In the face of sadness and loss, Memphis’s finest are back with their brilliant new release ‘Heartache by Numbers’.
Amongst our favourite new artists from the past decade or so are The Bo-Keys, led by songwriter, producer and bassist Scott Bomar. The story behind the group is a fascinating one, and one that separates the Bo-Keys out from the pack. In 1998 Bomar put together a group of musicians to back the Memphis soul icon Sir Mack Rice, and amongst those musicians were several men who had played at Stax, Hi Records and American Studios. On guitar, Bomar recruited the incredible Charles ‘Skip’ Pitts, famous for his infectious lick on The Isley Brothers’ ‘It’s Your Thing’ and for providing the wah-wah guitar on Isaac Haye’s ‘Theme From Shaft’. Ben Cauley joined the group on trumpet; Cauley was a member of the original line-up of The Bar-Kays, and was the only survivor of the plane crash that killed Otis Redding in 1967. Howard Grimes, a former session musician at Willie Mitchell’s Hi Records and played on many Al Green classics, joined them on drums, along with Archie ‘Hubie’ Turner on keys, who also played at Hi Records.
(The Bo-Keys today)
The group released their debut record in 2007, the largely instrumental Royal Sessions, recorded, unsurprisingly, at Memphis’ Royal Studios, once the home of the Hi Records sound. They followed it up in 2009 with their tasty Work That Skirt EP, and with the absolutely stunning 2011 release Got To Get Back! That album featured Stax legend William Bell, Chicago soul icon Otis Clay and Percy Wiggins all on vocals, and was one of the best releases that year.
Since then, the group has unfortunately gone through some changes. Charles ‘Skip’ Pitts passed away in 2012 after battling with cancer, and just last year Ben Cauley passed away. However, the group have continued on, recruiting Percy Wiggins as the groups vocalist and Joe Restivo on guitar along the way. And now the best kept secret in soul have a brand new album of originals and covers, the brilliant Heartache By The Number.
To say we were hooked on the album from the opening bars of the title track is not an exaggeration. Once again The Bo-Keys, under the direction of their great leader Scott Bomar, have come up with the goods. The group’s sound, gritty, soulful and bluesy is mixed with more than a hint of country on Heartache By The Number. The album is billed as an “exploration of the intersection of country, folk and soul, combining stunning originals with inspired interpretations of jukebox classics” from the likes of Hank Williams and Bob Dylan.
The album certainly lives up to it’s billing. The album opens on the title track, an old country song recorded by almost everyone in the country genre, from Ray Price to Willie Nelson. Handling the lead vocals on the opener is a brilliant singer by Don Bryant, another talented Memphis singer. It sets the tone for the rest of this superb album: brilliant musicianship where soul meets blues meets country.
The elevation of Percy Wiggins to the group’s lead singer was another brilliant idea by Bomar; his unique tone, not unsimilar to the recently departed Billy Paul, is stunning. A particular highlight is Wiggins’ performance on the Hank Williams classic ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’; with Wiggins giving a brilliant performance that makes you wonder why he was never a star.
Two particular highlighst on this thoroughly excellent album are ‘Don’t Take Her (She’s All I’ve Got)’ and ‘Set Met Free’. Both feature knockout performances from Wiggins, along with sophisticated horn and rhythm arrangements that are pure Memphis soul. The former song features classic backing vocals from The Masqueraders, giving the song another dimension. With Wiggins at the microphone on each of these, with his soulful pleas of love, The Bo-Keys have created something really rather special.
Interestingly, compared to their previous efforts, Heartache By The Number is a much darker album. It showcases the band in a different light, from the largely up-tempo, cheeriness of Got To Get Back; on Heartache By The Number the sound is more introspective and emotional, showing a new side to this versatile outfit. The arrangements are brilliant, the vocals are impeccable, and the musicianship is second to none.
The Bo-Keys might get criticised by those who say that they’re merely recreating the sound of the past, like Sharon Jones & Dap-Kings or Charles Bradley. But to reach that conclusion is overlooks the brilliance of that sound of the past; sure, it sounds like something out of 1972, but is that a bad thing? Does it matter so long as the music is enjoyable? Of course not. If you think that, then you’re probably a music snob. And yet whilst the group perfectly capture that classic Memphis soul sound, the group aren’t imitating Al Green or William Bell or Otis Redding, they’re forging their own path through the Memphis soul tradition. Indeed, the likes of Howard Grimes, Archie Turner and Percy Wiggins give the group a tangible link to the past, but that’s what makes The Bo-Keys special. We are witnessing the passing of the Memphis soul baton onto the next generation of players. Heartache By The Number is surely one of the best soul albums to be released this year, and you’d be a fool to miss it.