Question: What do recent hit albums by Peter Gabriel, Steve Winwood and Robert Cray have in common with earlier best sellers by Otis Redding and Al Green?
Answer: the Memphis Horns, the two-man team that has recorded with all of these artists and sparked countless other chart-topping records in its 25-year history.
Trumpeter Wayne Jackson and saxophonist Andrew Love’s trademark sound--which will be on display in bluesman Robert Cray’s show Saturday at the Universal Amphitheatre--includes dramatic introductions and punchy accents rooted in a “horn philosophy” born in grinding tours of Southern nightclubs.
“We’d just try and get the folks excited,” the 44-year-old Jackson explained during a telephone interview from his Memphis home. “The way we see horn sounds is different from other players. To say we have mental telepathy is not very far off. What amazes people is we don’t have to ask each other what notes we’re going to play.”
Having recorded as part of the house band for the Stax and Hi record labels in the 1960s and 1970s, the Memphis Horns are no strangers to Cray’s popular blend of stinging rock and soul.
“It’s wonderful to see rhythm and blues hitting the pop market again,” Jackson said. “There are a lot of young singers out there but this is a bluesman for real. It feels like Andrew and I have come home again.”
Cray, a Stax fan, is happy to talk about the biracial horn section that contributed to his last two albums and first joined him on stage several weeks ago in his home state of Washington.
“The Memphis Horns blend together better than anyone I’ve ever heard,” Cray said. “We always thought if we could get a horn section in the band they’d be the perfect one.”
Said Jackson: “The first day we played together in 1964 it sounded that way. We’re a curious combination: I’m a white boy from Arkansas and Andrew is a preacher’s son.”
Jackson started out in 1961 as a member of the Mar-Keys, a studio band that included the influential guitarist Steve Cropper and bassist Donald (Duck) Dunn, both later of Booker T. & the MGs. With the newly formed Stax Records label, the Mar-Keys hit the Top 10 that year with the instrumental “Last Night” and helped forge the sound for which the label became famous.
Fiery R&B; singers such as Redding, Sam & Dave, Johnnie Taylor and Eddie Floyd followed each other into the Stax studio to cut hit after hit record with the MGs and the Memphis Horns, who augmented their sound with a number of studio players. Producer Willie Mitchell called on the horn team for albums by highly regarded soul singers Al Green, Ann Peebles and O.V. Wright, all for Hi Records.
“We’d have an album to do in an afternoon,” Jackson remembered. “So we’d split it up. Andrew would take four songs and I’d take four. Very seldom was a horn chart written out. With today’s techniques, of course, that would be impossible.”
The Memphis Horns recently completed an album they hope to release when the right deal comes along.
Of the hundreds of sessions Jackson took part in, he remembers eagerly looking forward to Redding’s trips to the studio.
“We sort of marked time by when Otis was coming back,” Jackson said. “He was a natural horn player. He would sing a rhythm to us and we would make a line out of it.”
The memory of Redding, who died in a plane crash in 1967, was brought back for Jackson during a week of dates with Cray at London’s Hammersmith Odeon last April. The last time the horn section played the London theater was in ’67 with Redding and the Stax-Volt Revue.
“It was almost 20 years to the month,” Jackson said. “When we walked down the little cobblestone alley to the theater, it was so familiar. It was like smelling freshly cut grass, the way it takes you back to your childhood. We were pretty young when all that was happening.”