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COMMENTARY: Memphis on the Erie

Guralnick, Soul Machine score a triumph at the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame.


Some of Memphis’ finest players recently got hand-picked by music author Peter Guralnick to support the giants of music at a Sam Cooke Tribute at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s American Masters series in Cleveland. 

A week later, we interviewed the principals by phone about their experiences. Memphis sax aficionado Jim Spake put together what he calls “the Usual Suspects” as the house band to back up such luminaries as Otis Clay, Elvis Costello, Solomon Burke, and Aretha Franklin last weekend.  The Suspects included Steve Potts on drums; Michael Toles on guitar; Jimmy Kinard on bass; Kirk Smothers on baritone; Scott Thompson on trumpet; Jack Hall on trombone; and Jim Spake on saxophone as well as Lester Snell doing the arranging.  Forget the Grammys; being chosen by America’s foremost music author to act as house band some of the giants of music history is the ultimate musician’s award!

How did Spake and the band handle it? “Not only did the guys do a great job, but they were also wowed by the experience,” Spake raved.  And what would be the highlight of playing with the Dixie Hummingbirds, Lou Rawls, Taj Mahal, and Cissy Houston as well as the above listed masters and mistresses? “I’m a big Elvis Costello fan.  He involved himself so much with the band, talking about what he would like.  He was so focused on what he wanted.  Everyone was great.  Taj was cool!  William Bell sang “Having a Party” and “You Send Me,” and everyone came out and played for that.”

Not a bad gig for one of Memphis’ most take-it-all-in-stride musicians.  Spake has been playing saxophone for over 30 years in Memphis (“Most of my life”).  Asked what his most memorable or best gig has been, Spake said, “Maybe this one since it is my most recent.”  Certainly it would be better than his first professional gig, playing with his high school band, Framus, at a high school dance.  You can currently catch Spake at one of his regular gigs at Fresh Slices with Jim Duckworth on Tuesdays or with Eddie Floyd Friday nights at the Pyramid.

The Sam Cooke Tribute in Cleveland was a part of the release program of the long-anticipated book written by Guralnick, who will be signing copies of Dream Boogie:  The Triumph of Sam Cooke at the Stax Museum Friday, November 18 from 7-9 p.m.





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