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Memphis' Bo-Keys benefit from experience, enthusiasm
The Bo-Keys’ name makes the band sound like one of those legendary Memphis soul groups — Booker T.’s MGs, for instance, or the Bar-Kays or the Mar-Keys.
But the fact of the matter is that the Bo-Keys are quite a bit younger, though the troupe is hardly lacking for some soul history of its own.
The generation-spanning 12-member band was formed in 1998 by bassist Scott Bomar — who, at 37, wasn’t even born when some of the Stax-Volt hits the senior members of the Bo-Keys played on were released.
The original charge was to put together a band to back Detroit soul legend Sir Mack Rice, but the Bo-Keys quickly turned into a going concern, releasing a debut album in 2003 (“The Royal Sessions”), appearing in the film “Soul Men” in 2008, backing Cyndi Lauper on her 2010 album the “Memphis Blues” and releasing a new set of its own, “Got to Get Back!” in June.
“The band is the best it’s ever been now,” Bomar says. “I think that the guys were very honored and excited that someone recognized them for who they were and the contributions they made and weren’t just looking for just any guitar player or any drummer.
“The guys in this band are all very, very special and unique musicians with such signature styles. I think it means a lot to them that they’re part of an organization that recognizes their contributions to music and lets them be part of something that’s current and active.”
The Bo-Keys’ lineup certainly has its share of Hall of Fame-caliber players. Charles “Skip” Pitts, who taught at-risk youths with Bomar at the Stax Music Academy in Memphis, played the wah-wah intro to Isaac Hayes’ “Theme From ‘Shaft’” and can also be heard on Rufus Thomas’ “Do the Funky Chicken” and the Isley Brothers’ “It’s Your Thing,” among scores of other recordings.
Keyboardist Archie “Hubie” Turner and drummer Howard Grimes were part of the Hi Rhythm Section, working with Al Green, Ann Peebles and others. Trumpeter Ben Cauley is a founding member of the Bar-Kays and the only survivor of the 1967 plane crash that killed his band mates and Otis Redding.
The Bo-Keys are rounded out by younger musicians from the Memphis scene, a relationship that Bomar says works to everyone’s advantage.
“I would not be anywhere near the musician I am or know nearly as much about my craft if I hadn’t hooked up with guys like Skip Pitts and Ben Cauley,” he acknowledges. “They’re very giving and share a lot of their experiences and what they’ve learned.
“It’s pretty comfortable. It’s not like being in a band with just people your own age, where there’s a lot of drama and a lot of crazy problems that happen in bands with younger people. At this point it doesn’t occur to me until someone mentions it that, oh yeah, some of these guys are 40 years older than me.”
The Bo-Keys have accomplished quite a bit during their time together, and have also been the house band for the annual Ponderosa Stomp — where the group first met former Motown guitarist Dennis Coffey, with whom they’re performing this weekend. But Bomar says the eight years between albums was unintended, and a by-product of the work the band has been getting since it started.
“For a while it seemed like every time we’d get started, something would happen that would get in the way — mostly work obligations,” he recalls. “I’m grateful for those opportunities ... but no matter what other projects I did or how busy I got or what stood in the way, (a second album) was the one project I had in the back of my mind.
“I knew I would never be satisfied if I didn’t finish it.”
And though “Got to Get Back!” showcases the Bo-Keys instrumental chops, the 12-track set also finds the group working with a bunch of guest vocalists, including veterans such as William Bell, Otis Clay, Charlie Musselwhite and Percy Higgins, the latter of whom has become part of the Bo-Keys’ touring ensemble. Bomar says the collaborations were “real natural,” especially since the singers and older musicians knew each other from back in the day, although the Clay-sung “Got to Get Back (To My Baby)” was a late addition to the sessions.
“We needed one more song to finish the album up,” Bomar says, “and I’d been working with a writer named Darryl Carter here in Memphis. We came up with ‘Got to Get Back (To My Baby),’ and he talks to Otis all the time. He said, ‘Man, this is an Otis Clay song! You’ve got to call him,’ and that’s how it came about.”
Amidst rave reviews for “Got to Get Back!” Bomar and company have launched their longest-ever national tour, a 10-city trek whose four shows with Lauper include the Bo-Keys’ first Los Angeles show. The bandmates hope to play more dates, of course, and Bomar promises it won’t take another eight years to deliver the group’s next album.
“We’re already talking about it,” he says. “The best thing about this group is guys like Howard and Skip and Ben get to be recognized for their talents. That means a whole lot to them. So we definitely want to do some more recordings — sooner rather than later.”
The Bo-Keys perform with Dennis Coffey and the Will Sessions band on Friday, Oct. 21, at the Magic Bag, 22920 Woodward Ave., Ferndale. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15. Call 248-544-3030 or visit www.themagicbag.com.
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