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Renaissance of Memphis music

Our African-American Music Month series concludes this week with a discussion on the renaissance of Memphis Music, featuring music veterans Johnnie Walker, Kurt “KC” Clayton and Kirk Whalum.
 Carlee McCullough

Our African-American Music Month series concludes this week with a discussion on the renaissance of Memphis Music, featuring music veterans Johnnie Walker, Kurt “KC” Clayton and Kirk Whalum. We define renaissance as a period of revived intellectual or artistic activity.

Walker serves as the executive director of the Memphis & Shelby County Music Commission. She is the first and only female Sr. Vice President of Promotion for the Island Def Jam Music Group.

Clayton – a Grammy nominated producer, songwriter, arranger and artist – is the former president of the Memphis Chapter of N.A.R.A.S. and former chairman of the Memphis & Shelby County Music Commission.

Whalum, who is known worldwide as a smooth jazz saxophonist and songwriter, this year won a Grammy for Best Gospel Song (with Jerry Peters) and has numerous other Grammy nominations. He is president of the Soulsville Foundation.

Carlee McCullough: Worldwide, there is an appreciation of Memphis Music. What contributes to that appreciation?

 Johnnie Walker

Johnnie Walker:
I believe that appreciation comes from the 60s and 70s era of STAX, Willie Mitchell, Bar-Kays and Isaac Hayes. The musicians from Memphis created a gritty-funky sound that traveled around the world and that association still lives today. While Detroit and the Motown sound was more of a classy presentation. Memphis delivered the funk! It was a style of music that you just couldn’t get anywhere else and that appreciation has remained intact.

Kurt “KC” Clayton: Talent. The level of talent that Memphis has always had resonates throughout the world. When you think of Memphis, you think of real singers, real musicians, real entertainers, real artists, real performers. Let’s look at Al Green, BB King, Aretha Franklin, Sam & Dave, the entire STAX Collection, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, Staple Singers, the Emotions, Justin Timberlake, Kirk Franklin and Three Six Mafia. They all have one thing in common, which is they are not afraid to let it all hang out.

Kirk Whalum: The roots of the music that the world loves are right here in Memphis. The tree of great popular music in all of its various colors: country, rock and roll, hip hop and pop are grounded in Memphis music. The more people realize this fact the more popular Memphis music will become.

Carlee McCullough: Do you think there is a renaissance of Memphis Music?

Johnnie Walker: It can be if we open our minds and our wallets. There is a lot of great music in Memphis being created by some incredible musicians. We have to appreciate it, embrace it, support it, value it and there can definitely be a rebirth! I was told that in Memphis you could toss a dime in the air and it would land on someone that could sing, play or do both. Wow…now that’s making a statement about a city and its creative culture.

 Kurt “KC” Clayton

Kurt “KC” Clayton:
Totally. A lot of artists outside of Memphis are influenced by Memphis music. Beyonce is influenced by the Memphis sound. She is the new Tina Turner. Tina is from Nut Bush, Tenn. Tina cut her teeth in Memphis. Dot Kings, Rolling Stones, U2, John Mayer, all of these artists have come to Memphis to record to get that “thing” that we have.

Kirk Whalum: I think it was inevitable. It is called undulation. When something goes so far down but it is so great that it has to rise to the top. Memphis will inevitably experience that upswing. But what also goes with the inevitability is the responsibility of those that benefitted from the incredible legacy to do our part. I didn’t intend to move home to Memphis. But God called me to be here and I did suit up.

Carlee McCullough: What can be done to create or contribute to a renaissance of new?

Johnnie Walker: The first thing that can be done is Memphis making a decision to support Memphis. We have a lot of talented musicians producing many different genres of music… there’s a little something for everybody. Second, support for the musicians! There is no music without musicians! Can you imagine Beale Street without music or musicians? If we get those two things down, then we can get started on this renaissance you’re speaking of.

Kurt “KC” Clayton: Support and encourage. Encourage the new artists to try whatever. Don’t shoot them down. Just because you cannot hear it now doesn’t mean that it is not going to be hot. People were not feeling Elvis when he first came out. Isaac Hayes was Black Moses. People thought Jerry Lee Lewis was crazy. People thought the Bar-Kays were sacrilegious because they had a song called “Holy Ghost” and they were a funk band. But they all pushed the envelope and now they are all legends. You cannot be a legend if you do not take chances. We have a whole new generation of legends out there. But we have to encourage them to push the envelope.

 Kirk Whalum

Kirk Whalum:
A synergy is required. I see the various tentacles of the arts scene needing to work together with Ballet Memphis, the Music Commission, the Music Foundation, Arts Memphis, STAX, University of Memphis, LeMoyne-Owen, music promotion, and the recording industry. It is incumbent on us to cast a vision and try to synergize. I would like to think that what Memphis has to offer in this era is bigger than you can come to Memphis and hear our music.

But what is lacking here is the recording. I am referring to the creation of music and creative activity that is shared with the world and not just Memphis. As an example, the House of Blues Studio went to Nashville. People that invest in those types of businesses need to have more music created in those venues going out to the world.

Carlee McCullough: What is the future of Memphis music?

Johnnie Walker: If you’re speaking of Memphis Music as an entity, it’s hard to say what the future will be given the current state of the industry and our reluctance to really get behind and support this art form. When we decide to take aggressive steps that cities like Atlanta, Austin, Seattle and Nashville have taken then we can expect to see a shift. When you land in Nashville, you know you’re in a music city. From the street signs, to the billboards, to the businesses, to certain artifacts all over the city… you feel and see music around you … music permeates throughout that city. We have to decide that music is a business that can generate money and impact our local economy…. then act on it!

Kurt “KC” Clayton: We are just scratching the surface. With the right support and encouragement from the community and government, STAX, Hi, Sun, American Recording would be just the tip of the iceberg.

Kirk Whalum: Something that is so wonderful that places Memphis back into the mainstream may happen but it depends on our actions. We are being sampled. But we have to continue our recording. If the recording industry starts to kick back up, this will directly impact the future 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. ; Kirk Whalum: KirkWhalum.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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