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The evolution of Memphis music

Our month-long series on the music industry continues this week with veterans Johnnie Walker, Kurt “KC” Clayton and Barron “Baba” McGlothlin discussing the evolution of Memphis Music.
 Carlee McCullough

Our month-long series on the music industry continues this week with veterans Johnnie Walker, Kurt “KC” Clayton and Barron “Baba” McGlothlin discussing the evolution of Memphis Music.

A native of Grenada, Miss., Walker serves as the executive director of the Memphis & Shelby County Music Commission. She is the only woman ever named senior vice president of promotion for the Island Def Jam Music Group and was instrumental in launching the careers of Redman, Method Man, Onyx, Montell Jordan, Jay-Z, Musiq and Foxy Brown.  She was also responsible for the successful marketing of “Def Comedy Jam,” Phat Farm clothing and Russell Simmons’ produced movies, “The Nutty Professor,” Jackie Chan’s “Rush Hour 1 and 2” plus several No. 1 Gold and Platinum albums from  Sisqo, Kelly Price, Ashanti, Ja Rule, DMX, LL Cool J, Dru Hill and others. As Head of Black Music for DreamWorks Records, she handled the musical careers of The Isley Brothers, Floetry, Burt Bacharach and many others.

Kurt “KC” Clayton is a Grammy nominated producer, songwriter, arranger, and artist.  He is the former president of the Memphis Chapter of N.A.R.A.S. and former chairman of the Memphis & Shelby County Music Commission. He has collaborated with Stevie Wonder, George Clinton, Chaka Khan, and Academy Award winning rap artists Three-6-Mafia. And his production skills earned him Grammy nominations for his work with Ann Nesby, formerly of Sounds of Blackness, and for The Canton Spirituals.

Barron “Baba” McGlothlin, a native Memphian, was the former musical director of an award winning gospel choir while at Southern University in Baton Rouge. Through his management company, Divine Connections, Barron has built a track record that includes work with Yolanda Adams, O’Landa Draper and the Associates, Jennifer Holliday, Kath Taylor Brown and most recently the Billboard-charting gospel group Perfection (“What is This”).

Carlee McCullough: How do you think Memphis music has evolved from the days of the past?

 Johnnie Walker

Johnnie Walker:
I don’t think it has evolved. I think that we are still bound by the Elvis/ STAX era.  People look at where we were as opposed to where we can be.  We have a great music history; however it seems other markets have capitalized on that history better than we have.  To evolve means to develop into a better form and we haven’t found a way to do that with our music.  For us, STAX is an academy and not a vibrant music label.  The Memphis sound is now fragmented with various genres such as hip hop, southern soul, gospel, blues, pop, garage bands and folk. Our biggest issue is that the products we create from these genres are not strong enough to identify the city as a base for a vibrant music sound that could impact the industry.

Kurt “KC” Clayton: It is a lot more diverse than it has ever been.  With the past, most people only think of STAX, Hi Records, and Sun Studios. But now with the rise of hip hop, in Memphis you have Three 6 Mafia that has won an Oscar, Free Soul has a major record deal, (and) Kurt Whalum is here.  Gospel has a strong presence.  Memphis is not just R&B or Rockabilly anymore.  Memphis is gospel, jazz, country, blues, and hip hop. It is everything, which is a good thing.  Memphis is able to change with the times.

Barron “Baba” McGlothlin: We are making history in the music business.  People across the country know that Memphis has talent and we are going back to good music.

Carlee McCullough: How can Memphis Music evolve?

Johnnie Walker:  We have to assign value to it.  And it has to be valuable enough to move past our borders. We cannot expect others to value our music if we don’t. People do not buy, support, nurture or grow anything that they do not care about.  When we embrace our music, add value to it, we purchase it, we support it, radio is pressured, the studios are booked, venues are utilized, etc.  The entire music community has to connect and interact with each other to affect this evolution.

 Kurt “KC” Clayton

Kurt “KC” Clayton:
Music is a living organism.  With that the music constantly evolves.  Memphis has to be competitive in the marketplace.  We can’t just rest on the past.  We have to keep pushing the envelope in order to compete with the UK, Germany, and Japan.  Al Green, the Bar-Kays, Sam & Dave, Otis Redding, Jerry Lee Lewis and Isaac Hayes all pushed the envelope in their day by doing something different.

Barron “Baba” McGlothlin: We can evolve by staying true to who we are. We just need to make good music.   

Carlee McCullough: Why do Memphis’ rising stars go to other markets to get into the industry?

Johnnie Walker: Creativity breeds and follows creativity.  When you have hubs of creativity, music, and activity, people or musicians flock to be a part of it.  When a city is stagnant with music and it doesn’t appear to be thriving or vibrant, artists will go to the hub or go where they believe their music has a chance.  Much of the music infrastructure that is needed is not here. But there are things that we can do to keep our music vibrant and keep our “would be” stars at home.  Just like the fans believed in the Grizzlies… music fans have to believe in our music. We have to support it and the musicians that create it.  

We need promoters and bookers to get on shows both major and small.  We need more publicists that are exclusive to the music and entertainment industry that can get us placed in Rolling Stone, Billboard or other music-based publications, websites, ezines, or on television.  In the legal arena, the perception is that musicians have to go out of this market to get good representation.  Nothing could be further from the truth!  However, we have to provide the connectivity to all local service providers to show our artists that the services they need are here to support them.

Kurt “KC” Clayton: Sometimes artists and musicians do not feel that there is enough industry here.  For example, BMI and ASCAP are not here.  It is not about the labels so much as there is about the day-to-day operational units are not here.

 Barron “Baba” McGlothlin

Barron “Baba” McGlothlin:
As the Bible belt, we are so racially divided.  But other cities have enough people behind their music and respect for the artists that they can move forward. Artists feel like they have no respect in Memphis.

Carlee McCullough: What can Memphis do to support the crafts of our rising stars?

Johnnie Walker: If Memphis viewed music more as a business rather than something to sing and dance to, I believe they would attach more value to it and the avenues of support would be created.  Take Austin, Texas, that’s an example of adding value.  Austin has one nationally recognized star that I’m aware of, which is Willie Nelson.  But Austin has taken that ,coupled with an annual music conference, a PBS TV show with imported artists, and created a vibrant “live” music scene and the perception that people can come to Austin and become a star.  

Memphis is the Birthplace of Rock & Roll! We have to act like it!  We have to activate that slogan. When we make that decision, we will connect the singers, songwriters, musicians, producers, studios, the venues, clubs, the tourists, the schools, promoters, and the retailers, all into one big economic circle.

Kurt “KC” Clayton: Support Memphis music across the board regardless of genre.  Encourage. Come out and see them.  Support music-driven events.  We will go out of town to a music conference but won’t go to one in our own backyard with the same information. Three 6 Mafia won an Oscar.  But half of the city did not support them.  What that tells their label, Sony, is that we do not want them here.  You are telling Warner Brothers, who gave Three Six Mafia a label deal, that we do not want you here.  You are telling MTV that gave them a television show that we do not want you here. Sometimes we cut off our nose to spite our face because we do not like who is out front.  It shouldn’t matter who is out front.  What matters is who benefits on the back end.

Barron “Baba” McGlothlin: We can get behind the artists by supporting their music, going to shows, buying their music, and supporting the Music Commission.

NEXT: The Renaissance of Memphis Music.

(You may contact our participants at the following: Johnnie Walker: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. ; ;Kurt “KC” Clayton: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. ; Barron “Baba” McGlothlin: PerfectionGospel.com.)

(Please send your questions to Carlee McCullough, Esq., Contract Compliance Officer, City of Memphis-Office of Contract Compliance, 125 N. Main St., Suite 546, Memphis, TN 38103 or e-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .)


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