Bomar, Bo-Keys ‘Get Back’ to brewing Stax-style soul
For a time, Memphis was a true haven for musicians. The session men who graced the studios of Stax, Hi and American were among the hottest and most distinctive players anywhere. Their careers thrived from the 1950s until the collapse of the Memphis record industry in the ’70s.
“By the time you get to 1974, the year I was born, those opportunities pretty much start to evaporate,” says producer, bassist and Bo-Keys band leader Scott Bomar.
For Bomar, the loss of Memphis’ grand music industry has meant that many accomplished players quietly faded away, their gifts struggling to be heard. “It bothers me that all that talent is still here in Memphis and it’s so underutilized,” Bomar says.
In a sense, Bomar has been on a mission to showcase Memphis music’s still-vibrant veterans with his R&B outfit the Bo-Keys.
The multigenerational band features younger members like Bomar and trumpeter Marc Franklin, plus Bluff City soul legends like the Isaac Hayes guitarist Skip Pitts, Bar-Kays trumpeter Ben Cauley, and B.B. King Orchestra saxman Floyd Newman, among others.
Over the years, the group has established a national and international reputation, both as the backing band for such artists as Eddie Floyd, William Bell and Sir Mack Rice, as well as with their own instrumental R&B albums.
On Friday, the band opens for Mavis Staples at Minglewood Hall. And on June 18, the Bo-Keys headline their own show at the Levitt Shell at Overton Park. The concert will serve as a celebration of the band’s forthcoming sophomore disc, Got to Get Back!, released on Bomar’s Electraphonic record label.
Got to Get Back! comes much belatedly, some seven years after the band’s debut, The Royal Sessions. “I’ve wanted to do another Bo-Keys record ever since we did the first,” Bomar says.
“After the first one came out, we started going out on the road a little bit, but that was also when I started working with Craig Brewer a lot.”
Bomar played and produced the music for the Memphis filmmaker’s features “Hustle & Flow” and “Black Snake Moan.” “I did those pretty much back to back, so that was four years solid of mostly working on the movies. I never really had the time to do another Bo-Keys album.”
In recent years, there were a couple of attempts to record the Bo-Keys — one session yielded a single in 2008 — but it wasn’t until last year, when Bomar and Bo-Keys members backed Cyndi Lauper on her Grammy-nominated blues album, that the momentum for making a new album was renewed.
That was due in part to the arrival of drummer Howard Grimes, the veteran Hi Records timekeeper who replaced Stax alum Willie Hall.
“Once Howard came into the group, things really jelled. He’s such a great drummer and great guy, and has such a great energy,” says Bomar. “Howard was the big difference maker and really energized everyone in the group.”
In between his various soundtrack and production gigs, Bomar finally committed to making a new record last fall. “Sometimes being both the artist and the record label, it’s hard to give yourself deadlines, and to get things done,” he says. “But I finally said, ‘If I don’t do this now, I’m never gonna do it. I need to make this happen.’ ”
The resulting disc is split between instrumentals and vocal tracks, featuring a variety of guests, from Hi Records singers Otis Clay and Percy Wiggins, to bluesman Charlie Musselwhite and Stax crooner Bell.
Some of the original material — like the spunky “90 Days Same as Cash” — dates back several years, while other songs were written in the lead-up to the recording. The disc also includes a pair of covers, a powerful reworking of the 5 Royales song “Catch this Teardrop” and the Prince Conley Satellite Records nugget “I’m Going Home.” “Those are two songs I’ve had in my back pocket for a while that we really wanted to record,” Bomar says.
Looking back on the Bo-Keys’ humble start — the band grew out of Bomar’s desire to lead a soul band, following the demise of his instrumental rock group Impala — the bassist still sounds surprised at his good fortune in playing with so many original R&B greats.
“I’d listened to a lot of the music that Skip Pitts, Howard (Grimes) and Ben Cauley had played on. But the idea of having those guys in a band, it was a dream. It didn’t seem like it could be a reality,” says Bomar.
“At the same time, I started teaching bass at the Stax Music Academy, which is where I met Skip and Willie Hall, and that’s how it all started,” Bomar says. “Now it’s almost 10 years later. I can’t believe I’m working these guys. It’s been surreal.”
Band leader Scott Bomar (left) and the Bo-Keys are a mix of soul veterans and younger players.