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ESSAY: What Happened to Mississippi's Soul?

Tim Whitsett's Imperial Show Band, one of the first integrated bands in Mississippi.

If you ask the average soul-music fan to name twelve singles that were recorded in Mississippi in the Golden Age of the music—say from 1960 to 1975—we think he'd fail. Ask the same question about Alabama, Tennessee, or Louisiana and the chances are that the answers would come fast and furious. Why has Mississippi soul music been left in the shadows? Why didn't the "Home of the Blues" translate the legacy of that genre into soul-music dominance in the South?

In part, of course, these are trick questions because while the twentieth state of the Union was the place to hear the blues before World War II, few of the recordings of the old masters were actually made within the state boundaries. What happened in the years around V-J Day were profound economic changes as some 500,000 African Americans headed to work in Northern cities, and among their number were naturally blues singers and players. The rural Mississippi blues that they brought with them mutated into the urban Chicago blues, and many of the generation that became the Chicago and Detroit soul singers of the ’60s and ’70s originated from Mississippi and its various diasporas. They included such soul luminaries as Otis Clay, Garland Green, and McKinley Mitchell, (all born in Mississippi but raised in the Windy City) and their Detroit counterparts brothers David and Jimmy Ruffin and Buddy Lamp.

But the exodus didn't exhaust the musical waters of Mississippi or even ripple the surface. So why didn't the remaining musicians develop the sort of recording power of Muscle Shoals or Atlanta? One of the reasons must be the poverty of the state. On any number of social and economic indicators, postwar Mississippi represented the poorest state in the Union, a place where one in five people lived below the poverty line, unable to break away from the inertia that poverty brings with it. Mississippi depended primarily on agriculture grown in the rural heartlands well into the 1960s and, with the lowest per-capita income in the Union, there was not much money left over for record buying—or recording studios. Fortunately, there were some individuals prepared to buck the trend, notably Jimmie D. Ammons who started his Delta Recording Studio in Jackson in the late ’40s, around the same time that Lillian McMurry's redoubtable Trumpet Records established their own facilities at the back of its record store in Jackson, and began recording some seminal blues tracks.

Although this was as good a start as anything else in the South at the time, it didn't lead to anything bigger. The records cut stayed local with no national hits forthcoming, so there was no explosion of interest in building studios—no Mississippi sound to match those being created by the likes of Sam Phillips in Memphis, Don Robey in Houston, or Cosimo Matassa in New Orleans. All these entrepreneurs were busy developing their studios and companies into major concerns that left those in Jackson well behind the gain line. When Tupelo's Elvis Presley started to record his white man's blues in 1954 it was inevitable that he went out of state to do it.

The man who could have perhaps lifted the state's recording profile was John Vincent Imbragulio, better known as Johnny Vincent. A shrewd and manipulative operator, he knew the music business from top to bottom, and although he remained a Jackson resident, he never tried to establish his highly profitable Ace label as a true Mississippi concern until the 1970s, preferring during the label's heyday to record one hundred and sixty miles away in New Orleans.

So, at the turn of the ’60s, there was no large recording base in Mississippi for budding soul singers. The few studios available were small and poorly equipped, generally catering to companies who wanted to record advertising and jingles. It meant that the r&b and proto-soul bands that had big followings in the state were not able to parlay that popularity into record sales.

Nowhere in the state was there an operation like that run in Miami by Henry Stone or in Shreveport by Stan "The Record Man" Lewis. If you wanted to get your record distributed in the Southeast, along with Cosima Matassa and Henry Hildebrand in NOLA, these were the guys you had to deal with—and throughout the ’60s, they pretty much had Mississippi carved up between them. It meant that locally popular artists like Tim Whitsett's Imperial Show Band and Cozy Corley's Blue Gardenia Show Band could rarely get their records to the mom-and-pop stores that the large African-American population favored.

Among the small-time music men like Sherman Johnson in Meridian with his tiny Mel-O-Juke label in 1963–64 and the Sabo concern started by those fine songwriters Sam Mosley and Bob Johnson nearly a decade later, there were some bona fide characters who rose to the challenge of trying to create a larger company. One such fellow was Henry Hines, or Reginald Hines, as he sometimes styled himself. At his Greenville base, his company Lynn's Productions released a string of 45s on a bewildering number of labels, including Reginald, Little Lynn's, Odex, Leno, and Big Beat. Hines started with few resources to fund his own studio, using Cosimo's in New Orleans at first, and only later using nearby recording facilities. The Hines stable produced some very fine tracks from local singers like Vicki Williams, Soul Lee, Vikki Styles, and Virgil Griffin. Hines also developed a pretty good distribution network in Chicago and Atlanta thanks to the efforts—both legal and illegal—of go-betweens like Little Mac Simmons. Despite lasting a decade or so from 1963, his operation was threadbare, and after the intervention of the IRS, Hines went to ground and hasn't surfaced yet.

The huge, undeniable success of FAME across the border in Alabama, and Stax in Memphis, did inspire Mississippians to try to get a soul scene in their native state. Around 1967, John Mihelic started his own Statue and Vee Eight labels and opened a small studio in Tupelo using a local band called The Lost Souls to play as session musicians. Mihelic got a big regional hit with Joyce Jones's "Help Me Make Up My Mind" which he leased out to Atlantic hoping for even bigger things, a similar tactic he deployed with the excellent "Cold, Cold Heart" by Lloyd Hendricks, which he leased to Mala. Mihelic and his associate from Greenville, Dominic Fratesi, a partner in the jukebox business, developed very good contacts across the Delta but something was missing—maybe determination, or good luck, because Statue and Vee Eight never made it big.

Another facility opened around 1967, the Grits & Gravy studio in Jackson, put together by the odious Huey Meaux (after indictment on a Mann Act transgression), and run by the brothers Ed and Cliff Thomas and Bob McCree. Whatever you think of Meaux, he had the knack of success and the new studio quickly scored nationally with a series of wonderful soul-music releases from Peggy Scott & Jo Jo Benson, like "Pickin' Wild Mountain Berries" and "Lover's Holiday," on Shelby Singleton's Nashville-based SSS International. However, Meaux and his colleagues were unable to consolidate this fantastic beginning and the studio never got another big soul hit, ultimately languishing in the shadow of the one endeavour that did last the course—Malaco.

Malaco was started by Mitch Malouf, his brother-in-law Tommy Couch (using the first letters of their surnames), and Wolf Stephenson, three Ole Miss grads who had been active in running the college's entertainment booking and who were hooked on r&b. They modelled Malaco directly on Rick Hall's FAME enterprise at Muscle Shoals and were lucky from the start to attract the multi-talented Meridian-raised George Soule, who provided class songs and arrangements, as well as playing drums. The initial Malaco 45 on Cozy Corley instigated thirty years plus of soul and r&b recorded in Mississippi, but despite leasing out super music by such artists as the Meridian singer Eddie Houston and the duo of Betty & Charles, early hits were as rare as frost in July. When Soule decamped to Muscle Shoals at the end of the decade, Malaco was rescued by a session booked by arranger/producer Wardell Quezergue, who provided songs and singers bussed-up from his New Orleans hometown that led to Jean Knight's "Mr. Big Stuff" and King Floyd's "Groove Me," both of which went platinum. Because of this one-weekend session, Malaco was suddenly a hot place to record and the profitable fallout lasted until Dorothy Moore injected fresh energy with "Misty Blue" in 1976. By contracting such luminaries as Bobby "Blue" Bland, Johnnie Taylor, and Z.Z. Hill, whose "Down Home Blues" smash arguably kick-started today's soul-blues genre, Malaco continued to fly the Southern soul flag, justifiably calling themselves "The Last Soul Company" long after the music left the national stage. Malaco Studios shared a warehouse facility with Johnny Vincent who, following the rapid decline of the New Orleans record industry, resurrected his Ace label in the early ’70s and finally recorded in Mississippi on a regular basis, making some indisputable Southern soul with artists who included Geater Davis (produced by Sam Baker), and the recently departed Sir Lattimore Brown. The old problem of poor distribution scuppered any potential big hits.

Today, Mississippi r&b discs, especially from the ’60s, are very collectible and rare 45s can change hands for princely sums. Although this is a tribute to the quality of the music made, it also highlights the fact that their rarity is a product of limited pressings and inadequate distribution. The music business in the state was, for the most part, a cottage industry only. Memphis and Muscle Shoals really had nothing to fear from the competition—a sad tale for a state blooming with raw talent. 

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