"Never in our lives did we imagine we'd be in this situation. Not so fast, not like this," says Memphian, by way of Israel, Ori Naftaly, the virtuoso guitarist and bandleader for the Memphis gospel/blues/soul outfit Southern Avenue. Naftaly, who spoke to the Flyer via cellphone while riding with the band from New York to Philadelphia last week on tour, says that quick success (more on that in a second) has definitely not gone to the band's head.
"Of course, we're excited about all the attention and everything, but we have to stay consistent and humble, work hard. The industry will spit you out as soon as they chew you in."
So, what exactly is Naftaly referring to? Well, few bands from Memphis have enjoyed a more meteoric rise to both the top of the local scene and national relevance. In less than two years' time (the band's first gig was in September of 2015), Southern Avenue has gone from a relatively unknown commodity to one of the hottest acts in town, packing local clubs and receiving rave reviews from the local press — including the Flyer, which put Southern Avenue lead vocalist Tierinii Jackson on the cover of its "Summer Music Issue" last July. And while Southern Avenue's ascendance is certainly justified by the band's undeniable talent, a little bit of luck certainly didn't hurt.
Last March, the band was playing a St. Patrick's Day gig at Bar DKDC in Cooper-Young, and by pure coincidence, in walked John Burk, president of the Concord Label Group, and thereby, the legendary Memphis soul imprint Stax Records, which Concord has owned since 2004.
"It's a classic, clichéd story," says Naftaly. "He was in town working on Melissa Etheridge's Memphis record with Boo Mitchell at Royal. So, after the session, he comes in at like 1:30 in the morning and hangs out for our last set and says he loves us."
After six months of negotiations, Southern Avenue signed to Stax Records, becoming the only current act on the label from Memphis.
"[Burk] said they had been looking for the right Memphis band to sign to Stax for years but could never find the right fit," says Naftaly. "It means the world to every single person in this band that they chose us. Words can't describe it."
Even before signing to Stax, the band worked the road hard, touring as much as possible. But with the label behind it, Southern Avenue has been getting better and better gigs — including some major blues and jam festivals — and the media attention that goes along with them. Recent write-ups in Relix magazine, American Blues Scene, and Elmore Magazine come to mind.
"None of that would be possible without Stax. We have a great team behind us," says Naftaly.
On February 24th, the band released its self-titled debut, which was produced by veteran local engineer Kevin Houston (Lucero, North Mississippi Allstars, Amy LaVere). The record has already shot to No. 1 on the iTunes blues charts.
"I knew working with the band, early on, that we were on to something special," says Houston. "They were a pleasure to work with, and I'm thrilled with how the record came out."
In speaking with Naftaly about Southern Avenue's apparently bright future, his humility and appreciation for what the band has accomplished in such a short time is striking. He remains dedicated to earning what Southern Avenue has been given and sees this as only the first step. "In the end, Stax is just a label," he says. "We still have to make good music. We have to make sure we do the best we can and we're true to ourselves."
To celebrate their album's unveiling, Southern Avenue is holding two events this week: a free listening party at Shangri-La Records on Thursday, March 2nd at 6 p.m., and a live show at Loflin Yard on Friday, March 3rd at 9 p.m. Admission $10.