Memphis Soul Doc ‘Take Me to the River’ Is Giving Back to Musicians in Need

Photo Courtesy of 'Take Me to the River'

In Take Me to the River, Martin Shore's documentary about music scenes in and around Memphis since the late 1950s, veteran artists are united in recording studios with singers and rappers two or three generations younger.

Snoop Dogg Helps Premiere 'Take Me to the River' at SXSW

The film, which starts its theatrical rollout on Friday, features collaborations between Stax legend William Bell and Snoop Dogg, the late Bobby "Blue" Bland with Yo Gotti, Mavis Staples singing "Wish I Had Answered" and "I've Been Buked" with the North Mississippi Allstars backing her, and Otis Clay, Booker T. Jones, Bobby Rush and Charlie Musselwhite partnering with Frayser Boy, the Stax Music Academy and P-Nut on other tracks. Stax released the soundtrack on Tuesday (Sept. 9).

"It took me four years to do the project, and the only thing that drove me was I didn't want to let down anyone who was a Memphian," says Shore over coffee at L.A.'s Farmer's Market. "I knew that the stories have been bastardized so many times, people grabbing the bones and sifting through the ashes to find some gold. I wanted people like (Stax songwriter) David Porter and Memphis' conservative elite to uniformly bless this movie, and they did."

At an L.A. screening of the film, Shore received an endorsement from one of the young hip-hop artists involved in the film. The film, says Al Kapone, "bridges all the gaps. Some know the soul music history, some know the hip-hop. This shows the full spectrum in a light that does not have a lot of negativity."

Shore, a film producer and drummer who was in Hill Country Revue with Cody Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars, discussed the documentary, Memphis music history and the possibility of a 2015 "Take Me to the River" tour.

The film looks like there was a game plan to pair older musicians with youngsters. Was that the key factor, or was there a story driving the creation of this film?

It started with talking to Cody about how we're losing all the original people who built this musical utopia in the 1960s. It took us three years of talking on long bus rides together. The call to action was when (Dickinson's father) Jim died on the heels of Alex Chilton and (producer) Willie Mitchell dying all within a 12-month period, plus Isaac Hayes dying just before that. If we don't get started now, we'll never get started.

Can you sum up what made Memphis unique?

In the musical utopia days, when you walked through Stax or Hi, it didn't matter your race or gender or age in a very segregated area. You made music that was good and felt good to you.

That utopia was shattered with the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., which a lot of outsiders probably do not realize. Stax had its money issues, but it was not the same in the '70s.

The culture and the city was devastated in so many ways, it's kind of hard to talk about. There was a subtle effort to keep the music business down for a while and that was enough to put it behind the curve. It was really difficult for that community to see Isaac Hayes rolling down the street in a gold-plated Cadillac and buying a house in the finest neighborhoods of Memphis. There was sort of a blame from the white community. How could this happen here?

Beyond that, it seems like a lot of the film explores ways to use music to bridge generation gaps.

The community was fractured. Not just in music, the older generation doesn't talk to the younger generation. So the idea was to put legacy musicians that might not have a favorable attitude about certain genres with youngsters so they could learn about each other in a natural and organic way. It would be natural and everybody would understand each other. Putting a gangster rapper like Yo Gotti with Bobby "Blue" Bland is a perfect juxtaposition of what we were talking about. It was a gamble -- they both were as perplexed as anybody as to what was going to happen.

Where did you start?

Cody and I just wrote on the wall all the people we would want who were relevant. The only qualification was they had to be from or have extensive Memphis roots and the Delta. We said let's do it with Mavis. We went to SXSW and talked to (her manager) Dave Bartlett, an old friend of Cody's, and he hooked it up. Mavis had known the North Mississippi Allstars because they had done a package tour and she said yes immediately. That and the Booker T. sessions with North Mississippi Allstars and Al Kapone started us.

As the film progresses, it feels like the ultimate objective is to get a record out of the project. Was that a goal?

As a filmmaker, what possessed me was to tell the story, not just make new and important, fresh, urgent music; to tell a story and bring people on a journey. I knew it would be hard to make them seamlessly independent.

The beauty of Take Me to the River is that you have musicians all from the same area sharing stories that neither has heard. You didn't have to rely on talking heads or old footage to make a point about Stax or Hi Records.

We never hang in a place where we're archivally dependent. We try to live in the moment and give you some backstory. People have told me that the second or third time they see it they realize there is more to it than just the music. Very knowledgeable people have come up to me and said "I never knew this" or "I never put these things together" or "I never understood what it was like to be on the ground with Martin Luther King, what it was like for musicians and how his murder affected lives."

How did you fund this?

The original funding came from three individuals. Foundations came on later for support on (prints and advertising) and everything needed to promote the film, the album and our live performances. I only own 25 percent, and 75 percent of all proceeds go to aging musicians in need, mostly health care agencies, plus Soulsville and the Stax Music Academy that serves the youngsters.

Prior to the film's release, you had screenings sponsored by the Recording Academy with some of the talent involved. What's next?

We really hope that we will have a tour together by spring or summer 2015, here and in Europe.

An edited version of this article appeared in the Sept. 13 issue of Billboard.