If you were to walk into a Memphis nightclub in the 1950s — say, the Flamingo Room or the Hippodrome or any of the other long-gone legendary Beale Street venues of the era — what would the music be like? What would you see on stage?
“You wouldn’t be seeing someone doing Stevie Ray Vaughn covers; you wouldn’t be seeing what you see on Beale Street or in the modern blues scene now,” says Joe Restivo, guitarist with the Love Light Orchestra.
A new Memphis band, the Love Light Orchestra transports local audiences back to the era when rhythm and blues big bands — led by the likes of Willie Mitchell, Gene “Bowlegs” Miller, Al Jackson Sr., and Phineas Newborn Sr. — were king. “What you’d see at the time would be bunch of saxophones and horns, and a crooner fronting a big R&B band doing an uptown thing,” says Restivo. “That’s what music — blues music, R&B music — was in Memphis back then.”
Led by Restivo, trumpeter Marc Franklin — both members of retro soul outfit The Bo-Keys — and noted Bluff City blues singer John Németh, the Love Light Orchestra is re-conjuring a sound and style that was dominant in Memphis, and that would have a formative influence on the young artists who would come to stock the rosters of Stax Records and Hi Records in the decades to come. On Thursday, Dec. 8, the Love Light Orchestra — named after the Bobby "Blue" Bland hit "Turn On Your Love Light" — will play its final show of 2016 at Lafayette’s Music Room.
Although they’ve performed together just a handful of times since launching the project in July, Restivo and Franklin had long been been toying with the idea of starting an R&B big band. “Me and Marc had been talking for years about doing a big, multiple-horn-driven blues act,” says Restivo. “Serendipitously, I saw John out one night, and we got to talking, and he had a similar idea. He was thinking about a Jimmy Witherspoon-type project. Witherspoon was a blues singer, but he was sort of uptown; he would use jazz musicians in his band. It was kind of a coincidence that we were both working along the same lines. So we decided to do it together and went from there.”
Coming up with a repertoire, Restivo, Franklin and Nemeth each picked seven songs to bring to the project. “Most of the theme is Memphis singers or songs that were born out of Memphis,” says Németh, noting a heavy number of artists of local artists who recorded for the Duke/Peacock label. “There’s a lot of Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland and Little Junior Parker and B.B. King — we throw in some Buddy Ace and Percy Mayfield numbers as well. It’s kind of a greatest hits of the era, though not all of the songs were hits.”
With Németh on vocals, Resitvo on guitar and Franklin handling lead trumpet and arrangements, the trio went about expanding to a 10-piece, adding a murderer’s row of local musicians: Tim Goodwin on upright bass, Earl Lowe on drums and Gerald Stephens on keys; plus a horn section rounded out by Scott Thompson on trumpet, Kirk Smothers on bari sax, Art Edmaiston on tenor sax and Jason Yasinsky on trombone.
From the start of their rehearsals this summer, it was clear that something special was happening, as they tore through a collection of brassy blues ballads and jump numbers. “Well, John knows that music better than anybody,” says Restivo. “And Marc was in Bobby Bland’s band for years, as was our drummer. We just felt like, ‘Let’s do it right, get the arrangements correct, lets make it what you would walk in and hear in that era.’ That was always the goal: to get that feeling right.”
For Nemeth, his connection with the band was immediate. “The one thing I’m so impressed with is everybody just knows how to groove this music with a real innate feeling,” he says. “The chemistry is just there. That’s something that can kill a group like this — if it’s not running with the right groove right off the bat. As a vocalist it’s really easy for me to slip right into the natural swing and backbeat of this music with these guys.”
After just a handful of gigs — mostly at Lafayette’s — the response has been one of pleasure and perhaps a bit of surprise from audiences. “I think most people have never really seen this kind of act before,” says Restivo. “It’s new for them, whereas back in the day it was a common thing. There’s a visual quality to it too, with 10 pieces and five horns on stage. When you walk into a club and see, hear and feel that, it’s very powerful — it’s a lot of sound.”
Although it requires a good bit of logistical work to make a Love Light Orchestra gig happen, the group is planning more shows and even recording. “The way we’re approaching the project is just one step at a time. We want to do a record; we’re working on some original arrangements and original music. We hope to cut an album and shop it,” says Restivo, noting the band will showcase at February’s International Blues Challenge. “John is a big strong name and artist in the blues scene nationally and internationally, so we’re hoping to pitch the Orchestra to talent buyers and get on some festivals too. It would be an incredible festival act.”
Despite having his own thriving solo career, Németh, jokes that he’d “like to keep the going forever, do it for 30, 40 years. Cut a bunch of records and get it out town. And even if we don’t, doing this is something that makes us better musicians, makes us better people. Once you hear it, it’s hard not to enjoy this music.”
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