Update - The newsletter for the University of Memphis
More December Features:

David Evans: Connecting the notes
Blues recorded in black and white
Student places second at event
Holiday card winners
U of M participates in Angel Tree
Chris Peck to address graduates
Names in the news


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U of M records the blues in black and white to benefit needy musicians

By Gabrielle Maxey

The “Blues in Black & White” CD benefits needy local musicians and was produced partly by the U of M student-run BlueT.O.M. Records.

Call it a bit of “playback.”

The University of Memphis’ blues, jazz and gospel record label High Water Records and student-run BlueT.O.M. Records have collaborated for a rare blues album that is benefiting needy local musicians – some of the same musicians who originally recorded the songs.

“Blues in Black & White,” which features 10 cover songs controlled by the University’s publishing company, Music River Publishing (BMI), was recorded and produced by Music Industry Program students and local musicians to raise awareness for the High Water catalog and to bring attention to the plight of elderly musicians throughout the region.

The album benefits the Music Maker Relief Foundation, a public charity that provides support for Southern musicians who are 55 or older and have an annual income of less than $18,000. Those who donate $10 or more to the Foundation will receive the CD as a gift.

The MMRF offers three programs: Musician Sustenance grants to meet basic life needs and emergency relief, Musical Development grants for artist professional development and career advancement, and a Cultural Access program which supports the preservation and growth of American musical traditions.

The project began last semester with Tonya Butler, assistant professor and Music Business area coordinator who also serves as faculty adviser for BlueT.O.M. She realized that the U of M controlled a large catalog of blues songs that weren’t being effectively promoted or sold and decided to market and revive them.

Dr. David Evans, professor of music, and Dr. Richard Ranta, dean of the College of Communication and Fine Arts, had created High Water Records in 1979 to record the indigenous music of Memphis and the Mississippi Delta. “If you were a blues musician who played the jug or kazoo, you were not getting studio time at Sun Studio or Stax,” Butler said. “The music was in danger of becoming extinct.”

While the High Water recordings have been distributed for the past 20 years, they didn’t always get the highest exposure. Recently the songs have spiked in popularity, appearing in the Craig Brewer film Black Snake Moan and in international films and commercials.

Nick Black
Nick Black, at right, during a concert with the U of M group Sound Fuzion. Black, a senior music major, was instrumental in “Blues in Black & White.”

“A few CDs in the catalog were being sold through a third party distributor, but nothing was being done with the rest of the songs,” said U of M senior music business major Nick Black, who was president of BlueT.O.M. during the project. “Some of the songs are absolutely amazing, too.”

Butler decided that students should redo and cover some of these songs. “About halfway through the recording of everything, which was done entirely by students, we all realized that this could be something big, and we all agreed to find a cause that our new album of covers could stand behind,” Black said. “After a while we stumbled, almost by fate, onto the Music Maker Relief Foundation. What a perfect match. We’re doing a bunch of old blues covers, and MMRF actually supports some of the musicians we were covering.” 

The featured artists that were covered include Chicago Bob, Hammie Nixon, Jessie Mae Hemphill and The Pattersonaires. The music was written by songwriters such as Robert Lee Nelsen, Albert Wilson, George Walker and Ranie Burnette.

Black covered the Chicago Bob song “Call My Landlady” on the CD. “I have been incredibly impressed by the motivation of the students to get the job done,” he said. “I was privileged to be on the design team for the physical CD and digital booklet.”

In addition to its grants, the MMRF sponsors mini-tours for some of the musicians. “They don’t want to retire, they still want to perform,” said Butler. “This offers more than just professional support. It gives them an opportunity to continue their craft.”

In celebration of the album’s Dec. 1 release, BlueT.O.M Records hosted a party and fundraiser at Hard Rock Café on Beale Street to benefit the MMRF.

“To give back in this way is a gift from God,” Butler said. “To give someone the opportunity to support themselves and to perform in their later years, that means everything.”

For more information, go online to www.highwaterrecords.com.

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Last Updated: 1/23/12