Red Hot: A Memphis Celebration Of Sun Records
The light from tens of thousands of suns travels for eons to reach Earth, and on a clear, dark summer night, it can be magical. The Memphis of 1950s is not nearly so distant, but the star power of the early pioneers of rock and roll still dazzles on Red Hot: A Memphis Celebration of Sun Records.
Fittingly for a tribute to the legendary label, the performers who gathered for this album are roots music royalty. The North Mississippi Allstars Luther Dickinson (guitar) and his brother Cody (drums) form the core of the house band along with Amy LaVere (bass). Both Dickinson and LaVere contribute tracks to the album as do a host of others, including John Paul Keith, Valerie June, Amy LaVere, Chuck Mead, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Jimbo Mathus and Bobby Rush.
The tunes showcase the range of Sun Records’ output—blues and country, rockabilly and the emerging style that would become rock and roll. While there are a few monster hits, such as Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” as sung by Alvin Youngblood Hart, the album also contains songs that are heard less frequently, such as Carl Perkins’ “Sure to Fall,” which features Valerie June. Other original artists whose work is represented on the album include Charlie Rich, Billy Riley, Howlin’ Wolf, Jerry Lee Lewis and Charlie Rich. Elvis is conspicuous by his absence, but given how iconic his Sun recordings are, that may be a canny omission.
The track contributed by Bobby Rush, who recorded for Sun back in its hey day, stands out for several reasons, not the least of which is that it’s the only original on the album. It’s hard to imagine Sam Phillips having allowed “Tough Titty” to be recorded back in the 1950s.
Ain’t that a tough titty, y’all / Can’t nothing suck it but a lion / Oh, that’s a hard pill to try to swallow / I think about what you did to me all the time.
But the vintage Sun Record sound shines through as Rush’s weathered yet supple voice twangs over the stately march of the blues.
All of the performances here are excellent. I particularly enjoyed Jimbo Mathus’s spirited rendition of “High School Confidential.” The frontman of the Squirrel Nut Zippers is the perfect person to take on the role of Jerry Lee Lewis; his performance is every bit as bombastic and playful as the original.
It’s hard to pick a stand-out, though. Every tune is excellent. To be clear, this is not a record of covers that radically reframe the original. Rather, it is a joyous and subtle re-reading of the originals. For example, the boom-chicka-boom of the original Folsom Prison Blues is replaced by an updated country-rock beat, but the famous lead guitar lick is left intact. Dickinson’s version of “Moanin’ at Midnight” recreates Howlin’ Wolf’s keening opening vocal, though nowhere near as eery as the original. But as recompense, the new version features stinging blues guitar from Dickinson.
This is music you will feel good about. You can feel good about buying the record since the proceeds benefit another Memphis institution with an international reputation, St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital. And you will feel good about listening to it. In fact, without slighting the music here, you may find yourself seeking out the originals, once again.