Last week was a dark one in the history of Memphis music, as two of its legends passed away. The deaths of Stan Kesler on October 26 and Rance Allen on October 31 were noted around the world, as each of them, in their own way, had made profound marks on the musical achievements of Memphis for many decades.
In honor of their memories, we present a few of the masterpieces of the recording arts that they made possible, too often neglected in the standard top 100 lists of hit records from this city.
Rance Allen, known as the "Father of Contemporary Gospel Music" and ultimately attaining the position of Bishop in the Church of God in Christ for the Michigan Northwestern Harvest Jurisdiction, grew up in Michigan and formed The Rance Allen Group with brothers Thomas and Steve in his early twenties. In 1972, Stax Records signed the group to newly formed subsidiary label The Gospel Truth, and the combination of their vocal and instrumental talents with Stax created an unforgettably funky version of gospel that is still hard to beat.
Here they are performing that same year at the historical Wattstax festival in Los Angeles.
They went from success to success over the coming decades, eventually scoring their first gospel #1 in 1991. In 2007, the Rance Allen Group brought the house down at Stax's 50th Anniversary celebration at the Orpheum Theatre.
Stan Kesler was born in Mississippi but moved to Memphis in 1950 and was soon playing with the Snearly Ranch Boys, who ultimately gravitated to Sam Phillips' Memphis Recording Service and Sun Records. Here's one unforgettable track they cut there in 1955, co-written by Kesler, released on Sun offshoot label Flip Records. He went on to write many songs, including "I'm Left, You're Right, She's Gone" and "I Forgot to Remember to Forget," both recorded by Elvis Presley.
A multi-instrumentalist, he played bass on Jerry Lee Lewis' "Great Balls of Fire," among others. He also picked up his chops as a recording engineer at Sun, which he would make use of throughout his career. Growing into a producer in his own right, he developed an ear for artists and bands with character in their sound, helping to develop their distinct identities. Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs was the ultimate expression of his production style, and tunes like "Wooly Bully" and "Little Red Riding Hood" have entered the pantheon of pop achievements from that era. Here are two other deep cuts, not heard often enough, from that same brilliant band.
Later, at Quintin Claunch's Goldwax label, he worked primarily as an engineer, but it was Kesler who assembled the crack backing band for soul artist James Carr: guitarist Reggie Young, drummer Gene Chrisman, keyboardist Bobby Emmons, and bassist Tommy Cogbill. These players were later recruited by American Sound Studio and became known for all time as The Memphis Boys. Here they are on two of Carr's masterpieces, while still working for Goldwax.
Through the 80s, he joined a group of former Sun session musicians who traveled the world as Sun Rhythm Section, then retired from music. Looking back on his career in a 2014 profile in The Bartlett Express, he deemed "If I'm A Fool (For Loving You)," recorded by Presley at American Sound Studio in 1969, as his finest achievement as a songwriter.