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
“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
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, 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
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.