The Bluff City – Memphis, Tennessee – is home to many a great musician. It is city rich in cultural value, in part because of musical hot beds like Sun Studios and Stax records. Beale Street has been the jump-off point for many blues and soul musicians.
So, it should come as no surprise that Memphis is where George Sluppick chooses to hang his hat.
Sluppick grew up playing music. At 19 he joined legendary blues guitarist Albert King and launched his career as a professional musician. Those early years allowed him many opportunities to play with icons likes B.B. King and Rufus Thomas. Then life pointed him west to Sand Diego, where he would be come a vital part of the music scene. He began to play with the Sha Na Na, and then eventually found his way to Fog City Records, the home of a young Galactic, Charlie Hunter, Papa Mali and the band George would become the backbone for, Robert Walter’s 20th Congress.
The 20th Congress was a monumental band on the scene, a West Coast favorite. After some time, George was introduced to new Fog City labelmates, Mofro, and things clicked. He would soon become the drummer for the band and spend the next five years touring the world. His tenure with JJ Grey and Mofro has come to a close, and Honest Tune had a chance to catch up with the funky drummer back in his hometown of Memphis.
Honest Tune: You have been on more than thirty different recordings and performed in a great deal of esteemed venues across the United States. Now you can also add writing movie scores to the list of accomplishments with your recent work on Gospel Hill. How did you get into the movie score game?
George Sluppick: Well, I got a call from my buddy, Scott Bomar, who did the music for "Hustle & Flow" and "Black Snake Moan." He was writing the score for a new film, "Gospel Hill," and needed some drums on one or two little segments. He said it wouldn’t take more than an hour or so, but we spent four hours together that night, and I’m on quite a bit of it. I’ve played drums on songs that were in movie soundtracks before—"As Good As It Gets" and " Hoot"—and I’ve done some commercials, but it was my first time doing an actual score and it was a total blast. I had a great time and would really like to do more of that kind of work. Scott is very easy to work with, too and let me have as much freedom and creativity as I wanted. He also engineered the tracks for the upcoming City Champs release. He’s great in the studio, patient and relaxed.
HT: After pretty much growing up on the road (leaving post graduation at the age of 19 to tour with Albert King) is the score writing an attempt to stay off the road a little more?
GS: Yes and no. I love touring, but I love being at home almost as much. I enjoy the recording studio – it can be a very relaxing environment. But I grew up playing on Beale Street as a youngster, so I’ve got the performance bug in me, too. I think that anyone that sets out to be a traveling musician needs to see how well they can adjust to a life on the road cause it definitely ain’t for the faint of heart. It’s a lot of fun, but it can be real rough on you, too.
To answer your question though, I still want to travel, but would like to spend more time in the studio, working with other artists, or on movies, all of that. I could get real addicted to being home and making music with my friends.
HT: After five years with JJ Grey and MOFRO, suddenly you’re no longer on the bus. You guys had just returned from Australia, and message boards started to buzz, the JJ Grey & MOFRO wikipedia page also was changed to say that you left the band. Is there is a story behind your departure?
GS: Well, people do love to talk and they certainly love their message boards, but it ain’t much of a story, really. To be honest, I was fired. I found out from a fan, initially, then, a few days later, I received a call from the band’s manager confirming.
I was told that I may need to find a new gig, because we might not be touring much for a while. Which was not the case. It was strange because nobody acted weird, it was just like they weren’t around anymore. Kind of an ugly situation. I mean I didn’t really feel like a contributing member any more anyway. Things had definitely changed. I mean I still have not heard anything from JJ. And I feel like I am much happier without the job.
But, there’s no hard feelings or nothing, and they’ve got a new drummer. I wish them all the best. They’re a great band and I had an amazing five-year run with them, made three killer records, traveled to Europe, Australia, Canada and damn near every state in the U.S. Good times, no regrets.
HT: Since you are not on the road with MOFRO, what are you planning to do while hanging out in Memphis? On your MySpace page you have dates posted with Memphis’ finest, The Bo-Keys and The City Champs. What is it like playing with legends like the Stax Records alumni The Bo-Keys?
GS: I am having a ball with The City Champs and we’re playing a good bit around town and hope to do more in the future. We have an EP coming out on Scott Bomar’s label Electraphonic Records.
As far as playing with The Bo-Keys, well, it’s a real treat, and I am honored that they even asked me to join their group. Bomar is the bassist and leader of the band, and he’s assembled some of Memphis’ biggest hit-makers to play with him.
On guitar is Charles “Skip” Pitts, Isaac Hayes’ guitarist and musical director for over 35 years. There’s no one else like him in the world. That’s his wah-wah guitar part on Isaac’s theme from Shaft, and he’s a legend here in Memphis. He recorded, “Do The Funky Chicken”, with Rufus Thomas, “It’s Your Thing”, with the Isley Brothers and a lot of others. Man, Skip is so killer.
The keyboardist, Archie Turner-Mitchell is Willie Mitchell’s step-son, and he and I played together with Albert King when I was a kid, so it’s great to be able to play with him again in this setting. He’s a monster of a piano and organ player and has played made a ton of records with folks like Otis Clay, Ann Peebles, Syl Johnson, Little Jimmy King, Bobby Rush and many with Al Green. As a member of the Hi Rhythm Section, he’s done a tremendous amount of work at Willie Mitchell’s Royal Recording Studio.
Ben Cauley plays trumpet along with Marc Franklin, and they both rock. Ben is the only surviving member of the plane crash that killed Otis Redding. He nearly drowned with the rest of the band, but was pulled out of that frozen lake and suffered from hypothermia. Ben is literally a walking miracle and is also one hell of a nice guy. He was a member of the Bar-Kays and that’s his high trumpet parts on “Soul Finger." He’s also the link that got us all connected with "Soul Men," Bernie Mac’s last movie he made with Samuel Jackson. There was an article about Ben here in Memphis that landed him in the movie and The Bo-Keys on the soundtrack.
With The Bo-Keys, I’ve had the chance to back up William Bell, Betty Harris and Barbara Mason. I tell you, man, when I go and play a show with them, I am literally sharing the stage with some of soul music’s greatest living legends, and I have to keep myself in check. It’s a humbling experience.
HT: Would you tell us a little about the new project The City Champs? Who the players are, and where the project came together from?
GS: The City Champs—which is myself on drums, Al Gamble (The Gamble Brothers) on Hammond organ and Joe Restivo on electric guitar—grew from an idea that I had a couple of years ago, when I decided to move back home to Memphis. I wanted to put together a boogaloo band and when I met these guys and we played together the first time, I knew that was it.
Originally, we were a quartet with a saxophone player, Art Edmaiston, and we were called The Grip. We recorded a five-song EP, which came out on Archer Records last year, but that band ended up not really working out, so we continued on as a trio. Art is now the sax player with MOFRO and has been with them for a couple of years. The three of us (me, Al and Joe) have been playing together for about a year, and it’s just now starting to take shape. Al came up with the name. Joe is a great writer and has penned a lot of the original material, but then we arrange the stuff as a band and it works out nicely. Al’s a talented writer as well, and has written a couple of the tunes we play, so everyone contributes a lot to the music. I’m not much of a writer, but my strengths lie more in the arrangement side of things and coming up with grooves. I’m real good at figuring out parts and transitions, and I’m learning a lot playing with these guys.
We’re influenced by so many of the same folks, like Booker T. & the M.G.’s, Jimmy Smith, Lonnie Smith, Lou Donaldson, Grant Green, Willie Mitchell, Big John Patton, James Brown, etc., then there are a lot of individual favorites. My personal hero is Levon Helm – master drummer, always plays for the song, never gets in anyone’s way and sings his ass off! I definitely think of him, pretty often when I’m behind the kit, and especially when I’m singing. Although with the Champs, I’m not doing any singing, as we’re strictly an instrumental group at this point. We’ve talked a little about bringing in some vocals, but haven’t made it that far just yet. Al Gamble is a great singer, and I’d love to do some stuff where he and I were harmonizing together.
HT: At this time it looks to be a project you guys are keeping pretty local to Memphis? Is this something we may see start to grow out into some festival dates and maybe small tours, hopefully?
GS: We’re definitely hoping that it will go in that direction, but a lot of other things have to happen first. We are working on getting our record out, and that’s our main focus at this point. I have talked with several bands that said they would like to take us out on tour with them, but we have to have our CD ready first. Right now there are a few labels that have shown some interest, and we’re trying to figure out which of them will be the best fit for us, then we can move ahead from there.
I think we’d work great as an opener for bands like Galactic, Widespread Panic, Derek Trucks and the Allman Brothers, cause those groups have many of the same elements that we have: strong, groovin’ instrumentals, solid backbeats and soloing from Hammond organ and electric guitar. And if any of those bands are reading this, we’re ready to come on tour with y’all.
HT: Are there any other projects on the horizon we should know about?
GS: Well actually I got to hang with my old friend Papa Mali earlier this year. We will always be old friends, and I know I always have a home with Papa Mali. So it was great to get back together. We did Blues Cruise together, and recently did a killer recording at Tree Sound Studios in Atlanta.
Also there’s some dates on the table with Jimbo Mathus. We were introduced through his wife Olga. I am really looking forward to this. Jimbo is amazing. I mean he really has a gift for writing songs.
HT: You have been a part of the musical landscape in many cities. You settled in nicely to the west coast scene, and quickly found a home with Sha Na Na, then Robert Walter’s 20th Congress. Do you feel more in tune with music here in the South with its deep-rooted history in cities like Memphis, New Orleans and the juke joints of Mississippi? Or the swinging laid back groove and open-minded nature of the west coast? Is there any difference in your opinion, to making music in those different cultures?
GS: I had a great time living out west, and the folks I met there were definitely a lot more laid back than people I grew up with, but it was a different experience playing music in California. People hired me because they said I sounded different than other drummers, but I didn’t know what they meant. They said that I sounded like Memphis. It kinda floored me because, at that time, I was 23 and had never thought of myself as having a sound that was my own.
But I was getting a ton of work and decided it would be a good idea to go back and really listen to those records that I grew up with to see if I could figure out what those folks were talking about. What I discovered was that a lot of the drummers on those records—people like Al Jackson Jr., Willie Hall, Howard Grimes, Fred Below, Roger Hawkins, of course Levon, to name a few—they played very simple parts that fit perfectly with the music, and they laid down a groove that didn’t get in the way. They played only what was necessary for the song. Well, that was exactly what I was doing, but I’d never really thought about it before. I thought that was how you were supposed to play when backing up a band or a singer.
Anyhow, a few years later, not long after I got the gig with Robert Walter, Dan Prothero at Fog City Records introduced me to his latest new band, MOFRO. He said that he wanted me to record with them cause he liked what I was doing with Robert and thought I would fit with them. They had attempted to record with a drummer from England, who apparently didn’t really understand where JJ was coming from, musically and culturally speaking, and about ninety percent of that session was a total bust. After sending that dude packing back to England, they hired me and I flew down to St. Augustine, Florida and we spent ten days together recording their debut, Blackwater. During those sessions, I realized right away, that I had finally discovered my own sound, and that having done all of that research, was really beneficial. I was getting back to the roots of where I came from. I’d discovered that Memphis sound, and I knew that I wanted to play with them as a member of the band and put it in the back of my mind, to work on later.
Afterward, when I got back to San Diego and the 20th Congress, things were much different. I had a renewed confidence in myself and who I was as a musician, and I’ll always remember that. I owe so much to Robert for introducing me to so many folks, people like Dan, JJ, Charlie Hunter, Galactic, Skerik, Fred Wesley, Melvin Sparks, Soulive, etc. Playing in the 20th Congress, was what really jump-started my career and helped put me where I am today.
When I left San Diego, I lived in New York City for a hot minute, as well as Jacksonville, Florida and New Orleans. My fiancée and I went through Hurricane Katrina and that whole mess, evacuated to Austin, where we lived for ten months, then settled back here in Memphis. But to answer your question honestly, the whole reason I moved back home to the South, was to get back to the culture that I grew up in, that inspired me to want to be a musician: the food, the music, the people, and the river. It’s all here in Memphis and I’m happy to be back home. I spent fifteen years running away from this place, thinking I could find a better life in other cities, but when I came back here for a visit, I realized I’d just been running away from myself the whole time and that everything I could ever want or need was right in front of me. Memphis is a special place and I definitely feel “in tune”, as you put it.
HT: If you could pull from all the musicians from your past, and put together a band to start touring with who would it be?
GS: Oh wow, that’s so hard to answer. There are so many, but if I could, right now, I’d have Nathan James on guitar, an amazing blues guitarist/singer/songwriter from the west coast, Robert Mercurio on bass, Al Gamble on organ and Tricia “Sista Teedy” Boutte on lead vocals. In the horn section would be John Ellis on tenor, Alex Norris, trumpet and Fred Wesley on trombone. That would be my band and we could cover so much ground…soul, R&B, blues and rock-n-roll. Not only are these people at the top of my list of favorite musicians, but they’re also some of the nicest folks I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with.
HT: I am from the South, in nearby Nashville, Tennessee. As we grow up in the South we have to get use to sweating it out in the summer time. However Memphis seems to always be way hotter than Nashville. What is your favorite way to beat that muggy summer heat down there in Memphis?
GS: Man, brother, I’ll be honest with you, it doesn’t really bother me and there isn’t any way to beat it, unless you live in a swimming pool. My fiancée, Sara, is from Philly and we have to keep the air conditioner running in the house, mostly for her cause she can’t take the heat as much as I can. She’s been doing really good with it so far and I’m real proud of her, but it doesn’t effect me the same way. I will get a glass of tea, or water and sit out on my front porch swing and just kick it.
I won’t lie to you though, it does get hot here and the humidity will definitely put some sweat on my brow, so I carry a bandana around with me, in my back pocket and that seems to work fine. Moving back here from San Diego, it took me a minute to get used to it again, but now that I’ve been back for two years, I look forward to the summertime. What’s different about Memphis though, that I hadn’t noticed as much in other cities, is that at night in the summer, it will cool down considerably and make for some really beautiful evenings. I love it. I’ll tell you what though, if there is a nice cold pool or lake around, then I’ll be the first one in it.
HT: One more Memphis question. If you had to tell someone from out of town where to eat would you pick Gus’ Hot Fried Chicken, Rendezvous, Neely’s Interstate Bar-B-Q or something special we may not know of?
GS: My all-time personal favorite is the BBQ Shop on Madison in Midtown. It absolutely rocks. The places you mentioned are great too, and I’ve eaten at all of them, many, many times, but the BBQ Shop is where it’s at. I love the pork sandwich with slaw and Sara gets the chicken plate. The sauce is sweet and thick and their beans are fantastic! Oh man, I get hungry just talking about it.