Good Gamble 

Two industry vets launch a local label based on a novel principle: "music we like."

Last year, David Less lost a bundle in the stock market, so he decided to start a record company. While that may not seem like a logical decision to most people, for Less, it made total sense. "Losing money in the market wasn't much fun, so this year, I decided to lose in the record business and have a good time doing it," Less says before backing up to clarify things. "Not try to lose it, of course, but finance a label of my own. Then I can control it and maybe even make some money."

Less, a longtime veteran of the Memphis music scene, founded Memphis International Records with out-of-town friend and industry insider Bob Merlis. The nascent label makes its debut this month with releases from a generation-spanning trio of local roots-music stars: pre-rock icon Harmonica Frank Floyd, Soulsville queen Carla Thomas, and present-day blues virtuoso Alvin Youngblood Hart. Less and Merlis plan to release six discs a year on Memphis International, signing artists on a per-project basis rather than investing in long-term contracts. The label has a national distribution deal with Rykodisc and offices in Memphis and Los Angeles. Its inaugural releases hit the racks on July 9th.

Less got his start in the music business as a writer, penning columns under the tutelage of Robert Palmer, the late New York Times music critic, and was published in Rolling Stone and Downbeat magazines in their heydays. He clocked late hours at Pop Tunes and spent his free time catching Memphis' best musicians onstage and off. He's produced the Beale Street Music Fest and managed Mud Island. He served as executive director of the Blues Foundation for many years and continues to work as a music consultant.

"It never occurred to me when I was growing up in Memphis that there was anything special here," Less explains. "I thought every town in America had a Rufus Thomas or an Elvis Presley. In Memphis, Reverend Robert Wilkins was my next door neighbor, Furry Lewis swept the streets, and Gus Cannon was a lawn boy. Jerry Lee Lewis' drummer fixed lawnmowers," he recalls.

Merlis also caught the music bug early. "I've collected records since I was born," Merlis jokes in a phone interview. He grew up on the East Coast then relocated to Los Angeles for a job with Warner Brothers Records. He quickly moved up the ranks in the company, becoming a senior vice president in communications.

Less and Merlis met a decade ago via the Blues Foundation. "I always thought I'd start a label," Less confesses. "So when the economy tanked, I called Bob. We each had 25 to 30 years' experience in the record business, and he'd just left Warner Brothers to open a public-relations firm." Shortly thereafter, Memphis International was born.

"We're not here to revolutionize Memphis music. That's not our goal," Less says. "We're self-financed, and we each have other businesses, so we don't have much overhead. Neither of us takes a salary out. All the money we put in is on the albums themselves."

Harmonica Frank Floyd's The Missing Link is the label's first official release. The late Floyd was a hobo legend, and as a hillbilly bluesman, he was a musical anomaly. Born in the backwoods of North Mississippi in 1908, Floyd took to wandering when he was just 14, entertaining small-town folks for dinner and spare change. He honed his musical skills (Floyd sang and played guitar and harmonica) in tent shows and carnivals, winding his way to Memphis, where he recorded for Sam Phillips. Released on Sun in 1954, "Rocking Chair Daddy" is a percussive romp, part rockabilly, part blue yodel. The record never hit, and Floyd went back on the road.

Fast-forward to 1979, when Floyd -- older, yes, but not changed in the least -- returned to Memphis to play a series of shows at schools around town, shows fortuitously recorded by Less and Jim Dickinson. The Missing Link is drawn from these late-life performances, which reveal Floyd still in great form ("a true original American beauty," Dickinson proclaims in the liner notes), hamming it up with suggestive humor and old vaudeville routines between numbers.

Floyd rips through traditional blues tunes ("Howlin' Tomcat," "Deep Ellum Blues," "Sitting On Top Of the World"), folk obscurities ("Moonshiner's Daughter," "Sweet Farm Girl"), and hard-driving original compositions ("Shoop-A-Boop-A-Doodler," "Swamp Root," "Rocking Chair Daddy") with equal enthusiasm. Worth the price alone is Floyd's incredible medicine-show routine, "The Great Medical Menagerist." The Missing Link shines and stupefies on every track.

"Jim and I have been sitting on that album for 23 years," Less says. "We didn't know what to do with it! Frank was an old friend. He came in every year, and we'd have a fish fry for him and set up some shows."

Carla Thomas & Friends' Live In Memphis comes next in the Memphis International catalog. Recorded early last year at the Art Village on South Main, the record is a reunion of sorts for Thomas and soul veterans William Brown, Bobby Manuel, Ronnie Williams, Dan Penn, and Spooner Oldham. And, on one level, it's a sentimental journey: Many of the musicians hadn't played together, or even seen each other, in decades. But Live In Memphis is more than a postcard from the past and even more than an aural snapshot of the event it captures. This album is a celebration, a jubilant salutation to the city's past and future as Soulsville USA, the capital of Southern soul music.

Thomas' vocal inflections and buoyant spirit are in perfect form here. From the opening notes of "Lovey Dovey" to the "I'll Take You There" finale, she demonstrates the talent that took her from a Teen Town Singer to the forefront of the Stax roster. "B-A-B-Y" sounds as good as it did in '61, Thomas squealing the lyrics over a crackerjack horn section that alternately swoons and soars as it penetrates the mix.

Brown's performance on "634-5789" is nothing short of phenomenal: He screams, shouts, and works the crowd with ease then effortlessly pulls back to deliver the poignant "These Arms Of Mine." Thomas, meanwhile, pulls out all the stops for "Gee Whiz," her signature number. "Stax was our kingdom and Carla was our queen," Isaac Hayes writes in the liner notes, and on "Gee Whiz," Thomas shows why she deserves to wear the crown.

Releasing Live In Memphis was a particular coup for Merlis. "I had a date with Carla for one of the early Handy Award shows," he says. "I picked her up at her mom and dad's house -- it was incredible. Spending time with the Thomas family was like a dream come true." A Stax fan to the core, Merlis had "Walking the Dog" played at his wedding instead of the traditional march. "That was in '69," Merlis recalls. "I'm no longer married, but I've still got the memory!"

Alvin Youngblood Hart's Down In the Alley rounds out the first batch of releases. An exquisite collection of traditional acoustic blues, Down In the Alley was recorded in mono with a vintage RCA DX77 microphone. Hart unsurprisingly excels at this experiment. His voice seems timeless and all-knowing, a portal to the past and the future of American music.

Though Down In the Alley is a straight blues album, Merlis says that he doesn't want Memphis International to be thought of as a blues label. "Alvin told me not to box him in as a blues artist," Merlis says. "'I like Led Zeppelin and Son House,' he told me, and I think that reflects our label philosophy too." "We don't want to be genre-specific," Less adds. "We've created a format called 'music we like.'"

"If we don't lose money, we're doing great," Merlis says. "That's my mantra."

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