Cover photo © 2017 Adrian Berryhill
“In the south church is church. It’s the Bible Belt. Nothing is acceptable pretty much. I wasn’t allowed to go to school dances. I wasn’t allowed to hang out with friends who didn’t attend the church. Dancing was a sin. Snapping my fingers was a sin. I wasn’t really allowed to do anything.”
To say that Tierinii (pronounced Tear Knee) Jackson was ready to cut loose when she left home in Memphis after high school would be an understatement. By the time she met Israeli native Ori Naftaly and formed Southern Avenue at age 25, she was simultaneously singing in seven different dance bands with names like Party Jammers and Soul Collective.
“When I met Ori I was hustling, like grinding so hard. The party bands were just covers, and I wanted to write music. I said ‘I need a band. I just need a band!’ When I found Ori, it was obvious this was where I needed to be, so I quit all my bands and just focused on making Southern Avenue what it is.”
What it is is the most exciting band to come out of Memphis since the early days of Stax Records which launched the careers of such soul giants as Wilson Pickett and Sam & Dave. It makes perfect sense that the band would be signed to the newly resurrected Stax label.
They say lightning doesn’t strike the same place twice.
They say that music isn’t as good as it used to be.
They say that the veteran acts blow the youngsters away.
In the case of Southern Avenue, “they” are wrong!
In Memphis, a town brimming with hot blues acts, Southern Avenue is the cherry on the whipped cream of a chocolate sundae. If Otis Redding and Booker T.& The M.G.’s were the lightning that struck Stax Records in the early ’60s, Southern Avenue is the lightning burning a hole in their soul in 2017. Yeah, they’re that good. And they’re young, Tierinii Jackson is 28. Her sister Tikyra on drums is 22. Ori is a bit older. (Steve Cropper was 18 when he brought his guitar skills to Stax.)
Formed in 2015 and taking their name from a Memphis street that runs through the city limits to “Soulsville,” the original home of Stax Records, they’re moving up in the blues world so fast that their resume is eclipsing that of acts with decades of experience.
Stax Records has just picked up their option for a second album. Their self-titled first CD went to number six on the Billboard Blues Chart. They’re number one in iTunes Blues Chart, and they’ve been top 40 on Americana Radio from coast to coast for more than three months.
Since finishing in the finals of the Blues Foundation’s 2017 International Blues Challenge (IBC), they’ve played more than 200 shows in the U.S. and Europe. They’ve toured with JJ Grey & Mofro, Karl Denson, and Marcus King, and they’re opening up for Buddy Guy in January in Chicago and supported him in Memphis this past April.
Although blues and gospel enjoy the same roots, blues was forbidden fruit to Tierinii growing up. “We were only allowed to listen to gospel. Growing up I only had a few secular artists that I could speak and listen to. So, when I left home, I wanted to perform. I submerged myself in all the parts and genres of secular music, and when I met Ori was really the first time being submerged in the blues even though I put my foot in all types of genres, but he was the first one who kinda showed me the ropes.”
Ori grew up in Israel, the Jewish state; so different from Tierini and yet the same. Both are obsessed with a style of music that in this day and age knows no race, no one religion, no ethnic prejudices.
There is a decided feeling of a shared history of overcoming prejudice and heartache between Ori and Tierinii. Ori told Tavis Smiley, “In Memphis, there’s a feeling of us against everybody, you know. And that feeling is something that there’s only 14 million Jewish people around the world and Israel is such a small country and that feeling of a day-to-day basis, the people in Memphis and the people in Israel have the same, whether it’s from two different — it’s just the same thing.”
Tierinii sees a similarity in her kinship with Ori to that of Jewish immigrant Leonard Chess and his empathy for African American artists like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf on his Chess label in the 1950s and ’60s. “Absolutely. I think that’s one of the major ways that we relate to one another, Ori would say I learned about it from him because, being an African American woman, I have my own heart (aches), but it’s good when we sit down and talk about it, So, yeah, I have 100% of that relationship with him.”
On the other hand, she sees their paring in the band as a kind of kismet. “I don’t know, man. It just happened. The gospel era that I was raised on was very heavily blues influenced. So, meeting Ori was more like just running blues songs that I’d been hearing my whole life, but I haven’t been hearing enough to know anything about it. And then, of course, he was a writing partner, not only singing the blues but creating the blues and writing. It was a wonderful experience that happened.”
In 2013 Ori Naftaly reached the semi-Finals in the IBC, the highest an Israeli artist had placed at that point in time. He told Fox News, “I started my solo career, so to speak, in blues because that’s the one thing I felt that I owned, and I speak that fluently without thinking. The first place I got to in America was Memphis, and I fell in love with it.”
Ori had a friend in Israel who had a record store where he found American music magazines. His father is an avid music fan and has a large record collection. He built a following in Israel and represented his native country as an ambassador of the blues at the 2013 IBC and came back the next year and toured with his own band, running through six singers before he discovered Tierinii.
Tierinii: “When Ori came to America, he came with his solo band, and he wanted a change. So, he fired his blues singer and hired me to sing in his solo band, and then I brought my sister (Tikyra) on (as drummer), and he finished all his dates for that summer, but soon after I joined the band, we changed the name, we killed the set list, wrote new songs, and came up with new covers. We really just made it something that was ours as opposed to me just being in his band. So, he was looking for a singer and in this music community he found me.”
In 2016, less than a year after forming, Southern Avenue signed with a reformed Stax Records, the label that in the 1960s did for Memphis what Motown did for Detroit. Stax parent Concord Label Group President John Burk said upon signing, “This young group embodies the spirit and sound of Memphis, both past and present, and Stax is the perfect imprint to represent Southern Avenue’s unique blend of rhythm & blues, gospel and Southern soul.”
Tierinii understand the gravitas of the group’s relationship with the iconic label. “I certainly Feel like I’m running with the heavyweights. I know the legacy, and I know it’s a wonderful responsibility is what I like to say. It’s beautiful because it’s already just a part of our musical influence just being from the same area and then being able to wear that brand and respect. It’s not just a brand. It’s a legacy. To me, it’s a beautiful responsibility.”
Ori told Cleveland Scene, “We never thought we’d get signed to Stax. I grew up listening to Stax records and anything that came out of Memphis and New Orleans — whatever came out of places along the Mississippi River. To be signed to Stax is a dream come true.”
Released in February, 2017, the eponymously titled CD was produced by Kevin Houston of North Mississippi Allstars fame and includes guest shots by Allstars guitarist Luther Dickinson and trumpeter Marc Franklin of the Bo-Keys. Tierinii wrote or co-wrote seven of the 10 cuts that closely capture the intensity of their live delivery. The one cover Ann Peebles’ Memphis soul classic “Slipped, Tripped and Fell in Love” (written by George Jackson) is actually the weakest cut on a very strong debut effort. The CD opens with the strongest cut, “Don’t Give Up” which Tierinii calls an anthem that reflects her feeling being in music.
“I know the legacy of Memphis, and I understand the hustle side of the legacy that Memphis had of being thrown into band learning 60 songs in a week. It’s crazy. You have to figure out a formula, how to do it and how to run it without stepping on toes ’cause there’s no way I could have learned all these songs in five days. I had to play my best cards. I love all the music I did in these bands.”
But writing music was the thrill she’d been waiting for as she waded through those seven cover bands. “We realized early on we have the potential for something different, better and bigger. So, I just immediately started writing with him. I think that’s one of the reasons why he hired me ’cause Memphis is full of great singers and amazing performers, but he hired me because I can write. I love that because I always write, but I never really as approached specifically for being a writer. I don’t know how to explain it, but I guess it’s the passion and making sure that every lyric tells a story.”
The role of the Blues Foundation in bringing blues artists from different sides of the world together cannot be ignored. The IBC was an important catalyst in this creative endeavor. Southern Avenue sold more CDs than any of the other competitors at the 2017 IBC.
“The Blues Foundation really gave us out first platform, and so now we’re involved with branching out, but they gave us our first platform and really anybody supports that the way that they do in these early times, we’re very, very grateful. They gave us our first platform and we couldn’t be more thankful for it.
“Memphis is so full of amazingly talented musicians, and I feel so lucky that we were chosen for this even. I have to admit on the night we competed I was under terrible pressure. I kind of have to hide under a rock until we get on stage, or I’ll freak out and get nervous, but this was competition, so me knowing that Memphis is crawling with amazing musicians in general was already enough pressure for me to know that there’s going to be some tough competition when we do the Challenge, but on the night of the competition I really shied away and was like in a state. I was trying to ignore everything that was going on around me until it was time to go on stage.”
In Stax Records’ heyday, their hits were marketed as soul, the African American yin to white America’s pop hits. Today, the lines between soul and blues are blurred if they exist at all. But Tierninii considers American Avenue’s music to be soul, while The Blues Foundation’s voting members welcomed their addition to the blues family in the Foundation’s ever widening view of a genre that thankfully is dropping its past concerns about “blues content.”
I make soul music,” says Tierinii flatly, “and people will call it whatever they want, or people will label us as blues, and I accept it because it’s like my accent. I’m from Memphis and it’s the type of music I heard. So, of course, when I write something, it’s going to have that bluesy influence, but to me we do soul music, and I don’t think that people calling it blues restricts us. I think it targets a certain fan base, but it doesn’t restrict us musically, and it certainly hasn’t held us back because we’re doing like the biggest jam festivals in the world. We’ve done so well right out of the gate.”
The gravitas of faring well in The Blues Foundation’s IBC and of representing Memphis was a challenge for a shy girl who grew up in the Baptist Church where secular music was considered a sin even though blues is derived from it. And even though Tierinii’s success in secular music strains the grain in her relationship with her parents, it has not caused their complete alienation. “When I told my parents I didn’t want to just sing gospel music then they kinda shut me down even though they’re still loving, and we never really fought or anything. So, from early on I developed a shyness on that, and I could just only find my true freedom through writing music. So, I was writing secular music before I’m even allowed to listen to it. I thinks slowly but surely now they’re understanding that my purpose in life is and even though they can’t come to the shows and be supportive, they still show love in a way I feel like they’re understanding. So, my childhood was very, very sheltered which made me a very, very shy person when it comes to expressing myself. I wouldn’t call myself shy. I just know I truly found my true freedom through my music, and growing up I grew into that person. I’m probably just shy around them.”
The band has become her primary family. In addition to Ori on guitar and younger sister Tikyra Jackson on drums, they include keyboardist Jeremy Powell (an early alumnus of Stax’s legendary music academy), touring bass player Cage Markey (Daniel McKee played bass on the album).
“A normal relationship in a band is you sing, you show up, and you do your job, but with Southern Avenue the band we create a safe zone where we each individually can be ourselves and still be respected and accepted within the project of finding ourselves and who we are ’cause we’re very young, and we’re still growing and because we still love each other and accept each other, it feels more like a family than a band. We protect each other. We look after each other because we’ve got to be each other’s safe haven.
“I feel my band is more of my family than my own family because they love me, but there are parts about me that they don’t respect, but my band loves me and they respect me, and I try to give that same love and acceptance to each member in the band. The just become mine. That’s mine. It’s not like, ‘That’s my bass player.’ ‘That’s my TK.’ ‘That’s my Ori.’ ‘That’s my Jeremy.’”
Southern Avenue is currently working on their sophomore album. “Right now, we’re just recording demos. We’re doing a ton of demos. We’re in the studio recording the demos and then we’ll send them off to the label to choose which ones go on the album.”
“As far as the challenge (of a second album), it feels normal, just as normal as writing any record. But I think the challenge of the sophomore record comes from the critiques. I feel like the first album sets the bar really, really high. Then, the second album doesn’t reach that height. I think with us because half of our album we knew we were writing an album when we wrote half the songs. I feel like our first album is a good solid album.”
And she’s sure they’ve raised the bar height for their next release.
Check out Southern Avenue’s website at: www.southernavenueband.com/