Last month we went to Memphis to check out the work of the legendary Duck Dunn, and while there are many more tracks to discover from him, this time I’m heading across to the Hi side of town (perhaps with a pit stop at Central BBQ for some Memphis dry rub!). Hi Records was founded in 1957 and focused on the nascent marriage between country and rock & roll. The label’s earliest hit came in 1959 with “Smokie” (Pt. 1 & Pt. 2), an instrumental by the Bill Black combo, as in Bill Black—bass player for Elvis Presley. From the Bill Black Combo came saxophonist Ace Cannon, whose lusty growl bridged the gap between rockabilly and blues, and graced more solo albums for Hi Records than any other artist. But when trumpeter/arranger/bandleader Willie Mitchell joined the Hi team, the label began its shift toward the soul/R&B sound it became famous for. Mitchell formed his studio band around the Hodges brothers: Charles (organ), “Teenie” (guitar), and our bass focus this month, Leroy.
The Hodges Brothers started performing around Memphis in the late ’50s with their father’s band, and their close-knit groove was well established by the time Mitchell put up mics and transformed them into the Hi Rhythm Section. Along with Howard Grimes on drums, or occasionally Stax groove-master Al Jackson, the Hodges Brothers backed up the stable of Hi artists like Ann Peebles, Syl Johnson, O.V. Wright, and Otis Clay, but certainly nothing eclipses their work with the inimitable Al Green. Green is one of those rare artists who has become his own genre—his music is Al Green Music. Tell any well-versed rhythm section to give a song an Al Green vibe, and they know what to do. The Hi Rhythm feel is a study in contrast: laid back, but propulsive. Active, but sparse. Bottom-heavy, but light. Leroy Hodges is the mortar that bonds together these seemingly disparate elements with his deeply grounded pulse and inventive lines that serve the song, if not always conventional logic.
The music of Al Green holds many surprises: odd-measure phrases, bars of 2/4, vamps of varying lengths, atypical chord changes, inverted chord structures—with each song possessing its own genetic code that must be learned in order to play correctly. Hodges’ bass lines confront the demands of the music and offer up a challenge of their own. The first four measures of Example 1 are similar to the chorus of “Love and Happiness,” which uses a straightforward b6–5–1m cadence. But Hodges spins it so it feels backwards, putting the 5 of each chord on the downbeat, resolving to the I chord on beat four of the first measure, and using the phrase’s second measure to “backpedal” to the downbeat of the next phrase. Continuing on through the seven-bar verse, Hodges plays a bubbly part that follows the descending harmony and effectively jumps registers to simultaneously bring out the line and anchor the groove. This is all bass-ackwards by most standards, and yet this off-kilter approach is an integral part of what makes Al Green’s music transcendent.
While popularized by Talking Heads, Al Green’s version of “Take Me to the River” features one of Hodges’ heaviest grooves (Ex. 2). It’s simple but ingenious in how it lays down the groove in bar 1, then jumps register to answer it in bar 2. Example 3 gives you an idea how Hodges deals with the song’s five-and-a-half-bar pre-chorus section, and how deftly he glides through the bar of 2/4.
Al Green’s most popular and most-frequently mangled song is “Let’s Stay Together.” The harmony has ambiguities that could easily lead you astray if you’re learning the song by ear (on the bandstand), but most tricky is the combination of feels that co-exist throughout the track. The basic rhythm track has a relaxed two feel, with tight eighths on the hi-hat and a dreamy blend of chorus and strings in the background. The low tom pounds out a double-time gallop that rides over the top of the rhythm bed while also dominating the low end. It syncs with the bass part in interesting ways, at times “ghosting” notes that you might have thought Hodges played. Example 4 gives you the basic idea of how he approached this iconic track.
Leroy Hodges’ contributions to Al Green’s music cannot be overstated, and while that body of work alone assures his place in the Hall of Greats, his participation in the creation of the Hi Records catalog certifies him as 100 percent R&B Gold. Hodges is still playing and recording, having appeared on Melissa Etheridge’s 2016 album, Memphis Rock and Soul. Al Green is a mainstay of the classic R&B canon, and his music is a study unto itself. To fully appreciate his legacy, start at the bottom, with the Hi Rhythm Section.
Ed Friedland is currently touring with Grammy Award winners the Mavericks.