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October 11, 1995

Dirt Track Date

Hi TimesHi Times: The R & B Years (The Right Stuff 1995) - With this 68-track set, Hi Records claims its rightful place in the holy trinity of Memphis-based labels.

While lesser known than Sun (which had Elvis) and Stax/Volt (which had Otis Redding, among others), Hi released sensational R & B throughout the 60s and 70s. This lavish three-disc set, which is centered around hitmaker Al Green, proves that the classic Hi Record sound developed by engineer Willie Mitchell has stood the test of time.

The story of Hi Records falls into two chapters. Established in 1957, the label achieved early success with rockabilly and rock 'n roll instrumentals. In fact, the label became so identified with the genre that "Hi" was thought to be an acronym for "Hit Instrumentals."

The Right Stuff (a division of Capitol Records) plans to release a collection of the earlier material from Hi called Hi Records: The Country and Rockabilly Years.

As Willie Mitchell assembled his crack house rhythm section, the Hi sound began to shift. The R & B Years focuses on the second part of the Hi story, and opens with a stalwart 1959 instrumental, the horn-driven "Smokie Part 2" by the Bill Black Combo.

Ann PeeblesDisc one features a number of instrumental-oriented cuts, including several by Willie Mitchell and his band. As the 60s came to a close, Hi's star rose with such vocalists as Ann Pebbles, whose tart vocals blend well with the simmering Hi rhythm section on "I Pity the Fool" and "I'm Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down." Also featured is Pebbles' big hit from 1973, "I Can't Stand the Rain."

Discs two and three show the real strengths of Hi, including great work from Otis Clay (such as "Trying to Live My Life Without You"), Syl Johnson, who glimmers on a version of "Take Me to the River" that actually charted higher than the Reverend Green's, and several other smoking soul cuts, including a handful from O.V. Wright, whom Willie Mitchell calls "the greatest blues singer that ever lived."

Al GreenOf course, the biggest star in Hi's constellation was Al Green, who Mitchell discovered in Midland, Texas, in 1968. Mitchell worked extensively with Green, and convinced him to expand and soften his vocal style. The result was such classics as "Tired of Being Alone," "Here I Am (Come and Take Me)," and "Love and Happiness," all of which are featured here with their subtle, restrained abandon.

By the late 70s, Hi started to run out of steam, particularly as Green shifted toward religious music. Mitchell sold the label to Cream Records in 1977, and the doors closed for good in 1979. However, the Hi legacy lives on.

In retrospect, Willie Mitchell asks, "Who knows what the difference was between Stax and Hi? The same musicians would come over here, and then we'd all run over there. It was like one family. The difference is the guy who's listening behind the board...I wanted something here, they wanted something else of Stax. I don't know, maybe I done it a different way. Maybe I didn't do it like everybody else. But it worked. That's the main thing. It worked."

Mitchell's absolutely right - it worked. The R & B Years is a rich legacy, and should be discovered by all soul and Memphis rock fans.

Dirt Track DateSouthern Culture on the Skids, Dirt Track Date (Geffen 1995) - For their sixth release, the three-piece Southern Culture on the Skids continue with the same boogie/surf/swamp party music that made them cult favorites in the South. Since their formation in North Carolina in 1985, Southern Culture on the Skids has developed into a hard-working road band, and now spends 200-250 days a year on the road. These live gigs have given a polish to the songs on Dirt Track Date, without destroying the band's spontaneity.

After several lineup changes, Southern Culture on the Skids consists of founding member Rick Miller on guitars and vocals, Mary Huff on bass and vocals, and Dave Hartman on drums. Like last year's happy swamp serving from C.C. Adcock or the efforts of the B-52s, Southern Culture on the Skids is a band that knows how to have fun.

As singer Rick Miller notes with a scowl, "Retro rock, now what's that supposed to mean? I'd rather have them say 'Come to the show! They've got songs about food! They've got songs about banging pots! It'll be a good time! You wanna get drunk? It's great music to dance to!' You know what I'm saying?"

It's hard to disagree with Miller's assessment of the band. From surf-numbered like "Skullbucket" and "Camelwalk" through the full-tilt boogie rocker, "Voodoo Cadillac," that opens the disc, Dirt Track Date is all about having a good time.

Adds Miller, "We named the new record Dirt Track Date 'cause dirt track racing and Southern Culture on the Skids got a few things in common: both have a strong regional flavor and a low-budget style that leaves the raw edges showing. It's that do-it-yourself run-what-ya-brung attitude that puts 'em both over the top."

The standout cut on the album is "Fried Chicken and Gasoline," an infectious rocker about life on the road. "Fried Chicken and Gasoline" has the chance to be Dirt Track Date's "Love Shack"; with the right marketing, Southern Culture on the Skids could break it big.

Geffen's an interesting label. Their signings range from country rock (Boz Skaggs) to hard-core punk (White Zombie) to boogie rock (as on Dirt Track Date), but are always solid. Geffen's one of the most consistent labels in the business; don't overlook their product.

-- Randy Krbechek

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