‘Stone Crush’ Proves (Again) That Memphis Is Ground Zero for Soul and R&B

Stone Crush shines a light on the forgotten artists that passed through the doors of Memphis’ most storied studios.

Stone Crush: Memphis Modern Soul 1977-1987
Various Artists
Light in the Attic
3 April 2020

The music business is littered with stories of almost-made-its, could-have-beens and should-have-beens, and artists that just happened to be in the right place but the wrong time. Memphis, Tennessee, is one of those magical places that has given birth to so many musical legends that its story can — and has — filled several books. But for every Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Isaac Hayes, and Al Green, there’s a Big Star or Jim Dickinson. Influential legends and cult heroes in their own way, but far from household names.

Then, when you move past the cult figures, you reveal another layer: the names you’ve never heard of. The ones who may have pulled an Elvis: stopped into one Memphis’s many-storied studios, recorded a track or two, and disappeared. Only unlike Elvis, there was no Sam Phillips or Dewey Phillips or Scotty Moore or Marion Keisker to call them back to the studio and put up the money and the marketing to make them a star. This is the fate of most of the artists included on Stone Crush: Memphis Modern Soul 1977-1987.

Chronicling the years when R&B in general splintered off into many different directions and styles, Stone Crush is a reflection of that. Light funk, hints of disco, quiet storm, Southern soul — the studio musicians that performed these tracks helped develop that thumping four-on-the-floor sound that became ubiquitous during the ten years covered here. Depending on your age and your background, many of these tracks may conjure memories of roller rinks or public parks. These recordings may be regionally-based, but their sound is universal, even if the names attached to them have remained relatively unknown until now.

The producers, engineers, and musicians included on Stone Crush, however, are a who’s who of Memphis music: The Memphis Horns (Andrew Love – tenor, Wayne Jackson – trumpet, James Mitchell – baritone); the legendary Willie Mitchell; Ben Cauley, surviving member of the original Bar-Kays (in fact, a revamped Bar-Kays provide much of the backing throughout this collection); and recorded in studios such as Ardent, Allied, Royal, and others. But the voices are the focus here, and they’re the (so to speak) unsung heroes. They all took time out of their lives to step into a studio in one of the world’s most storied and musical cities, either on a whim or in an attempt to reach for that ever-elusive brass ring.

Legendary radio stations WDIA and WHBQ beckoned these artists from near and far for a possible shot at the big time. From Arkansas by way of Howard University’s College of Dentistry came O.T. Sykes. Tom Sanders was discovered singing soul in a club in Brownsville, Tennessee. Morris J. Williams, a.k.a. Magic Morris arrived in Memphis from Chicago. While others like Greg Mason called Memphis their hometown. Still others were tertiary to greatness: Cato Walker III was one-time music director for blues giant B.B. King during the late 1970s, for instance.

Regardless of their origins, the artists of Stone Crush give their all to this compilation. Deep funk mixes here with rubbery grooves and strong R&B/pop hooks. These tracks, thought to have been lost forever, were found, and have now been carefully and thoughtfully researched and fully restored. Here’s hoping they’re also discovered by a new generation — or finally heard on their own for the first time.

RATING 7 / 10