Last Wednesday afternoon, around 2:30 p.m., a fire broke out at Easley-McCain recording studio in Midtown. Luckily, engineer Kevin Cubbins had just opened the building, and he was able to avoid injury. Likewise, the band room -- home to a Mellotron, dozens more instruments, and a handful of vintage microphones and amplifiers -- was spared, as was the studio's archive of master-tape recordings, including Charlie Feathers' and Townes Van Zandt's last sessions, classic tracks by the Grifters, the Oblivians, Alex Chilton, Lorette Velvette, and more. While the fire decimated the lobby (even the microwave autographed by Loretta Lynn and Jack White was destroyed), the control room, which sustained some damage, may be salvageable. Right now, studio owners Doug Easley and Davis McCain are just trying to assess the damage. The studio, which was originally called Onyx, was owned by the Bar-Kays, country singer T.G. Sheppard, and several others, before Easley and McCain opened shop there in the early 1990s. No word yet on whether they plan to rebuild.
At 4 p.m. this Sunday, Phillip Dale Durham will be hosting a CD-release party for his first solo disc, Everything I Need, at Neil's in Midtown. While Durham is hardly a household name, hundreds of Memphians know him by sound. The drummer/vocalist has played with everyone from Jerry Lee Lewis to Ann Peebles. He's also anchored bands like Moloch, Smokehouse, and the Group, one of the most popular bands on the city's 1960s garage scene.
"My father was a drummer in the Marine Corps, and music was my thing from the get-go. My first paying job was when I was 16. I played the Lakeland Midway with a group, and we made $27 apiece," Durham recalls. "It was the late 1950s. From that day on, I said this is what I'm gonna do. Starting out, we did a lot of high school and YMCA gigs, sock hops, and things like that."
When he was with Moloch, the late Lee Baker's legendary band, Durham backed bluesmen like Furry Lewis and Johnny Woods at gigs around town, as well as the infamous Dream Carnivals and Memphis Country Blues Festivals held at the Overton Park Shell.
With Moloch, Durham got to perform on a bill in Flushing Meadows, New York, opening a show for the MC5 and the Stooges. "We'd known Bill Barth from the blues festivals in Memphis, and he had a band, the Insect Trust, that had a house in Hoboken, New Jersey. So we stayed there," Durham told musicologist Ron Hall in Playing for a Piece of the Door: A History of Garage & Frat Bands in Memphis. "They weren't ready for us! We flat blew 'em away! We got three standing ovations. The MC5 and Stooges were loud as hell, but we stole the show.
"That was a crazy time," Durham remembers today. "Everyone was experimenting with this, that, and the other, but we were Memphis' most radical group. We were extreme longhairs, one of the first long-haired bands in Memphis. We were obviously insane," he says with a laugh.
"But," he adds, "I've been rhythm-and-blues-oriented all my life. That's the kind of music I grew up hearing on the radio and wanting to play. Don't get me wrong. I love rock-and-roll too, but my heart's in R&B."
Guitarist Brad Webb produced Everything I Need, his solo debut. "Brad's mother used to bring him to hear me play when I was in the Group, back when he was too young to drive," Durham explains. "Who would think he'd be my producer today? That's inconceivable," he says, chuckling. "But we played together every once in a while, and then some months ago, he called me. He said, 'I have all these tracks but no lyrics, and I know you've got a lot of songs. Why don't you come over and put 'em down?' Fifty hours later, we had a CD!
"Without Brad, I'd still be trying to get it out," Durham acknowledges. "I've been waiting a long time for this to happen. I never wanted to give it up."
"Phillip has one of the most soulful voices in Memphis," raves local promoter Dennis Brooks, who booked the Neil's gig. "He's one of those guys who didn't walk around poking his chest out."
Brooks points out that while Neil's has focused on live music on their outdoor patio, recently a lot of local legends -- Don Nix, Van Duren, and Reba Russell -- and popular national rock acts -- Mountain, Savoy Brown, and Willis Alan Ramsey -- have been added to the club's indoor entertainment roster.
"There aren't that many live-music venues in Midtown. Most places focus on food and liquor, and entertainment is secondary," he observes. "Neil [Heins, the club owner] has been there 10-plus years, but only recently has he focused on good live music indoors. Richard Butler brought in sound, and he works as the tech for every show, and now they're decorating the space and making it look like a music room.
"Whereas a lot of rooms in Memphis tend to stick to a single genre, Neil's is open to anything," Brooks adds. "A Flock of Seagulls are playing there in a couple of weeks. Who'd have thought Neil would've done that?" he asks. "Of course, he doesn't know who they are, but he thought it would make an interesting show." n