The Recorder, Greenfield, MA Arts & Entertainment Thursday, April 16, 2015
Upbeat, easygoing & humorous
Johnny Memphis is bringing his band to the Arts Block Saturday
“Are you out there, can you hear this?/Jimmy Olsen, Johnny Memphis/I was out here listening all the time.”
By Sheryl Hunter, Wednesday, April 15, 2015
Dar Williams sang these lyrics on her song “Are You Out There” and like Williams, a lot of us were out there listening to Johnny Memphis (real name John Reily) during his long tenure as a deejay and music director at WRSI 93.9 (The River). And while Olsen continues at the station as host of the Sunday morning show “Backporch,” Memphis’ warm and friendly demeanor has been missed from the airwaves for some time. Listening to Memphis was like spending time with an old friend — he was always much more than just a voice on the radio.
A longtime supporter of local music, Memphis was the founder and original host of “Homegrown,” a radio show he launched in 1997 that showcased local talent and was simultaneously aired on GCTV in Greenfield. Over the years, Memphis has also been actively involved with various local music shows, including the annual Transperformance at Look Park. He also wrote a music column similar to this one for the Daily Hampshire Gazette.
But Memphis’ enthusiasm for local music doesn’t end with his behind the scenes work. He is also an accomplished multi-instrumentalist who has performed in various local bands, including the Celtic punk band Big Bad Bollocks and the disco garage group Check, Please! But Memphis has never fronted his own band until now. As the leader of the Johnny Memphis Band, he released a CD last year and has played various venues in the Pioneeer Valley. The Johnny Memphis Band will make its debut at the Arts Block in Greenfield with a show on Saturday, April 18, at 8 p.m.
After leaving his 21-year job as a deejay at WRSI, Memphis, 60, made a career switch and went into teaching full time. After receiving his degree from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, Memphis student taught at Greenfield High School and then moved into a full-time job as a social studies teacher at Frontier Regional in South Deerfield.
“I always kept playing music, listening to music and following it,” said Memphis, calling from his home in Florence. “I realized I had a bunch of songs I had written over the years, like over the past 20 years, and some of these I really liked. I realized it was time to make a record and once I did, it jump-started everything.”
Memphis gathered these songs, assembled a versatile group of local musicians and teamed up with Mark Alan Miller of Sonelab Studios in Easthampton to make the record. Out of these recording sessions the Johnny Memphis Band formed.
The group includes fiddler Katherine First (Kitchen Party), accordionist Chris Haynes (Young at Heart Chorus band), drummer Jason Smith (Fancy Trash), bassist Paul Hartshorne (Happy Valley Guitar Orchestra) and guitarist David Pinkerton (Gomero). Memphis handles vocals and plays bass, guitar and mandolin.
The self-titled album was released late last year and features all types of music, including Celtic, zydeco, rockabilly, some New Orleans-flavored rock and even a waltz.
“I just kind of follow wherever the song goes and I like all kinds of music,” said Memphis. “It’s also dictated by the kinds of instruments that I like to use. I like the electric rock ’n’ roll part but I also like fiddles and accordions. I like to mix them together and that ends up leading a song in a certain direction.”
The eight songs that make up the disc are upbeat, easygoing and humorous, much like Memphis himself. Writers are always told to write what they know, and Memphis does just that. The songs are laced with local references — there’s the “Truck Eating Bridge” (“That truck eating bridge will get you every time/When you’re riding too high and paying no mind”), which humorously chronicles a well known bridge in Northampton while also bemoaning a failed relationship. Then there’s “ Dating Myself,” a song in which Memphis boasts of all the shows he’s been to. Some like “I Saw Bonnie Raitt when she played the Rusty Nail” are based in fact, but the tune ultimately evolves into a silly fantastical tale with Memphis even claiming “I saw Cleopatra sail the River Nile.”
Memphis enjoys weaving elements of valley life into his songs.
“I’m big on that — that has always been one of my passions for doing ‘Homegrown’ and the local music shows around here,” he said. “It’s great to celebrate where we live and all the great stuff that goes on around here.”
Memphis is committed to putting the Pioneer Valley on the musical map.
“I just like the fact that I might mention a town or write about something that happened around here,” he explained. “People are always writing about Texas or Tennessee, but what about here? There’s all kind of cool stuff here.”
One of the more serious songs off the album is “Tiny Tim’s Waltz,” on which Memphis recounts seeing the ukulele strumming singer from the ’60s collapse on stage during a performance at the Montague Grange.
“I was there when it happened,” Memphis said. “It was a ukulele festival at the Montague Grange and there were all kind of things going on. Tiny Tim was the grand finale of the day. He got up on stage and didn’t look good. Then he keeled over and fell off the stage. It was really scary. Six weeks later, he died.”
We will be hearing a lot more from Memphis in the future. He has left teaching and is devoting all his time to the band as well as writing a music related blog called the Johnny Memphis Music Guide. He is also promoting local shows and has already presented a couple of shows at the Florence VFW. He has plans to do more in future.
Memphis is having a great time being the band’s front man and looks forward to getting out and playing more shows. For the Arts Block show, the band will be joined by saxophone player Rick Page of Trailer Park.
“The Arts Block is such a great place for Greenfield,” Memphis said. “It’s a cool space and we are excited to play there.” www.johnnymemphismusicguide.com
Tickets are $8 in advance an available at www.theartsblock.com. $10 at the door.