While the official 50th anniversary celebration of Stax Records might be winding down, several of the label's alumni are getting together for a group show Wednesday, August 8th.
Bar-Kays trumpeter Ben Cauley and Soul Children vocalist J. Blackfoot will join Queen Ann Hines, The Total Package Band, and others for Willie Hall's birthday blowout at the Executive Inn.
"I'm turning 57," says Hall, a former Stax session drummer who will also perform with The Bo-Keys on Wednesday night.
After developing his chops in the marching band at Hamilton High School, Hall contributed to Isaac Hayes' Oscar-winning "Theme From 'Shaft'" and provided the backbeat for The Blues Brothers.
"We were in the studio, with everyone squeezed in front of a small monitor," Hall says of working on Hayes' trademark song. "Isaac said, 'Watch Richard Roundtree's steps and give me those 16th notes.' That gave us the tempo for 'Shaft'."
The job offer from John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd — aka Jake and Elwood Blues — came at an admitted low point in the otherwise unflappable drummer's career.
"It was the summer of '79," remembers Hall. "Stax had closed, and Hot Buttered Soul, Isaac's studio, had closed, so I was driving a popsicle truck. After I got off work one night, I picked up my kids and, with what little money I had, I took them to McDonald's. Paul Compton, who worked as an engineer for Shoe Productions, lived around the corner, and I decided to stop by. He said, 'Hollywood's looking for you.'"
Universal Studios was ready to begin filming The Blues Brothers, but the original band (Tom Scott, Paul Schaeffer, and Steve Jordan) was tied up with a Gilda Radner project, so Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn — who'd just wrapped up a tour of Japan with Levon Helm — were hired instead.
"Duck said, 'I know a son-of-a-bitch we can get on drums,' and as fate would have it, I just happened to pull into Paul's house, and he gave me the message," Hall says.
Ironically, he didn't approve of the act at first. "I thought it was a farce. Even though they were playing Stax songs, I'd turn the TV off because I thought they were mimicking us in a bad way," he says of the Blues Brothers' Saturday Night Live appearances. "Little did I know. During the nine months of filming the first movie, I got a chance to hang out with John and Danny in their camper. They had a Rock-Ola jukebox with every soul and R&B record I'd ever heard in my life. That's when I knew they were serious about music.
"I didn't have to pretend. We just had fun," Hall claims of his work in the 1980 film and its '98 follow-up, Blues Brothers 2000. "When John was sober, he was one of the greatest people to be around. Everything he did was funny. And because I knew Duck and Steve personally, John and Dan took me in and made me feel welcome."
After relocating to Atlanta for several years, Hall and his wife Deborah (she's a veteran of the Isaac Hayes Movement and KC and the Sunshine Band and a current minister of music at Eastern Star Baptist Church) moved back to Memphis in October 2000. He signed on as a teacher at The Stax Music Academy and joined the Bo-Keys soon after, returning to the silver screen with Craig Brewer's Hustle & Flow and Black Snake Moan.
Since returning to Memphis, Hall also has reconnected with his eldest son Patrick, better known as rap pioneer Gangsta Pat.
"I remember when he was just 3 years old, and we were living in Whitehaven," Hall says. "Patrick had fallen in love with KISS, and he'd put on a wig and pantomime in the mirror. Then I came home one day, and he was playing the drums. I'd take him on the road and to recording sessions. His mother and I separated when he was 9, and I didn't see him again 'til he was 16.
"He grew up in the business," Hall says, "although I was frightened for him in his early days as a rapper. I thought that style of music would lead to his ruin, but he's prolific and an excellent musician and producer. Patrick's been working with Eric Gales and David Banner, but we haven't had the chance to get into the studio together. I hope we get to do that this fall."
Willie Hall's Birthday Party
The Executive Inn, 3222 Airways Blvd.
Wednesday, August 8th
7-11 p.m., $10