"I wrote an e-mail saying if you're gonna make this movie about a legendary Memphis producer, it needs to have the thing that Memphis itself has -- the music," Less recalls. "Ira [Sachs, the film's director], who I didn't know at the time, wrote back saying, 'Exactly, exactly.' He and Susan Jacobs, the music supervisor, came down from New York, and we had a lot of listening sessions, talking about what the movie might sound like."
At one of those meetings, Less dredged up a memory of Jim Dickinson and Sid Selvidge, performing together at the Brooks Museum in 1976. "The museum had asked me to put together an exhibit of Memphis music, and we staged a remarkable concert series, stuff like Phineas Newborn Jr. and Furry Lewis," he explains. "One was just Sid and Jim trading songs on guitar and piano. I kept thinking about the repartee between the two of them. They were like Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in that movie The Sunshine Boys, and I wanted to try to recapture that."
He sensed that Dickinson and Selvidge were perfect for a particular scene in the film, playing a party hosted by Alan James, the fictitious "legendary" producer who was loosely modeled on Sam Phillips. But the iconoclastic duo -- famous for anchoring the group Mud Boy & the Neutrons -- hadn't performed together since their friend and bandmate Lee Baker was murdered in 1996.
"They wanted to do it, but they didn't want to, because of Lee," says Less. "I've known these guys for a long time, and I felt like I could say you really need to play together again. It's not constructive not to.
"We'd done a couple of impromptu things that weren't totally official because [Mud Boy member Jimmy] Crosthwait wasn't there," Dickinson says of the years since Baker's death. Of the Forty Shades of Blue sessions, he drolly notes, "It was a payday.
"It was also was a warm-up for the Barbican thing," Dickinson adds, referencing the concert he, Selvidge, and Crosthwait played during the It Came From Memphis festival held at London's Barbican Arts Center last April.
Such comments aside, Dickinson says that he thoroughly enjoyed the process.
"Let's do something that's not Mud Boy," Less suggested. "Let's find some old songs, not Mud Boy songs, and let's play without your children [guitarists Steve Selvidge and Luther Dickinson and drummer Cody Dickinson, who rounded out Mud Boy & the Neutrons in its later incarnations]. Let's make it about just the two of you."
The party scene, Less says, was originally scripted with actors Rip Torn (as Alan James) and Darren E. Burrows (portraying James' estranged son, Michael) playing in the band. "We did an arrangement of 'No Room for a Tramp,' an old train song from the Depression. I brought in Sam Shoup on stand-up bass and Tommy Burroughs on fiddle and mandolin. Musically, it all worked together really well," he says.
"Rip Torn was great," Dickinson says, "someone I've considered impressive since I saw him on TV back in the '50s. They tried to get me to piano coach him, which I thought I could do, but they were looking for something very specific. I had to tell him that I hadn't read the bass clef in 30 years. I ended up turning him on to Tony Thomas instead."
The first sessions for Forty Shades of Blue were cut at Ardent Studios, while overdubs were recorded at Memphis SoundWorks. After filming was finished, British musician Dickon Hinchcliffe composed the evocative score.
"My role was to produce the original music, not license stuff," Less clarifies. "We knew the music was going to come out on Memphis International, so I suggested some of our artists, like The Red Stick Ramblers and Earl Thomas. The version of 'A Little Bit of Soap' that's on the soundtrack was cut after the movie was finished. We couldn't use the original version, sung by one of the actresses, so we had Reba Russell re-record it. Honestly, I don't think this is gonna change anybody's life, but I do think that the music in Forty Shades of Blue says Memphis.
"Craig Brewer's movie got a huge spin on Memphis," Less says of Hustle & Flow, "and we'll get another big spin off this. All of these projects work together as components building the [entertainment and tourism] industry. Memphis music -- you just can't say it enough."