On a recent Friday night, at the Vista Room, Atlanta favorites Ruby Velle & the Soulphonics hosted a real dream gig — a one-night-only all-star benefit for the Stax Music Academy in Memphis, Tennessee, in the 60th year since the founding of the legendary Stax Records.
Ruby and the boys (Jason Collier on trumpet, Ben Davis on alto sax, Tony Staffiero on baritone sax, Spencer Garn on keyboards, Zack Albetta on drums, Jake Lawson on bass, Scott Clayton on guitar and Scotty Brian on percussion) treated a packed house to a sizzling show of tributes to classics by Booker T & the MGs, Little Milton, the Staple Singers, Rufus Thomas, Lynda Lyndell, Isaac Hayes, Eddie Floyd, Otis Redding, Carla Thomas and many more. Ruby Velle shared the spotlight and lead-vocal duties with a stellar cast of three female singers. Atlanta favorite Lola Cole was on hand, but the special guests were Heather Hayes, daughter of the late great Stax artist Isaac Hayes; and New York’s Starr Ducan-Lowe, half of the duet Saun & Starr, who’ve worked with Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings. The Soulphonics’ trumpet player Jason Collier (a mainstay in the ATL Collective tribute show and a grad student at Georgia State University’s School of Music) took the mic to sing hits by Isaac Hayes, Otis Redding, William Bell and Rufus Thomas.
Ruby says, “We were beyond blessed to join in celebrating this music with the legends of the Stax family and many other descendants of soul greatness. In fact, Heather Hayes reached out to us to join the lineup when she saw we were doing it — she’s the real deal. Starr Ducan-Lowe brought the house down with her rendition of “Try a Little Tenderness”. Starr had just casually mentioned that eve that she shares in family tree with the sensational Ella Fitzgerald! In my ten plus of years of fronting this band, we’ve never had so many powerful voices on one stage; I was over the moon!”
It was Velle’s idea to produce this benefit concert as, she says, “a piece of positive action in a time that needs more of it.” Soul music and Stax Records in particular have provided the path for Ruby Velle’s musical life, and she wanted to give back. “It was a show of wild respect for the label’s legacy — celebrating 60 years of creating groundbreaking music — as well as keeping the legacy of that music alive by enabling youth (often under-privileged) a way to hone their musical craft. The work they do is worthy of a conversation alone!”
“The impact this music has made on all aspects of living in the South is too large to be measured. This label and these artists, they are the definition of resilience. They created a way out of no way. They took every risk lyrically and musically, they fought every creative battle to express true and genuine soul music. They carried a nation sonically through segregation and through hardships many of us will never know. And now they shine for us, to light the way.”
The Stax Music Academy is a Memphis after-school program, running for a decade, that gives music instruction to children in grades 6 through 12, right in the actual building where Stax Records had its home 60 years ago. They say that 100% of their students have gone on to college, including the Berklee College of Music. Student ensembles have toured Europe. They’ve got a YouTube channel. You can learn more about the Stax Music Academy and its umbrella organization the Soulsville Foundation at soulsvillefoundation.org. Lend your support.
What’s next for Ruby Velle and the Soulphonics? “Glad you asked!,” laughed the irrepressible Ruby. “We have a single dropping this year entitled “Broken Woman.” Our sophomore album State of All Things is getting in the que for release in 2018. Stay very tuned.”