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Something Old, Something New

This Lois Lane doesn’t need a superman to make her music fly up the charts.

by Matt Hanks

f you haven’t heard Lois Lane’s single “Chinese Checkers” either you don’t get out much, you don’t own a radio, or both. The song has been a staple on K-97 for close to a year now, but you’re just as likely to hear it on the tape deck in an aerobics class, an office building, or a hair salon. Though it has received limited, tightly regional distribution, “Chinese Checkers” has climbed as high as #82 on the Billboard singles chart. It is, by even the most conservative reckoning, a bona fide local phenomenon. And it’s happening right before our very eyes.

Lois Lane’s “Chinese Checkers” has climbed as high as #82 on the Billboard singles chart.
Still, there’s something about “Chinese Checkers” and the talent behind it that recalls the ghosts of Memphis music’s past. The song borrows its title and principal riff from a classic side by Booker T. and the MG’s. If that’s not nostalgic enough for you, “Chinese Checkers” has even spawned its own dance craze.

Lane’s ability to juggle currency with familiarity is probably her strongest asset, and in terms of pre-millennial trendspotting, it’s fashionable to the nines. In a city that tends to view its music in the past tense, revisionism is proving to be one of the few sure bets left. Just ask Puff Daddy. Like all of his hits, “Chinese Checkers” is the perfect elixir for a pop landscape straddled between a rich past and an uncertain future.

Lane is a native Memphian. She grew up singing in Mallory Heights Baptist Church and listening to Al Green and the Bar-Kays.

“I’ve always been into music,” she recalls. “I’ve been singing anything and everything since I was a little kid. I think I was around 11 when I started rapping. At first I would just rap along to songs on the radio, but pretty soon I decided to try my hand at writing.”

Fast forward 15 or so years to Bill’s Twilight nightclub on North Parkway – “Chinese Checkers” ground zero.

“A friend of mine, Mixmaster Lee, he told me about this dance people were doing there, and he wanted me to check it out. He asked me to come up with some lyrics and go into the studio to cut the track. We put it off for a couple of months, but we finally got it together.”

Lane and Lee took their newly recorded version of “Chinese Checkers” back to Bill’s Twilight and the crowd loved it. Lee smelled a hit. He got in touch with his friend James Alexander (that would be the same James Alexander who helped found the Bar-Kays 32 years ago, and whose music Lane adored as a child).

Lee invited James out to [Bill’s Twilight] one night,” Lane says. “As soon as they put on ‘Chinese Checkers’ everybody was just runnin’ to the [dance] floor.”

Lane cracks a rare smile, “James told Lee, ‘Yeah, I think we can do something with this.’”

Alexander was so impressed that he founded his own imprint, JEA Music, to release the “Chinese Checkers” single, and began booking gigs for her throughout the South. Lane’s life hasn’t been the same since. She gave up her job as a telemarketer and began filling her days with radio spots, record-store appearances, and small-town touring.

You hear a lot of talk in the music biz about grass-roots promotional tactics, but Lane doesn’t care much for semantics. She just wants to be successful, and she’ll supply her talent wherever there’s a demand for it.

Lane’s efforts are paying off handsomely. Alexander reports that the “Chinese Checkers” single has sold more than 15,000 copies just within the Memphis city limits, and though this month marks the first anniversary of its release, it’s still selling several hundred copies a week.

“There’s plenty of gangsta rap in Memphis,” Alexander says. “But Lois does more dance-oriented music, and she’s the only one in town that I can think of who’s doing that. That type of music has the potential to appeal to everybody; young, old, black, white – everybody.”

In Lane’s future, aside from continued touring, Alexander confirms there are plans for a “Chinese Checkers” instructional dance video, “so that we can teach really lame people like me how to do it.”

As for Lane, she’s looking forward to getting back into the studio and exploring some of her other talents.

“I don’t just rap. I also sing, and I’m working on a few things more in that direction. I want to be as versatile as possible. I’m really anxious to take things to another level.”

Music Notes

by Mark Jordan

MAMAs To Recognize Their Musical Children

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said that “the reward of a thing well done is to have done it.” But, you know, Emerson didn’t rock. And he also didn’t live in an age so saturated with music that sometimes even the most gifted voices go unheard.

That is why the Memphis Music Association, in conjunction with The Commercial Appeal and The Memphis Flyer, is proud to announce the first annual Memphis Area Music Awards.

Nicknamed the MAMAs (our sincerest apologies to the Memphis Acoustic Music Association), the MAMAs will present awards for best area recordings made between August 1, 1997, and July 31, 1998. Divided into categories by genre (jazz, rock, blues, etc.), the nominees will be selected by committees made up of local music industry professionals and supporters. The public will then get to vote for their favorites using a special ballot that will run in the September 17th and 24th issues of the Flyer and September 18th and 25th editions of the CA’s Playbook.

The winners will be announced in a ceremony at the New Daisy Theatre on Wednesday, November 4th. All proceeds from the awards ceremony will go to benefit Play It Again Memphis, a program that supplies needy children with used and refurbished musical instruments.

The MAMAs are sponsored by: Ticketmaster, Coors/Crown Distributing, the New Daisy Theatre, the Hard Rock Cafe, Blues City Cafe, and Rum Boogie Cafe.

Any bands wanting to submit recordings for consideration should send them to:

The Memphis Area Music Awards
c/o The Memphis Flyer
460 Tennessee St.
Memphis, TN 38103

Be sure to include a contact phone number and certification of when the recording was released. You don’t have to send in a copy of your recording to be considered for an award, but the nominating committees will be working from a list of releases featured in the CA and the Flyer and sold through the Cat’s record-store chain. So, if your recording hasn’t been featured in any of those places, you may want to play it safe and send in a copy. n

The Memphis Area Music Awards: Who and Why

The Memphis Music Association, organizers of the Memphis Area Music Awards, was formed earlier this year specifically to create these awards. Its members include the CA’s music editor Bill Ellis, the Blues Foundation’s Pat Mitchell, music promoter Larry Bell, Ardent Studios promotions director Terron Shoemaker, Baker Yates of Cat’s Music, Flyer promotions director Molly Zanone, and yours truly.

Given that local musicians already receive recognition through the local chapter of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences’ Premier Player Awards, it is fair to ask: Why do we need another awards show?

It is the thinking (at least in part) of the MMA that, for all the great work it does, NARAS is basically a club and its Premier Player Awards essentially recognize those members or similarly anointed types. If you are in a new band, unless you’ve made serious waves nationwide, like Big Ass Truck and Garrison Starr, or have members who are long-established members of the music community, you’re probably not going to get an invite to the Premier Players.

Furthermore, because of its agreement with the national NARAS office, the organizers of the annual Grammy Awards, the local NARAS chapter can’t recognize artists for their recorded work. That, with the small voting body’s already established, conservative tastes, means that awards often go to artists who have done little or sometimes nothing locally during the past year. When Peter Hyrka – a great musician but one who hasn’t lived in Memphis in years and rarely returns – continues to win the Premier String Award over musicians who have played and recorded here constantly, something is wrong with your award process.

It’s important to note that it is not the goal of the MAMAs to supplant the Premier Player Awards but to supplement them. It is our hope to give some recognition to those artists who slip by NARAS. Since this is our first year, we don’t know how well or even if we will succeed.

Ultimately, though, success lies with you – the readers of the CA and the Flyer and the supporters of local music. You are the ones who will cast the final votes. And, hopefully, you’ll be the ones to turn out on November 4th. – Mark Jordan

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