As if matters weren't bad enough, the Village Voice and the New Times chain are run by some of the most competent and competitive editors and publishers in the weekly newspaper business.

In its story, the East Bay Express made a puerile crack about Memphis as "that little hillbilly town over there on the other side of the country."

The grown-ups at New Times, Inc., owners of the East Bay Express, presumably know where Memphis is and may take more serious action when they learn how widespread the theft was.

Friday, April 11, 2003

Warm and Fuzzy

New CA editor Chris Peck goes all out on panda coverage.

Posted By on Fri, Apr 11, 2003 at 4:00 AM

The pandas come to Memphis. "P-Day." "Panda Pursuit." "Cuddly Guests." It's the ultimate warm-and-fuzzy story and antidote to war coverage. Is it also a defining moment for The Commercial Appeal under the leadership of new editor Chris Peck?

Before Tuesday's blowout coverage of the arrival of the two giant pandas in Memphis, the CA had published 12 panda stories since March 18th, including several on the front page. A CA reporter and photographer have been on assignment in Beijing. And the newspaper has a running joke about a stuffed panda called "Pres Le," which is a takeoff on one of the pandas named "Le Le," which is pronounced "Luh Luh" and -- oh, never mind.

Peck, a veteran newsman who did a brief stint in academia before coming to Memphis last fall, took over for Angus McEachran, promising a focus-group-friendly "community journalism" that would connect with its readership, which has declined 15 percent in the past 10 years. McEachran, who retired at the end of last year, was more grizzly bear than panda bear and known for fiercely defending his own and his newspaper's independence. Since then, the CA has been running more feature stories, although all local news has been knocked aside lately by the war. The newspaper has localized its war coverage with an ongoing series of profiles of area servicemen and women.

Peck was out of town and unavailable for an interview. Leanne Kleinmann, assistant managing editor of the CA, said the "Call to Arms" war features are "probably a better example of Chris' approach to community journalism" than the panda stories.

"We were planning to send reporters to China before Chris got the job," she said.

No one denies that the pandas are a big story. Former New York City mayor Ed Koch once told The New York Times that two pandas at the Bronx Zoo would assure his reelection. Only three other U.S. zoos have them -- Atlanta, Washington, D.C., and San Diego. Memphis Zoo officials expect attendance to increase from 700,000 patrons to more than 1 million patrons a year. FedEx, with a cherished trade relationship with China, delivered the pandas and joined in the marketing blitz, just as rival UPS did when it delivered the Atlanta pandas.

"They're very important to Memphis," said WMC-TV Channel 5 reporter Janice Broach. "It's a good news story."

But the CA, owned by E.W. Scripps, and WREG-TV Channel 3, owned by The New York Times, are in the unique position of being "media sponsors" of the panda visit as well as partners in a relationship that involves both their news and business operations. McEachran didn't do interviews with the Flyer, but according to sources inside and outside the newspaper, he was not a fan of the WREG partnership and left it to John Wilcox, who now holds McEachran's old title of publisher.

The pandas had better live up to their hype. The Memphis Zoo spent $15 million for a new China exhibition to house them, in addition to the $1.3 million it will give the Chinese government for each of the next 10 years for panda conservation efforts.

Zoo admission has been raised to $10 for adults and $6 for children 11 and under, plus a $3 per-person panda surcharge and $3 parking fee. A family of four will spend at least $47 to see the pandas when the exhibit opens April 25th. That's close to what Zoo Atlanta charges; it includes the pandas and parking in its $16.50 regular adult admission and $11.50 kids admission. The National Zoo in Washington, D.C., is free. The San Diego Zoo is $19.50 for adults and $11.75 for kids.

The Memphis Zoo Society borrowed from funds raised for the proposed Northwest Passage expansion to bring the pandas here and house them. Roger Knox, outgoing president of the zoo, said in a brief interview this week that the zoo will still have Northwest Passage but "there is no set time for it to open." The key corporate sponsor, Northwest Airlines, is laying off workers and fighting to stay profitable after being hit hard by terrorism, fare cuts, and a decline in international and domestic travel.

Even before the pandas and the war began to dominate the news, the CA was showing signs of change under Peck. Big color pictures and multipart features on suburban sprawl, rural Tennesseans, and a nostalgic look at the 1973 Memphis State basketball team have been spread across section fronts. Courtrooms, cops, and daycare centers seem to be getting less prominent attention, and political reporters/columnists Susan Adler Thorp and Paula Wade have left the newspaper to take government jobs.

The new CA is more of a team player. Its partner, WREG-TV Channel 3, is closely aligned with the Memphis Regional Chamber of Commerce, whose current chairman is WREG -TV general manager Bob Eoff. Wilcox is on the chamber's board of advisers. (Contemporary Media, the parent company of the Flyer, also has a business relationship with the chamber on certain non-news projects.)

All print media are suffering from media glut and the effects of an advertising recession. E.W. Scripps is a publicly owned company but does not report financial results for individual properties. The CA's audited circulation is 171,937 weekdays and 234,055 Sundays, down from 203,000 and 280,000, respectively, in 1993.

The CA's headline Tuesday read "Pandas are absolutely, positively here at last."

They could have added another FedEx-ism: Just in time.

Making Time

And the time it takes to make the local film If Time Stood Still.

Posted By on Fri, Apr 11, 2003 at 4:00 AM

It's Sunday morning, a day of rest. And while many are still snoozing in bed or dozing off at church, local filmmaker/hardware-store associate Jeremy Benson, three actors, a small film crew, and co-producer Chelsea Vancanneyt are hard at work on Benson's third film, If Time Stood Still.

They're shooting a scene at the Millington Cafe, a quaint little greasy spoon just north of Memphis. In the scene, two college-aged guys, played by Mark Williams (also the film's producer) and Dan Poor, run into each other at the cafe and end up in a serious discussion. One guy (played by Williams) has been up all night drinking, and the other (Poor) has been up all night freaking out because his girlfriend's pregnant. Poor's character spills his guts in a 10-minute dialogue with Williams' character. That's the end of the scene.

And, as it turns out, the end of the information. Benson wants the plot to remain secret until the film's release, which is currently slated for early 2004. Shooting began this winter, and Benson's hoping to be done by June. And, so far, all he'll say about the plot is "don't take for granted what you're living in now because it might not always be there."

Once the camera equipment is set up and the actors are positioned at a far corner table in the cafe's extraordinarily tiny nonsmoking section, they do a quick read-through of the scene. A girl playing the waitress makes sure she has an apron, a full coffeepot, and cups. Williams takes his mark, while Poor is already seated.

"Cafe scene 96, take one," announces Poor into the camera. The action begins as Benson sits back and watches with a critical eye.

Benson is no stranger to the local independent film scene. He already has two films under his belt: Friday's Menu and Nothing But Flowers. Friday's Menu, his debut work, is a comic tale of two guys trying to find something to do in Memphis on a Friday night, while Nothing But Flowers is a more serious sequel, in which the returning characters are suddenly faced with real-life problems. One character deals with a broken heart, while the other is faced with the stress of moving away from everything he's ever known.

Both films feature slice-of-life scenes that serve as a sort of social commentary on the lives of Memphis 20-somethings. One scene in Friday's Menu shows two girls sitting on a couch talking about sex while eating bratwurst. As the sausages enter their mouths, the camera zooms in and the motion is slowed down. Another scene shows the main characters, Ricky and J.P., driving around the city discussing possible plans for the rest of their night. These low-action conversational scenes, often laced with dirty jokes and sexual innuendo, portray the day-to-day boredom commonly faced by the youth of the Mid-South. Imagine Harmony Korine's Kids meets Kevin Smith's Clerks, only with a Southern twist.

Whether it's intentional or not, his characters generally maintain their natural accents and most of his leading ladies tend to be more on the full-figured side. These small details give his films a refreshingly realistic quality.

"We made that first film, Friday's Menu, in 1999, and we had no idea what we were doing. We just kinda threw some stuff together and somehow that got us permission from a local production company to use their equipment for work on another one. That's when we started Nothing But Flowers. The one we're working on now is actually from the first script I ever wrote. We just figured it was time to go back and make it," says Benson.

Besides one film-appreciation class at then State Tech, Benson has had no formal training. In his college days, he met local martial artist/sometime filmmaker Harry Dach, who took Benson under his wing after reading some of his short stories. Dach felt Benson's stories were screenplay material and suggested that he convert them. It was this turn of events that opened Benson's eyes to a talent he feels he's had since childhood.

"Even when I was little, I used to draw out Ghostbuster movies on notebooks, so I guess there's always been an interest," he says.

When giving direction, he tries to maintain a sense of fairness by allowing other crew members to comment. After the third take of the If Time Stood Still cafe scene, Benson kneels down at the table where the actors are sitting and tells Williams he was sounding a little fake. Then, just to make sure he's being democratic, he turns and asks everyone else what they think. The sound guy replies, "It's not very natural."

After a few more takes -- nine to be exact -- Benson finally seems happy with the final product. The sound guy suggests taking some audio from the noisy cafe, and a cameraman shoots some footage of Williams walking through the door. Then Benson calls out, "Wrap it up." Poor and the girl playing the waitress get up and stretch, and the crew begins to load up their equipment. It's about 1 p.m. It took roughly three hours to shoot what will amount to about 10 minutes of video.

It's tedious work, but it's what Benson lives for. "I would love to be able to make films for a living," he says. "Working at a hardware store is not what I want to do for the rest of my life."

Friday, April 4, 2003

Willie Mitchell

A few words with the genius behind Hi Records.

Posted By on Fri, Apr 4, 2003 at 4:00 AM

Willie Mitchell's Royal Recording studio is the last of the historic independent soul-music houses still operating. Though he didn't come to own the place until the mid-1980s, it was always his domain. His Memphis career began in the mid-1950s, with Ace Cannon and Bill Black, through a string of his own 1960s R&B instrumentals, up to the heyday of Al Green, Ann Peebles, Denise LaSalle, Syl Johnson, Otis Clay, and others pumping out hit after hit.

Mitchell and the Hi Records artists created a sound that no one has ever duplicated. Part of that has to do with the studio's location at 1320 South Lauderdale, smack in the heart of South Memphis, where the ground is rich and sweet with the feeling that makes soul music. Originally a movie theater, the building's acoustics are derived from its design. The studio rises where the movie screen used to be. The sound grows in a space duplicated nowhere else. "I've recorded all over the world and never found a sweeter spot than right here," Mitchell says. "There's something about the ground here. It's got soul."

While many Memphians might be afraid to traverse the area now, you'd be surprised at the artists who visit or call seeking his services. Alternative and post-punk bands have driven from as far as Seattle to record here. Keith Richards, Boz Scaggs, Rod Stewart, and Tina Turner, to name just a few, have all come calling to record, consult, hang out, snoop, try to get a project financed, or just pick the brain of the master. Mitchell, however, seems remarkably unimpressed with his own status. He'll mention an unfamiliar artist in the same breath as the heavyweights. Just making music is what gets him off. But remember, he says, "I like making hit records. You got to make hits."

And hits he has made. A state-commissioned research paper written in the mid-1990s put the number of Mitchell's gold and platinum units at more than 100. There's a great CD in record stores now -- Soul Serenade: The Best of Willie Mitchell on the Right Stuff label -- that catalogs the instrumental hits he's had under his own name. A Hi Records compilation released by the label in the early 1990s packages a wider retrospective. Others are still being planned.

Following the death of his wife Anna Barbara Mitchell in 2001, he battled diabetes for a time. But now Mitchell has recuperated and appears in terrific health.

Mitchell's not a big talker. This interview request came during what could prove to be one of the most significant projects of his career. We had to promise not to divulge it here, but Mitchell agreed to a short interview during a listening session.

Flyer: What are you working on now?

Mitchell: [Grins] I can't say who we're cutting right now, but it's a very talented artist. A great voice. We've been working hard, man. Every day. I think this is going to be a big, big record.

You seldom went to the nightclub you owned on Beale, and you're notoriously shy about speaking in public. Do you plan to attend the Premier Player Awards?

Yes, I'm going. I'm actually looking forward to it. I think it's a great thing for them to do, and I'm proud that they've thought of Hi Records. We had a great run. It's good to see the city bringing Stax back too. I'm real glad about that. It's helped the city, helped me, helped everybody. I hope it's really a big success.

Did you cut anything over at Stax?

Me and my brother James worked on some Little Milton things over there and some Johnnie Taylor stuff -- a lot of cats. I've played so many places I can't remember all of them.

When did you realize you could actually make it as a producer?

When I cut "Eight Men, Four Women" with O.V. Wright then came right back with "Two Steps from the Blues" with Bobby Bland. I knew I could make it then. That was 1965.

What's the key to the Willie Mitchell sound? Any secret knowledge you'd like to drop on the younger generation?

Oh, I'm not telling that. There is a secret, a couple of little things I do, but I've been lucky a man to be around so many good artists and hit records. It's really the artists that you work with. It's like a school teacher: The producer is the teacher, but it makes it so much easier and so much better when the student likes to get his lesson. If he doesn't want to get his lesson, it's a lot less fun.

The Hi Records recording band -- the Hodges brothers -- and backup singers Rhodes, Chalmers, and Rhodes and your regulars are famous for their contribution here. Anybody in town you see as being that good?

There's a bunch of good musicians around here. I like working with saxophonist Lannie McMillan on sessions. He's real good, very creative. I have my regulars on horns that I like to work with -- Jack Hale, Scott Thompson, Andrew Love, and Jim Spake. Got to cut with those guys. And Ben Cauley. Can't forget Ben.

Heard any good hip-hop lately?

[Laughs] They cut a lot of it around here, but it's really not my thing. It's too fast for me. I like this guy, Brian McKnight. He's really good. I also like what we did with Preston Shannon for Rounder. I was kind of disappointed that they never really took off.

It seems every year someone has a hit with "Let's Stay Together." Any favorite versions?

Not really, but I'm glad they do it though. I was glad to see Tina [Turner] have a big record with it.

Interest in your catalog is growing.

Yeah, that's good. I just got my [royalty] statement from Capitol. The greatest-hits package is selling a lot, but they didn't put "Robin's Nest" on it. I was surprised by that. Illinois Jacquet cut it a long time ago and I've always loved that song.

You've always said there's something in the ground here that makes your sound. Can you explain it?

I've been down here since '59, mingling with the people here. The winos come down here; the working folks come by. There are just good people around here. I like them and they like me. [Laughs] They come in and rob me sometime, but it's no big deal. Some guy'll come in saying he needs a few dollars to get something to eat and then a few minutes later you see him at the whiskey store! But I know when to give and when not to.

If you were to meet God tomorrow, how would you like to be remembered?

Music has been my whole life. I don't know if you'd call it a spiritual connection, but I'd die without it. One thing that I'm proud of is that I was able to make a living for my kids. I've always wanted them to know about what goes on around here so they can take it on after I'm gone. I always loved all of them, the boys and the girls. I teach them the board, help them write songs, play the piano for them. I just can't live without music, man. I still walk the floor at night, get up, and play something that's in my head. I'm still always trying to create something.

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