jazz flautist Herbie Mann, that fuses the genres of Jazz and Rhythm & Blues (R&B). While Mann and the other principal soloists (Roy Ayers, Larry Coryell and Sonny Sharrock) were leading jazz musicians, the album was recorded in Chips Moman's American Studios in Memphis, a studio used by many well-known R&B and pop artists. The rhythm section was the house band at American Studios. The recording was engineered and produced by Tom Dowd.
Three of the five songs on the album were covers of songs originally released by Soul music artists. "Hold On, I'm Comin'" (by Sam & Dave), who recorded at Stax records (with the Stax rhythm section), and "Chain of Fools" (by Aretha Franklin) who recorded that song with the classic Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section at Atlantic Studios in New York.
Two members of the rhythm section on Franklin's recording (Gene Christman and Tommy Cogbill) perform on Memphis Underground.
A third song, "New Orleans", was also released by R&B artist (Gary U.S. Bonds), who recorded in Virginia.
So though the only one song was certifiably of Memphis vintage, the
conglomeration of young New York jazz musicians with one of the most
storied Southern rhythm sections proved to be the catalyst for creating
strong, fresh music that sounds like neither Memphis Soul nor New York
Jazz. This unique sound appealed to a large audience.
The record is one of the best-selling Jazz albums of all time. Rolling Stone said "Memphis Underground is a piece of musical alchemy, a marvelously intricate combination of the "Memphis sound" and jazz lyricism".
Memphis Underground was a favorite album of writer Hunter S. Thompson, who mentions it positively in several chapters of his book Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail. In the article The Battle of Aspen,
Thompson states that his "Freak Power" campaign used Mann's recording
of "Battle Hymn of the Republic" as the background music for their
Another writer, the British author Stewart Home, as a tribute to this Mann album, titled his 2007 novel (some call it an antinovel) Memphis Underground. In the novel, Home makes multiple references to soul, northern soul and jazz soul music.
OK, let's get the simple part out of way first--this is a well-made late
'60's jazz-pop album played by solid musicians and the title track is
infectious and bears repeated listening's. I think that Mann is not an
all-time great flute player, but he is a very good one and he's at his
best when he gets to work in an easy, lazy groove, like the title cut or
"Chain of Fools": he has a nice languid style on those cuts that brings
out the essence of the tunes. I'm not that wild about his "Battle Hymn
of the Republic", which seems like a pretty corny concept, and the
problem is that the album is only 35 minutes long to begin with, so cut
out that tune and you're left with 28 minutes. Seems like Rhino could
have reissued this on a disc with another of Mann's albums, like they've
done with reissues of other Atlantic stuff like Charles Lloyd.
that being said, there are some truly unusual things going on in this
album. Mann used to get a bad rap for being too pop, too "commercial",
and admittedly he can tend to play with a pretty light touch, at least
when compared to, say, Roland Kirk. But when he wanted to do this
jazz-rock album, he teamed up with a fairly gritty bunch of guys, i.e.
the Stax studio hounds, rather than a line-up of the usual jazz studios
wizards. This contrast would be unusual enough, but then Mann brought
along Sonny Sharrock, one of the most aggressive, "out-there" guitarists
around, and let him rip on "Hold On, I'm Comin'". (The song also has
Miroslav Vitous, another avant-gardist who was soon playing with Weather
Report, on bass.) The Stax guys, who started the song sounding so funky
and gritty, wind up sounding like Boy Scouts when Sharrock starts his
strafe-and-destroy feedback solo. All this arranged by a flute player
who was thought of as "light" and "commercial". You start to wonder
what darkness lurked in the heart of Mann. It's worth getting this album
just for this outrageous musical moment.
I first got this on vinyl in the mid 70's and was blown away by the jazz
rock sound the band put down. The title tune,Memphis Underground, is
still on of my favorite songs and I have been listening to it for 25
years. Possibly the best driving song ever. The rest of the album is
very good too. Lots of R&B feel and some wondrous jazz riffs. The
guitar and vibe sound great with Manns flute, and the rhythm section is
rock solid. I replaced the old vinyl album with a cd and if I lost it, I
would buy another in a minute. A listening treat.
I love this album, especially side two with Chain of Fools and Battle
Hymn. I first heard this on a $20 portable record player outside my
barracks in Nam in 1969. We played side two over and over. Imagine
hearing Battle Hymn in that setting. The record player was so bad that I
thought all those Larry Coryell riffs from Chain of Fools were a Saxophone. I've still never heard a guitarist pull off those kinds of
intelligent but driving arpeggios before; not your standard guitar
playing. Herbie excels at grooves, not notes so he doesn't have to be
some technical machine zombie. Not many jazz albums can boast such a
funky groove and rhythm section. I can still get people excited about
this album who don't listen to jazz and have never heard it. This for
me will always be the penultimate Herbie Mann album and Chain of Fools
will probably always remain my favorite Larry Coryell moment, although
he's had some other good ones on his own.
"Memphis Underground" (Herbie Mann) — 7:07
"New Orleans" (Frank Guida, Joseph Royster) — 2:07
"Hold On, I'm Comin'" (Isaac Hayes, David Porter) — 8:52
"Chain of Fools" (Don Covay) — 10:42
"Battle Hymn of the Republic" (Traditional, arranged by Herbie Mann) — 7:12
Herbie Mann – flute
Roy Ayers – vibes, conga on "Battle Hymn of the Republic"
Larry Coryell – guitar
Sonny Sharrock – guitar
Miroslav Vitouš - "Fender bass" on "Hold On, I'm Comin'"
"The Memphis rhythm section"
Reggie Young – guitar
Bobby Emmons – organ
Bobby Wood – electric and acoustic piano
Gene Chrisman – drums
Tommy Cogbill or Mike Leech - "Fender bass" (individual tracks not specified)