There’s no denying that the regional sounds that emerged out of Memphis between the 1950s and 1970s helped to cement the city’s notoriety as a dominating force in popular music. Memphis’ fertile ground left lasting impacts across gospel, rock & roll, R&B, soul, blues, pop, funk and hip hop.
Known as one of America’s preeminent hit-making meccas, Memphis’ musical community – both young and old – is like extended family despite the city’s sociopolitical and economic changes over the past six decades.
In the process, these artists’ individual musical legacies and identities became permanently preserved.
The documentary, Take Me to the River, directed by Martin Shore, illustrates how three generations of recording artists vibe off one another. Despite racial tensions that predate the Civil Rights Movement, the racially diverse session musicians, producers and performers spend the bulk of the film collaborating in the studio.
The artists’ shared vision, love of music, sense of collective responsibility and respect for each other defies the race relations often associated with the South. Miraculously, Take Me to the River portrays a transparent yet fluid sense of harmony that lingers throughout the entire visual experience.
“Soul is from the heart,” says songwriter William Bell, who appears in Take Me to the River along with rapper Snoop Dogg. “It’s spontaneity, emotion and it’s heartfelt. It’s what you feel at any given moment and the way you express it.”
Narrated by actor Terrence Howard, the 95-minute feature documentary, which premiered this year at SXSW, is told through montages of scenic shots around Memphis. Vintage album covers, performance footage, audio snippets, exhibitions, artifacts and still photographs cumulatively round out the remainder of Memphis’ visual aesthetics.
Take Me to the River’s ambient soundtrack is comprised of organ chords, whimpering guitar wails, Sunday morning harmonies, rhythmic horn blares and funky arrangement. Recording studios, primarily Royal Studios and Zebra Ranch Studios, operate as both classrooms and fellowship halls.
Bell, who penned classics like “Everybody Loves a Winner,” “Born Under a Bad Sign” and “I Forgot to Be Your Lover,” made a guest appearance at a screening of the film hosted by the Recording Academy’s Atlanta chapter.
He refers to the city of Memphis as “a music capital.”
“It’s a music town,” says Bell. “This is something like a time capsule; you can leave your whole life in a song, and it’s there forever. It’s about telling a story and giving people some escapism or freedom of expression.”
Shot over three years but edited and mixed in one year, Take Me to the River’s overarching collaborative spirit is captures through numerous jam sessions and candid conversations. It’s a pure demonstration of music education.
Artists, producers, songwriters, executives and session players like Booker T. Jones, Al Kapone, North Mississippi AllStars, The Rhodes Sisters, Charles “Skip” Pitts, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Mavis Staples, Yo Gotti, Bobby Rush, Frayser Boy, Ian Siegal, Ben Cauley, Otis Clay, David Porter, Lil P-Nut, Al Bell, Charlie Musselwhite and Boo Mitchell traded war stories and recorded updated versions of classic recordings.
Deceased producers and composers like Willie Mitchell and Issac Hayes, in addition to a slew of other posthumous appearances, were given cinematic eulogies that highlight record-breaking career success stories.
“The creative process is gonna be around forever as long as there is man or woman,” says Bell. “By crossing genres of music, you instill that in the kids. It’s all the same music. It comes together in one slice of the pie once you dive into it.”
Bell, who moved to Atlanta in 1970 to get a change of scenery, is proud to see his current city develop into a rich musical city. The recipient of the Rhythm & Blues Foundation Pioneer award offers some insights into what gives hit records their longevity.
“Hit songs are something that people can identify with,” says Bell with his crossed arms propped on the table.
“It’s things that people can relate to. It feels good to know that something like music can bring people together and cause this kind of growth.”
Take Me to the River spends a considerable amount of screen time outside of the studio to frame how the city’s musical institutions were a direct result of segregation-era American politics. As protests, marches and riots continued to offset the Civil Rights Movement throughout the 1950s to the 1970s, record labels Sun, Stax and Hi emerged.
Not only did each imprint consistently produce chart-topping, million-selling records crossing racial boundaries, but they were among some of the top American profit-generating enterprises. Also the site of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, the infectious Memphis sound inspired the careers of iconic British bands like Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones and U2.
Like the film’s subjects, Bell thinks it’s important to pass the history onto future generations regardless of genre.
“We need to teach the young kids the ground roots, the foundation of where it all comes from,” says Bell. “Regardless of what they’re creating now, it all evolves into the same thing in the end.”
“You have that responsibility, so learn to be creative,” adds Bell. “It’s great to sample, but be well-rounded and grounded in the knowledge of where it all evolves come. Take it to another level.”
Though labels like Stax folded due to bankruptcy and changes in musical trends, the landmark eventually reemerged as both a museum and music academy. Younger, aspiring musicians now have the opportunity to hear the stories, experience the artifacts and even perform alongside their musical forefathers.
Take Me to River is an entertaining and informative example of how American soul music is not only central and important to black culture but to the national musical landscape. “I hope it can last as long as Earth lasts,” says Bell.
Take Me to River was released on Sept. 12. Check local markets for screenings.
Christopher A. Daniel is a pop cultural critic and music editor for The Burton Wire. He is also a contributing writer for Urban Lux Magazine and Blues & Soul Magazine. Follow Christopher @Journalistorian on Twitter.