On the Road to Soul
By Kevin Wierzbicki | Photography courtesy of David McClister
The first Memphis-based band signed by legendary Stax Records in 50 years, Southern Avenue is on the road to worldwide fame.
If you’re in Memphis seeking out the Soulsville neighborhood and the McLemore Avenue address where the vaunted Stax Records once stood, you may very well motor down Southern Avenue to get there.
You can also get to Soulsville without even getting in the car by listening to the music of Memphis-based Southern Avenue, a soul, blues, and R&B band that honors the sounds that Memphis is famous for.
Southern Avenue is fronted by guitarist Ori Naftaly and singer Tierinii Jackson, and according to Naftaly, it was apparent upon their first meeting that the pair was bound for good things.
“I had asked a drummer I was working with about who was the best singer in Memphis who also writes songs,” Naftaly remembers. “He showed me a video of Tierinii, and I immediately knew she was the one. When we met for the first time it felt like it was right.”
So right in fact that the band’s 2019 album Keep On, their second release overall, was nominated for a GRAMMY Award in the Best Contemporary Blues Album category.
Besides Naftaly and Jackson, Southern Avenue consists of Tierinii’s sister Tikyra Jackson on drums and Jeremy Powell, a graduate of the Stax Records Music Academy, on keyboards. Memphis musician Gage Markey handled most of the bass parts on Keep On as a guest player. The album, having been recorded locally at Sam Phillips Recording Studio, also gets a huge injection of Memphis soul via a guest appearance from legendary Stax Records vocalist William Bell of “I Forgot to Be Your Lover” and “You Don’t Miss Your Water” fame.
About working with Bell on Keep On, Naftaly says, “I think the most memorable moment was when we wrote ‘We’ve Got the Music.’ I shared my vision for the song with William and Tierinii, and together we wrote the lyrics.”
Naftaly came up with a Memphis-style guitar lick. “The process had a nice flow to it and we learned a lot from writing with William Bell,” he says.
“We’ve Got the Music” is augmented by bright horn work from Gregg Allman Band alums Art Edmaiston and Marc Franklin and clocks in just short of two minutes, but that’s all the time that Jackson and Bell need to craft a hook-filled duet that makes for an easy sing-along. Jackson mesmerizes on her own throughout the album, particularly on cuts like the funky “She Gets Me High,” the slow sizzle of “Savior,” and the classic Memphis soul of “Lucky.”
Naftaly, who cites Jimi Hendrix, Steve Cropper, Carlos Santana, and BB King among his influences, has been a lifelong fan of Memphis music although he got his first taste of the sound from afar. A native of Israel, the guitarist has been playing since he was five years old and grew up listening to jazz, blues, soul, and funk.
“My dad had a few boxed sets of Memphis music so it was always part of my upbringing to listen to the Memphis sound,” he says. “I never thought I would be recording for Stax and never thought I would be writing songs that would be in the Stax catalog. Dreams do come true!”
Southern Avenue’s self-titled debut album was recorded for Stax Records while Keep On is on the Concord Records imprint, the parent of Stax Records.
Southern Avenue has taken a relatively quick route on the road to success; Naftaly only came to Memphis seven years ago and the band’s debut album dropped fairly recently in 2017. That record hit the No. 6 spot on Billboard’s Top Blues Album Chart and the No. 1 spot on the iTunes Blues Chart. The band has played festivals like Bonaroo and toured tirelessly with stars like Buddy Guy, North Mississippi Allstars, JJ Grey & Mofro, and Umphrey’s McGee. When Stax Records signed Southern Avenue, it was the first time the label had signed a Memphis band in 50 years.
Southern Avenue is touring throughout February, playing headlining shows as well as opening for Los Lobos, Ozomatli, and Galactic. The band will head for Europe in March where they’ll play as the headliner for a string of shows in Norway and Denmark.
One place not on the schedule as of yet, is Naftaly’s homeland. “I’ve never been back with the band to Israel,” Naftaly says. “It’s something that I would really like to do.”
There’s little doubt that the road that Southern Avenue is on will indeed eventually take them to Israel and many other as-yet unvisited locales, and they’ll take Memphis with them.