A lot has happened on the classic/vintage/retro soul scene since Memphis' Bo-Keys released their first — and, until this month, only — album back in 2004. New York's somewhat similar Sharon Jones & the Daptones, who had emerged at roughly the same time, blossomed into a successful national touring act. A bevy of '60s soul stars made comeback albums. And a younger generation of modern R&B stars — Raphael Saadiq, Amy Winehousea and Cee Lo Green — found success by tapping into classic sounds.
"I've definitely noticed it, and it's been frustrating that we did our first record just as that was starting to happen," says Scott Bomar, the producer and bassist who founded the ever-evolving band in the late '90s as something of a tribute to classic Memphis soul players, many of whom have since joined the band at one time or another.
"It was something I had been wanting to do for a long time," Bomar says of releasing a follow-up to the band's 2004 The Royal Sessions. "But the factors of time and money didn't work out until this year."
If the Bo-Keys have gone seven years between albums, they've been far from dormant. In addition to frequent live gigs, Bomar used a variation of the band for his work on scores for Craig Brewer's Hustle & Flow and on the Samuel L. Jackson/Bernie Mac comedy Soul Men. Additionally, the Bo-Keys were essentially the backing band for Cyndi Lauper's Memphis Blues, which Bomar produced at his own Electraphonic Recording studio on South Main.
"With a group like the Bo-Keys, they understandably want to get paid for their work," Bomar says. "So I needed a budget and couldn't find a label that wanted to do that."
Bomar ended up not only producing the record — titled Got to Get Back!, out June 21st — at Electraphonic but releasing it via his same-named record label.
"Getting the studio established and doing the Cyndi Lauper record, helped a lot," Bomar says. "We used that momentum to get the Bo-Keys project recorded."
Bomar initially formed the band in the late-'90s with a group of like-minded Memphis soul fans of his own generation, including trumpet player Marc Franklin, who, with Bomar, is the only original member to survive each iteration of the band. Bomar and Franklin named the band in partial tribute to the early '60s Memphis instrumental band the Mar-Keys, who scored arguably the first major hit for what would become Stax Records with their 1961 single "Last Night."
It was a little while later, while teaching for the then nascent Stax Music Academy, that Bomar began to make strong connections with some of those '60s-era players he'd long idolized, including drummer Willie Hall and guitarist Charles "Skip" Pitts, who had been Isaac Hayes' principal guitarist for decades. Before long, a band formed to emulate the classic Memphis players.
The version of the Bo-Keys featured on Got to Get Back! retains Bomar, Franklin, Pitts (a constant since joining the group), and sax player Jim Spake, whose busy schedule has made him an on-and-off Bo-Key over the years, while adding a new group of classic players who weren't present on The Royal Sessions.
While Hall appears on one song on Got to Get Back!, the primary drummer in the group is now Howard Grimes, best known for his work with Al Green.
"Having Howard Grimes in the group has made a big difference for us," Bomar says, noting that Grimes' history extends back to the pre-Stax days.
Grimes helped bring in keyboardist Archie "Hubby" Turner, another Hi Rhythm veteran, and sax player Floyd Newman, who played in B.B. King's Memphis band in the '50s. Also on board is trumpet player Ben Cauley, the only surviving member of the crash that killed Otis Redding and the rest of his band.
"Ben Cauley, to me, is the ultimate soul musician," Bomar says. "He started playing with us right after the first record, and I always regretted that we didn't get together with him sooner."
Together, this multigenerational mix of Memphis musicians arguably re-creates classic '60s soul better than anyone else working that particular beat today. And Got to Get Back! showcases the band's mastery of different shades of the classic Memphis sound: The opening "Hi Roller" is a soul template — a punchy horn refrain, tightly coiled rhythm guitar, limber but constant rhythm. The organ-driven melody, deep bass groove, and piercing but compact guitar of "Jack and Ginger" are reminiscent of Booker T. & the MGs. And "90s Days Same as Cash" evokes funk-fueled '70s Memphis.
But where The Royal Sessions was a predominantly instrumental album, Got to Get Back! features vocals on half its cuts. "I love instrumental records," Bomar says. "But we use back up singers all the time, and people like vocals. It's something we just wanted to do."
In addition to having Pitts take vocals on one cut and using Stax great William Bell, whom the group has backed up on several occasions, Got To Get Back! features Chicago-based former Hi Records star Otis Clay (on the title cut), Memphis-based former Atlantic Records singer Percy Wiggins, and Memphis-bred blues great Charlie Musselwhite ("I'm Going Home," a cover of an obscure Stax single from the '60s that Musselwhite owned as a kid).
Clay drove down from Chicago for a one-day session to cap off the record.
"I showed up at the studio that morning, and his van was parked outside," says Bomar of recording Clay. "Thirty minutes later we had a cut. That session is probably the closest I've ever done to what I think a session at Stax in the '60s would have been like."
Clay, Bell, and Wiggins will all join the Bo-Keys this weekend at the Levitt Shell, when the band celebrates next week's album release with a free concert as part of the Shell's spring season, showing that classic Memphis soul lives on.
"I don't think that sound will ever go out of style," Bomar says. "It's just timeless."
The Bo-Keys, with Otis Clay, William Bell, and Percy Wiggins