As Route 78 connects Memphis to Charleston, the new generation of Memphis music is woven to those of musicians of the past. It’s almost haunting how the sounds of seasoned Memphis legends have replicated into modern sounds of present and future storytellers that will carry Memphis into the next dimension of its musical heritage. If you grew up hearing Al Green and Issac Hayes over WDIA while your parents drove you to school, you continue to carry that nostalgia when listening to today’s music. This list is dedicated to Memphis artists whose sound, approach and vibe mirrors that of some of Memphis’ most predominant legends.
J. Buck || Otis Redding
Gone are the days when men would beg a woman to stay around or serenade their love interest with romantic gestures of gratitude and appreciation. “Try a Little Tenderness” sealed Otis Redding as a man who knew how to keep his woman and one who wasn’t too proud to beg. “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay” was a soundtrack for the weary during a time of racial unrest (recorded in 1967). So when an artist like J. Buck comes along with his raspy storytelling in “Downtown” and lover-boy swag, he reminds you of when Otis would hold the microphone like he wanted to marry it. J. Buck merges soul, jazz, and funk into his shameless melodies of love, hope, and melancholy – mirroring Redding. He’s a sure vibe, and when you visit his Instagram, you see the resemblance of the male R&B singers during the era of Soul Train.
Tablibah || Carla Thomas
While it seems we’re living in an unprecedented era of women vocalizing and expressing themselves freely, Carla Thomas had solidified herself as a ‘savage’ and the Queen of Stax in the 60s. With hits like “Gee Whiz” and “B-A-B-Y” Carla was (and still is) a class act who set the stage for many succeeding her. That leads us to Talibah Safiya, a Memphis native who has the hustle and the healing of the legends while bringing a fresh anointing of her own. It’s as if her music is dipped in the pool of R&B and the “Deep Water” soul of the south and Mississippi River. Like Carla Thomas, she writes and produces her own music and collaborates with fellow Memphis creatives and has an enviable reach that will follow her as she continues to ascend.
Kenneth Whalum || George Edward Coleman || Willie Mitchell
Musicality runs deeply in the veins of Memphis. It’s not rare to find musicians who specialize in more than one instrument, but it is rare to find those who write, produce, and own their own record label and have a repertoire of working with some of the world’s greats. If you enjoy the alto sax from George Edward Coleman, and the unique productions and sounds of Willie Mitchell, you should check out Kenneth Whalum. His latest hits “Ghost Town” or a timely soundtrack to the current global and national unrest, “Might Not Be Ok” are good places to start. Coleman and Mitchell have worked with the likes of Ray Charles and Al Green, respectively. You can hear Whalum’s sax and production work on projects of heavyweights including Diddy and Jay Z. Like Mitchell, Whalum owns his own label, Broken Land, and his label’s first album features collaborations with Hip Hop greats such as Big Krit. Nothing about this comparison is lightweight.
Kirby || Ann Peebles
Songs that stick to your soul like a pot of cold grits usually go down as classics over time. Not many can say they’ve produced classics or hits that have traveled from one generation to the next. When it comes to Ann Peebles, her classic, “I Can’t Stand the Rain,” has done just that, and Kirby “Vain” and “Loved By You” are today’s classics. Mississippi-born and Memphis raised, you can hear and feel the depth of Kirby’s soul in her music. The storytelling in her visuals exposes the experiences of an artist who is doing more than making music for people, but for herself. She’s reviving the purity in creativity and artistry. Like Peebles, she’s marching to the beat of her own drum and challenging the world to catch the tempo.
Eric Gales || BB King
The Blues. There is no Memphis without the melancholy and spirit filling, gut-wrenching Blues. There’s no Beale Street without it. There’s no South Memphis, Stax, Sun Studio, or Memphis Sounds without The Blues. Our very foundation as a city is built upon the truth-telling, unadulterated emotions, and teeth-sucking experiences of The Blues. And nobody in history has made The Blues what they are like THEE B.B. King. He and Lucille, his guitar, traveled the globe singing The Blues into the hearts of people of all races, ages, and backgrounds. It’s hard to top the impact that BB King has made, but Eric Gales is coming up from behind. A blues-rock guitarist, Gales has already recorded 18 albums for major record labels and has worked with Memphis rap legends Three 6 Mafia. His guitar riffs on songs like “Carry Yourself,” make you turn up your mouth or curl your lips like something stinks. He noted influences like King and Jimi Hendrix. He’s a force to be reckoned with, and if your vibe is more rock-n-roll, turn the aux cord up for Gales!
Memphis music is so rich and is ever-evolving. Check out the artists above and let us know if you’d add them to your summer playlist. What current artists would you compare to a Memphis legend? Hit us up on social media and join the conversation.