JOHN PAUL KEITH: THE RHYTHM OF MEMPHIS
Updated: Aug 1, 2021
When John Paul Keith moved to Memphis, he had no idea how far down the city’s deeper-than-deep well of music, creativity and inspiration would reach into his rock ‘n roll soul.
Over the years, J.P. (as many of his friends call him), has soaked up every muddy drop of rhythm and soul the city—and his many musician friends and surviving Memphis music legends—have taught him.
“Sixteen years later, I’m still here, and it’s definitely been a life-changing experience,” J.P. said in an interview. “It has deepened my knowledge of where American music comes from—and what it means to be influenced by that music and what it means to be a student of it.
"And how powerful music is, and how important it is.”
That musical wisdom is reflected on The Rhythm of the City, J.P.’s latest album and his love letter to his adopted city.
From the opening notes of Art Edmaiston's and Kirk Smothers’ dual saxophones and the album’s first track, “How Can You Walk Away?”—and the song’s music video, shot at Paula Raiford’s Disco and other spots in downtown Memphis—the record runneth over with the city's vibes.
Throughout the album, J.P. weaves Buddy Holly-like singing and guitar parts influenced by bluesman Albert King and many others, with the horn section of veteran Memphis players, Edmaiston, Marc Franklin and Archie “Hubbie” Turner, who’ve played with some of music’s best.
Franklin and Edmaiston arranged the horns on different tracks, a twist on the Memphis Horns and the sounds they and larger ensembles made at Stax and Royal Studios.
Sisters Tierinii Jackson and Tikyra Jackson from the band Southern Avenue sing backup like modern-day Ikettes.
J.P. is joined by his regular rhythm section of drummer Danny Banks (who also plays with Nicole Atkins) and Matthew Wilson (who plays with John Nemeth) on bass. Al Gamble of St. Paul and the Broken Bones plays the keys.
On the title cut, J.P. sings amid a beat from the street and multiple musical breakdowns full of horns and his soul-fire guitar solos:
“Where I live there’s just something in the water
Where I live there’s music in the air…
My heart beats to the rhythm of the city
I move my feet to the tempo of this town
My heart beats to the rhythm of the city
Lord, how I love the sound.”
Rhythm of life
One of those Memphis legends whom J.P. has gotten to know, the great Howard Grimes—known for his perfect grooves on the famous recordings by Al Green, Ann Peebles, Willie Mitchell, Denise LaSalle, O.V. Wright, Syl Johnson and others at Royal Studios and many recordings at nearby Stax Records—inspired the title and several tracks on the new album.
One day in downtown Memphis, J.P. heard Al Green’s “Love and Happiness” from a passing car, a song marked by Grimes’ unforgettable performance with the Hi Rhythm Section.
“At the time I was only living a few miles from Royal Studios,” where that song and many other soul classics were recorded, J.P. said. “Howard Grimes’ drumming personifies to me something about Memphis. It’s just this presence, and his beat, it’s his pocket, it’s his groove.”
He decided that Grimes’ groove would be the foundation of his new album. “It’s like hearing the voice of someone you know,” he said.
A few years back, when producer and bassist Scott Bomar was at his Electraphonic Studios producing R&B legend and former Hi Records songwriter Don Bryant was working on his first album in about 50 years., J.P. began writing more soul-oriented songs to try and land a cut on Bryant’s album.
Instead, he ended up with a strong batch of soul-oriented material that led to The Rhythm of the City. It was during those sessions, though, when J.P. first met Mr. Grimes.
Mr. Bryant is best known as co-writer of “I Can’t Stand the Rain.” That 1974 classic was sung brilliantly by Mr. Bryant’s wife, Ann Peebles, on what could be the funkiest, hi-hat-filled three minutes in American music, played by the Hi Rhythm Section, with Mr. Grimes on drums and the timbale in the song's famous opening.
John Lennon called it one of the best songs ever made.
Bryant “still sings ‘I Can’t Stand the Rain’ in the same key his wife sang 40 years ago,” J.P. said.
Just recently, J.P. left a copy of The Rhythm of the City on Mr. Grimes’ front porch in case he hadn’t yet heard the new album his sound inspired.
“He’s one of the greatest session musicians in American history,” J.P. said. “The influence of his sound, you still hear it every day. I remember being in a tapas bar in Bilbao, Spain. A song comes on, and there’s Howard.”
One day last year, photographer Jim Herrington came to Memphis from Nashville to shoot images for J.P.’s new album cover.
“We drove by Royal and some of the neighborhood, and I said I think Howard lives around here somewhere,” J.P. recalled. “And no sooner had I said it, he came out his front door.”
They stopped to say hello and snapped a photo with Mr. Grimes in his front yard. (Grimes releases his autobiography, written with Memphis author Preston Lauterbach, on July 1.)
“Howard is a really deep person and a really kind of heavy thinker, and he can be very profound,” J.P. said. “It like getting an audience with an elder master of his craft.
“We felt like maybe he blessed our photoshoot.”
Another highlight of J.P.'s new album is “The Sun's Gonna Shine Again," a horn-laden number perfect for the summer of a waning pandemic written with Bomar. To my Carolina-raised ears, it's a reminder of 1960s beach music of groups like Chairmen of the Board. The beat hearkens back to Howard Grimes’ grooves on Al Green’s “What Is This Feeling” and Eddie Floyd’s “On a Saturday Night” recorded at Stax.
“It’s definitely offered in the spirit of tribute,” J.P. said. “I’ve talked to Howard about that groove but it’s a very distinctive pocket he played on those tracks.”
The song also was inspired by the 60s soulful-surf music of Lovin’ Spoonful, The Young Rascals and Memphis’ Box Tops, J.P. said.
He played sitar on the track as a tribute to the late Reggie Young, a Memphis native and guitarist who played on countless classics at Chips Moman’s American Sound Studio in Memphis and became a regular session player in Nashville for decades. Young played sitar on songs like The Box Tops’ No. 1 hit from Memphis, “The Letter,” and B.J. Thomas’ “Hooked on a Feeling.”
Another cut on J.P.'s new album, “Ain’t Done Lovin’ You Yet” is more of a folk-rock song, with J.P. on 12-string guitar. “On that one, I have that power-pop influence for sure,” he said.
The move to Memphis
Raised nearly 400 miles east in Knoxville, Keith’s accent is a bit more Appalachian mountain than Memphis drawl.
He grew up in Knoxville’s then-vibrant power-pop music scene, led by the band Superdrag. As a teen, J.P. moved to Nashville for about five years. His band, The Nevers, signed with Sire Records, a major label.
“I learned a lot from that, but they never put the record out, so I was kind of in limbo for a few years and eventually gave up on the Nashville thing,” he said.
He wandered on to Memphis in 2005, knowing well of the band Big Star’s legacy that inspired R.E.M. and many alternative acts, having met Big Star’s Jody Stephens years earlier at the South by Southwest music festival in Austin.
“I didn’t move here to play music,” J.P. said. “I moved here because I have a sister here. I had nothing else to do and had no plan.”
When he first arrived, he lived down the street from the old Hi Tone Café’ on Poplar Avenue, a building that once housed Elvis Presley’s karate dojo. Better known as the city’s best rock club at the time, Elvis Costello even taped a concert film there.
It’s also where Keith met Jack Oblivian, leader of the garage-punk group The Oblivians. By 2008, he was joining Oblivian on tour.
“I started playing guitar for Jack, touring Europe every couple of years. That’s how my whole career in Europe started,” J.P. said. He now regularly tours overseas on his own.
(Later at the old Hi-Tone, J.P. opened for the likes of Leon Russell, Charlie Louvin, and Junior Brown at the club, and where a band that Keith had joined called Snake Eyes, led by the legendary Jim Dickinson, performed a few times before Dickinson’s death.)
Oblivian introduced him to producer Bruce Watson, who’d helmed projects of many older blues legends at Fat Possum Records in Mississippi. J.P. signed with Big Legal Mess Records, which Watson co-owned, and started a nice run of solo albums.
After his 2009 debut, Spills and Thrills, J.P. released The Man That Time Forgot in 2011, a terrific record produced by Watson and incorporating the sounds of from 1950s rockabilly, the early rock 'n roll of Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers, 1960s pop and punk influences like The Ramones. The songs have J.P.’s hooks that often seem familiar and simple-but-clever lyrics on tracks such as “Never Could Say No” and “You Devil You.”
J.P.’s 2013 album, Memphis Circa 3 a.m., produced by Roland James at Sam Phillips Recording Studio, draws from early rockabilly, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and electric blues on tracks like “True Hard Money,” “New Year’s Eve,” and “Baby We’re a Bad Idea.”
Rockin’ on Beale
Another of J.P.’s bands took root in that same era.
“Through all of that, I eventually met Amy LaVere,” he said. “She was touring a lot of the time. I was playing a lot of the time (out of town),” and both artists wanted another band separate from their solo work.
Along with drummer Shawn Zorn, the duo started Motel Mirrors in 2013, garnering acclaim from critics. At first, it was an attempt to “gin up some more work,” Keith said, a cover band performing old rockabilly tunes as duets.
Later, guitarist Will Sexton also joined Motel Mirrors after he wed bassist LaVere.
Following a self-titled EP in 2013 and the 2018 album In the Meantime, Motel Mirrors’ latest is an EP of rockabilly songs called Gotta Lotta Rhythm that’s only recently been released on vinyl in the U.S. after it came out overseas in 2019.
The newest Mirrors album features one J.P. original, a remake of the Mirrors’ own “Meet Me in the Corner,” along with cool rockabilly covers of tunes sung by Patsy Cline, Gram Parsons, Jimmy Reed, Wanda Jackson, and unheralded rockabilly legend Glen Glenn.
Only in recent years did J.P. begin playing on Beale Street for the first time, some 90 years after legends such as Robert Johnson and B.B. King first appeared on the fabled avenue of the blues. Now more of a tourist draw, Keith took the opportunity to learn more of the Memphis songbook.
“You can’t really provide an overview of the Memphis songbook without soul music obviously and blues, too,” he said.
“I took that seriously, and it was a great exercise for me as a musician,” J.P. continued. “I think I’ve got the only band (at that time) on Beale Street doing ‘Ring of Fire’ with horns. I don’t even know if there’s a band in Nashville doing it with horns.”
For Heart Shaped Shadow, J.P. began to write more songs with horns in mind, then leaving it to arrangers like trumpet player Marc Franklin and Art Edmaiston to do their thing.
“It’s really a thrill, it just illuminates your music and a whole new way,” he said.
Speaking up, speaking out
Keith has become vocal politically in person and on social media after police violence and disturbing trends in American society have emerged.
“I did a lot of soul searching this year, as a lot of people did, and I decided to do that song and perform it” at an online fundraiser that Third Man Records held for Marquita Bradshaw’s campaign for Congress last year.
“I was proud of that,” J.P. said, “and then Scott Bomar said, ‘Let’s cut that on Don Bryant.’”
When he showed up at the studio, J.P. discovered Grimes was there to play drums—the first drummer J.P. would accompany since the pandemic began. The musicians cut the basic track live, while the horns and the great Rev. Charles Hodges’ organ parts were added later.
“A World Like That,” a socially conscious, midtempo 70s-throwback soul cut with a beautiful horn-section refrain. It’s a meaningful and departure for Bryant, whose songs are more often about love and heartbreak:
“Smoke in the streets and faces disguised
Hands in the air and tears in our eyes
I don’t want to live in a world like that.”
“I got the idea for that song after Ferguson, which has been five or six years” ago, J.P. said. “It’s made me reevaluate what it is I’m trying to do with songwriting. Like if you can’t write about those things, if you’re not trying to address the reality of life… and the world you live in, what are you doing?
“Especially as a white man with a platform playing music derived so heavily from Black music. I feel like white artists have a responsibility to be informed about where their music originally came from and whose music it really is.”
Otherwise, playing Memphis music can become only nostalgia, J.P. contends, and he sees it as much more than that.
“It’s serious. This stuff is serious. People are harmed by politics,” he said. “And music matters, culture matters. It changes people’s minds about things.”
Thriving and surviving
Gigs have begun to return slowly for J.P., who did a series of recent weekly, socially distanced shows at Memphis’ B-Side club.
He’s planning a belated album-release show with a full band—Memphis horns and all—at the club in July.
“The entire live music industry is in a state of chaos,” J.P. said. “It was hard before the pandemic. It was almost impossible … and so any musician who comes out the other side of this really wants it really bad.”
Still, he considers himself one of the fortunate, although he longs for a return to his usual tour circuit across Europe.
“There are a lot of people wondering if they’re even going to have careers anymore. A lot of people have had to get out of it in 2020,” he said. “There is a real musician economy here. That’s one reason I’ve been able to live here and thrive.”
“There’s a lot going on, and it does feel like Dan Penn said about Memphis—it’s got the best recording air there is.”
J.P. recalled when Chicago singer-songwriter Kelly Hogan of The Flat Five was visiting Memphis and he took her by Bomar’s studio.
Of course, something cool was going on inside.
“They were working on the previous Don Bryant record, and they had The Masqueraders” in the studio, he said. A classic Memphis soul group who sang on many records made at Chips Moman's studio.
“They were just in there doing their vocals around one mic, old-school,” J.P. recalled. “And that’s a very common experience—and I lived in Memphis for a decade before I knew who The Masqueraders were.”
“No matter what kit it’s on, he sounds like himself its unmistakable,” he said. “It’s like the records you love coming to life.”
Where magic happens
That was only glimpse of the Memphis music scene, as artists there know. Hip-hop musicians and pop stars like Bruno Mars still record at Royal Studios. Matt Ross-Spang is finishing construction of his new studio at Memphis’ incredible Crosstown Concourse.
There are “entire scenes here in Memphis rap that are entirely centered around Instagram or Tiktok that people in my scene may not even know about it,” J.P. said. “That can exist on the one hand, and then you have this thriving roots scene. I don’t know of a city except for maybe New Orleans that has this diversity of style.
“Memphis has never been a town that has respected genres," he said. "That’s the whole story of Memphis music.
J.P. has stayed afloat by selling the new album and other music from his considerable catalogue on Bandcamp. The Rhythm of the City’s first vinyl pressing sold out almost entirely through Bandcamp.
“Almost all of the revenue goes to the artist“ he said. “Bandcamp is the most artist-centered business model I’ve seen, and it has helped me survive 2020. I mean literally—and it’s not just me.”
J.P. also began a subscription starting at $5 a month through which he releases new music, video conversations and lost recordings from his long career.
“I have a group of really intense fans that really want to hear everything I do, and it’s a great creative outlet because it’s given me incentive to go through my boxes of music I’ve made over the years” to find things he wants to share, he said.
Whatever’s ahead, J.P. is grateful to have landed in Memphis’ rich music scene that now informs every part of his life and music.
“There’s just something here, and when you go into the studio here, the culture is very relaxed and very familial,” he said. “But on the other hand, they have this foundation of being total bad-asses and being totally disciplined, serious musicians. And that’s magic.”
John Paul Keith’s belated album-release show with a full band is scheduled for July 17 at B-Side Memphis and will be livestreamed. J.P. also will be the host of a Sun Records tribute show at the Guest House at Graceland on Aug. 10, and he performs at the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio, on Aug. 27.