Hi Records is one of the jewels in the municipal crown of Memphis. In its glorious history, Hi Records ran the gamut from instrumental hits by Bill Black's Combo and Ace Cannon to intimate rhythm and blues by Al Green, Ann Peebles, Otis Clay and Syl Johnson. Hi boasted its own killer rhythm section - the Hodges brothers with drummer Howard Grimes, as well as a horn section that featured the best players in town. With the rest of the label's support group such as songwriters Teenie Hodges, Earl Randle, and Donald Bryant, and master producer and A&R man Willie Mitchell…Hi had it all - charismatic stars, innovative producers, brilliant session players, prolific composers. Hi Records was a hit factory that is as alive today as it ever was, constantly repackaged and reissued, an inspiration to new generations of musicians and fans.
Hi Records is remembered as the premier Memphis soul label of the Seventies -- Al Green resplendent in fur and leather seductively crooning "Tired of Being Alone"; Ann Peebles in platforms and silk soaring from whisper to scream on "I Can't Stand the Rain." Hi Records struck platinum in that middle ground between gritty Southern Soul and the era's slicker disco and Philly sounds. But long before the R&B mega-hits and Superfly threads, Hi was born a rockabilly cat in blue suede shoes.
Ray Harris had worked alongside Bill Black at the old Firestone plant, before the bass player hooked up with Elvis. Harris got to sit in a few sessions at Sun, watching as Elvis, Scotty & Bill made music history. Like a lot of young guitar-picking Mississippi boys transplanted to Memphis, Harris figured it didn't look too hard.
In 1956, Harris cut a couple of rockabilly classics on Sun Records. His "Come On Little Mama" and the follow-up, a raucous cut of the old folk song, "Greenback Dollar" are great records, still revered by rockabilly lovers the world over, but they never did much on the charts. Harris decided that if he couldn't be the next Elvis, maybe he could be the next Sam.
In 1957, Harris became partners in a new record label with five local businessmen, notably Joe Cuoghi, one of the owners of the Poplar Tunes record store, as well as two other Sun veterans, Bill Cantrell and Quentin Claunch. Harris had the ears and was quickly developing studio skills. Cuoghi knew every angle of the record business and had the clout to get the record on jukeboxes.
Hi's first single was a rocking cover of "You Are My Sunshine," by Carl McVoy, a piano-playing cousin of Jerry Lee Lewis. But starting up a label is a hard business, and the partners had to sell the record to Phillips International. Timing is everything in the music business, and the late Fifties were years of transition. Rockabilly was on the way out, and by the summer of 1959, after 16 unsuccessful singles by various artists, Cuoghi was about ready to shut Hi down. Then the label had its first hit, courtesy of Harris' old buddy, Bill Black.
The hot young Memphis guitarist Reggie Young was back home after a stint in Shreveport backing country singer Johnny Horton. Waiting for his final draft notice, the youth was gigging around town and working in the studio for Hi. Young was playing with Bill and other musicians, "just backing up anybody who came into the studio."
Then one night the band was messing around in the studio, trying to find a new sound to catch the fickle ears of the public, when Reggie tuned his guitar down to a low growl and played it with a pencil . The result was a shuffle blues instrumental called "Smokie Parts 1 and 2." The song hit the charts, and, says Young, "Ray Harris credits me with starting that Bill Black sound. It was just kind of a little fluke thing we came up with."
To capitalize on the success of "Smokie," a follow-up was quickly released, the Hawaiian/honky-tonk fusion of "White Silver Sands." The song became Bill Black's Combo's (and Hi's) first Top 10 pop hit (the song went to No. 9). At that time, Hi didn't yet have a distinctive sound, it was just a bunch of musicians, some white, some black, all of them looking for something, anything, that would become a hit.
Young recalls that, even then, when segregation was the norm and the civil rights movement was just beginning to pick up steam, it was no big deal to play in racially mixed bands in Memphis. "We never thought anything about it," he says. "I used to go down to the Manhattan Club and sit in with Willie and Al (Jackson Jr.) all the time.
And just as the Mar-Keys "Last Night" helped Stax get off the ground, the success of Bill Black's Combo changed Hi from a rockabilly label to an instrumental powerhouse. It was a national trend in the early Sixties, as Lonnie Mack, the Ventures, and other acts, including hometown heroes Booker T. & the MGs, were regularly scoring instrumental hits in those Twist-crazed days just before the Beatles.
With Harris still calling the shots as the label's primary producer and engineer, Hi got its slice of that instrumental pie. Bill Black's Combo, former Bill Black saxman Ace Cannon and trumpeter/bandleader Willie Mitchell all kept young America frugging to instrumentals records that made money for Hi, not on the charts, but on the jukeboxes Cuoghi and his partners supplied. So many instrumentals were released that many people thought Hi stood for "Hit Instrumentals."
One of Hi's biggest hits of the early years was a vocal, as Bill Black's singer Gene Simmons scored a novelty hit in 1964 with "Haunted House," a cover of an old R&B song Ray Harris had heard Sam the Sham do on local TV. But as the Sixties wore on, the Memphis Sound evolved into the soulful groove of Stax Records, spreading to Chips Moman's hit factory at American Studios with Reggie Young and the studio's stellar American rhythm section and all the way down to Alabama's Muscle Shoals.
Not surprisingly, that same groove caught on at Hi. And the man chiefly responsible was a popular Memphis bandleader/trumpeter named Willie Mitchell. He'd been one of Memphis' most accomplished bandleaders since 1954, a time when the city boasted many great bands, including such greats as Gene "Bowlegs" Miller and Ben Branch, both of whom also recorded at Hi.
Mitchell's mix of jazz sophistication and down-home Southern blues -- not to mention his ambition and work ethic -- set him apart, and he and his streamlined, stripped-down big band were in demand at clubs and parties by black and white audiences alike. Playing grueling 9 p.m.-4 a.m. gigs at local nightspots like West Memphis' Plantation Inn, Mitchell's band turned out some of the finest musicians to come from Memphis, including jazz greats Charles Lloyd and Harold Mabern.
Mitchell's modern approach found success at Hi backing singers as well as on instrumental hits like "Soul Serenade" and his first Hi success, "20-75." More importantly, he also became more involved in the production aspect of the studio. Hi's studio was at 1320 South Lauderdale, the home of the old Royal movie theater. Stax was also in an old movie house. In the Fifties that new fad, TV, was stealing movie audiences, and many old theaters became inexpensive real estate investments that also made good recording studios. But it took some work. "We had to do a whole lot to the studio to make it sound like we wanted it to sound," recalls Mitchell.
At Hi in the Sixties, Mitchell was already working with the core of what would become one of the world's greatest rhythm sections -- guitarist/leader Teenie Hodges, his organist brother Charles and bassist brother LeRoy. Known as Hi Rhythm, the Hodges Brothers, along with drummer Howard Grimes, remains the premier ongoing Memphis soul section.
The Willie Mitchell Orchestra also had its own vocal group, the Four Kings. The group recorded at Hi, cutting the minor hit, "Farmer John." But when three of the Kings abdicated, only Donald Bryant was left. Bryant adjusted and continued touring with the Mitchell band as a solo singer, covering R&B hits of the day. He also recorded for Hi, but though he made such fine records as 1965's "Don't Turn Your Back on Me," he couldn't get a hit under his own name. He was considering a career as a songwriter when a young lady from St. Louis auditioned for Hi.
Ann Peebles had come to Memphis with her brother, who was visiting a girlfriend. They went to the Rosewood Club to see Bowlegs Miller's band, and teen-aged Ann was asked to do a song with them. Bowlegs was impressed with her version of the old gospel favorite "Steal Away" and brought her to Mitchell for a possible Hi contract. Mitchell also liked what he heard. Everything was falling into place, with Willie Mitchell as the hub of the wheel. In him Hi had an R&B producer/bandleader/songwriter with great ears and vast experience in the business.
"He was developing a sound of his own," says Bryant. "It was getting the label a whole lot more recognition in the R&B thing." But Mitchell was just one piece of the Hi puzzle. His brother James Mitchell was a premier saxophonist, as well as the arranger of many of the Hi signature sounds. With Hi Rhythm and the Memphis Horns (Wayne Jackson and Andrew Love, who divided their session time between Stax and Hi), the label had a Dream Team studio band. And in Ann Peebles, Hi had its first soul superstar.
It was another time of transition for the label. Even former Sun artists Rufus Thomas and Charlie Rich would try their luck for hits on the Hi label. As the Sixties ended, Ray Harris, who had guided the Hi sound since its rockabilly birth, was ready to step down. In June of 1970, Harris sold his share of the company to Mitchell, who became a vice president and managing partner in the company. Within weeks, Joe Cuoghi, the label's sole remaining founder, died.
Hi was starting yet another new life. And with Ann Peebles, it got it. She hit the charts with her debut single, 1969's "Walk Away" (#22 on the R&B charts). She proved that was no fluke with the quickly-released follow-up, "Part Time Love" (# 7 R&B), a record that also crossed over to the pop charts (#45).
"Here's a young lady coming in with one record and it just takes off," says Bryant, who decided then to focus his talents behind the scenes. He was still singing with the Mitchell band, but by then he was opening for Peebles. The troupe traveled in Willie's stretched-out van, a U-Haul trailer full of instruments rattling behind. Bryant also began writing songs for Hi's new star. That was the big difference between then and now, he says. In the classic era of Memphis soul, the songwriters wrote with specific singers in mind.
"Like with Ann, you know, I kind of knew her phrases and her changes and different things, So I started directing my writing to sound like Ann Peebles." The result was "99 Pounds," which she still considers to be her first real hit, because it was "her" song. It wasn't long before that musical partnership led to a personal one and the two were soon married.
That transitional year of 1969 also saw Mitchell add the singer who, even more than Peebles, would come to personify Hi Records in the Seventies -- Al Green. The Mitchell band was playing some dates in Texas. At a stop in Midland, a young singer from Grand Rapids approached Mitchell, asking for help getting home. Al Green had had a minor hit in 1967 with "Back Up Train," but his career had stalled when he first sang for Mitchell.
"I first heard his voice and I said, 'Man, you've got a beautiful voice. I got a studio and everything. You go out to Memphis and maybe we can make you a star.' And he said, 'How long would it take?' I said, 'About 18 months, a year and a half.' And he said 'I can't wait that long. "
Green rode Mitchell's van back to Memphis anyway and began recording for the label. They first had him singing other people's songs. But Green, with the same cocky impatience he'd shown in Texas, thought he could do better with something he'd written.
"We started there with "Can't Get Next To You" and stuff like that and I was toting my song around in my pocket for days on end, saying, 'Hey, I got a song.' And wasn't nobody listening to me. And finally, at the end of the session, I says, 'Well, I still got a song.' And so Willie said, 'Al, what is your song?' I said, "Tired of Being Alone." And he said, 'Go out there to the band and if we have time we'll cut it, if not, just skip it, OK?'"
"Tired of Being Alone" became Green's first major hit, reaching #7 on the R&B charts, #11 pop in the summer of 1971, setting the sensually yearning, romantic approach that would power his hits for much of the decade. "The legacy of Sun and Hi and Stax have all been based around finding an identity for the label as well as finding artists who could be established artists, not just someone who sang songs," says Jud Phillips, a consultant with the modern version of Hi and managing partner in Phillips Entertainment.
In the early Seventies, Hi had it all. Ann Peebles had cracked the dam, Al Green busted it wide open and Hi's flood of hits kept coming. Teenie Hodges and Green turned out the timeless classic, "Take Me to the River." Peebles, Bryant and Memphis DJ Bernard Mr. B. Miller wrote "I Can't Stand the Rain" a twist on all those "Singing in the Rain"-type songs, a precipitation protest that anyone who has survived the Memphis monsoon season can understand.
There were still throwbacks to the old Hi instrumentals days, such as saxophonist Ace Cannon's 1971 single, "Drunk," a cover of R&B pioneer Joe Liggins. But the defining sound of Hi in the Seventies was the sophisticated blend Mitchell created with his update of Memphis soul.
In the Seventies, Stax, under the direction of Al Bell, was setting its sights far beyond Memphis with such ambitious projects as WattStax and an increasingly wider roster of artists. Hi became the keeper of the flame for real Memphis soul.
"It's the sound I wanted to hear," Mitchell simply states. And just as Elvis inspired all those young rockabilly cats to make their way to 706 Union Ave., the success of Al Green swelled the ranks of Hi artists to include the great Otis Clay, Syl Johnson and O.V. Wright.
But Al Green and Ann Peebles remained Hi's marquee stars. When Green's spiritual crisis hit in 1976, and he began to devote himself to gospel music, the future of Hi didn't look good. In 1977, the label (along with the remnants of Stax) was sold to Al Bennett, a former president of Liberty Records who'd begun his own label, Cream. Mitchell stayed on under contract, but by 1979, he too had left. With the end of the Seventies, Hi was no longer a force of any kind in the Memphis R&B scene.
But the story doesn't end there. Reissue programs were begun. Motown was given rights to issue the classic Hi sides in the Eighties, but all that came out was a few Al Green albums. England's Demon Records did a far better job of mining the vaults.
But on this side of the pond, Hi was in danger of becoming one of the great forgotten labels. Enter Bennett's daughter, Adalah Bennett Shaw, who'd started in the) music business at 15, working for her dad when he was still running Liberty Records. After her dad passed away in 1989, legal problems over the estate left her with almost nothing, not even the family farm in Arkansas.
"I said you've got one asset left," she recalls. "So I just kind of dug it out of the mothballs, and there we went." After getting out of a distribution deal Hi had with Motown, Shaw began reissuing the classic Hi sides, on a thorough, well-annotated series of albums, through a license agreement with EMI/Special Projects on The Right Stuff label in the U.S.A. & Canada.
Aided by such high-profile Hi fans as director Quentin Tarantino, who used Al Green's "Let's Stay Together" so effectively in Pulp Fiction, Hi had a new life in the Nineties and extended to television shows like Ally McBeal and commercial endorsements
"It amazes me that so many people, kids born in the Eighties, who have no connection to Hi's early days, still go out and buy Al Green and that alluring sound of Memphis music, of which Hi and its artists and musicians were a legendary part," says Shaw.
Today the Hi sound is alive and well. It lives on in concert performances by almost all the label's stars -- Al Green, Ann Peebles, Otis Clay, Syl Johnson (whose daughter Syleena is a rising R&B star in her own right) and Hi Rhythm, all of whom continue to thrill audiences around the world. And thanks to people like Shaw, all those great original Hi records are available in a store near you.
Hi Records was a hit factory that is as healthy today as it ever was --constantly repackaged and reissued -- an inspiration to new generations of musicians and fans.