The Royal Treatment 

Hi Rhythm holds down musical showcase at SXSW.

South By Southwest (SXSW) started last week. While it's easy to think "enough already," you should take note of the documentary Take Me to the River, a film about fostering music through generations and across gender and racial differences. Directed by Martin Shore and produced by Lawrence "Boo" Mitchell and Cody Dickinson, the film (to be reviewed later) will play twice at the festival. There is a panel discussion and a showcase featuring artists backed by Hi Rhythm, the house band at Memphis' famed Royal Studios.

Royal was the stomping ground of Memphis' musical titan, Willie Mitchell, who established the seminal West Memphis sound that begat Stax's groove and went on to produce a string of hits for Al Green and others. Mitchell mentored a generation of Memphians who continue to influence artists. The film and the showcase serve to foster this process of collaboration and development of musical traditions.

"It's exciting," said Charles Hodges, organist for Hi Rhythm. "Any time you can reach a stage in life where people like to know or hear about your accomplishments, it's exciting. They've talked about Al Capone, Frank Nitti, Jesse James and all those guys. But to hear it in the music industry is really good. It's something I have worked on since age 11 when my father brought the first piano into our house."

What a musical house that was.

"My dad played piano," Hodges said. "He played with people like Memphis Slim back during that day. He was a great pianist. But he started having children. My dad and mom had seven kids in four years. So there were three sets of twins in a row. Leroy (bass) is my oldest brother. Teenie is between Leroy and me. They had 11 kids in all. [My father] had a piano back when I was about 6 or 7, but the house caught on fire, and it burned the piano. So I didn't hear that sound for a long time. My auntie, his sister, had one. We would go to her house on the weekends. They would start drinking and playing cards and stuff. Just family. They would get on the piano, and I would always want to stay awake late at night just to hear that sound. They didn't make too much noise when we were awake because they would keep us up. But when they thought we were asleep, I had one eye open. I'd hear that sound. I love that sound."

Hodges had several musical mentors in Memphis. Mitchell gave him opportunities and guidance, but he recalls the first time he heard his signature instrument, the Hammond organ.

"I first encountered it during Martin Luther King's march in 1967," Hodges said. "I went down to the church on Beale where Dr. King was supposed to give a speech. He came, but he was so late he didn't speak. Jesse Butler — he was albino ­— was one of the greatest organists I have ever heard in my life. They had a Hammond down there, and he played that organ. When he got off of it, I got on it. But it didn't sound anything like him."

As we talked at Royal, Hodges provided examples of sounds on the Hammond he played on "Let's Stay Together" and "Love and Happiness."

"A lot of organ players like to take these stops off, and then you can't come back and duplicate their sound," Hodges said. "So now you've got to come up with something. I just messed around with the organ and couldn't find out what was going on. Then I finally met Jesse. He was the organist for Gene 'Bowlegs' Miller. I said, 'Show me something about this organ.' He sat down and just started pulling stops. And I just picked it up from there and got the sound that I wanted. The sound that I use is my signature when I play. I'm always pulling the stops, using the drawbars to get what I want."

Mitchell stands out as the leader and mentor to this generation of players, and Hodges is quick to acknowledge Mitchell's role in his own success.

"I traveled with O.V. Wright first. But when I started to work with Willie Mitchell, it got to a different stage. After he heard the way I play, he used to call me 'Do Funny.' I played funny. Or he thought it was funny. That was my nickname. But it was the sound that he wanted. We went to rehearsal at his house. He said, 'Since Charles has come along, our music has changed completely. It's sounding good, would y'all like to take it on the road?' That was in 1967."

The group really hit it big in the studio. But Hodges found himself looking for more.

"We recorded something like 26 gold and platinum records in a row. Right here. I was sitting here. ... I got married for my second time, and I left for 10 years. I didn't record or play R&B. I made a couple of exceptions for Willie Mitchell. He respected what I was doing. I had started playing in church. When I cut my first gospel CD, I cut it right here. Willie was sitting up in the control room. One particular song, I'll never forget [starts to play] called 'Suddenly.' When Willie heard that song, it was the most encouraging something I ever heard in my life. He didn't usually come out of there. When I played that song. He came and stood over me and said, 'Did you write that?' I said, 'Yeah.' He said, 'I see you've been listening to me. You are a great writer.' I never thought of myself as being a writer."

The intergenerational mentoring that in part underlies Take Me to the River means a lot to producer Lawrence "Boo" Mitchell, son of Willie Mitchell, who sees the making of the film as a way to preserve that legacy.

"You've got to pass the torch," he said. "In my generation, I had uncles and godfathers and grandfathers who, when you were doing something good, they'd praise you; and when you were doing something wrong, they'd teach you the right way. That shaped who I am. But it's like the kids of today's generation, families are so fragmented that there's really not a lot of torch passing going on. It's sad because everybody is busy and doing other stuff. This project is so inspiring to see the old generation giving to the younger generation, because you just don't see that anymore. I think it's a story that needs to be told, absorbed, and repeated."

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