Cato is one of the "lost" acts featured on the compilation Stone Crush.
When most people think of Memphis Soul, it’s the era from the mid-‘60s to mid-‘70s where labels like Stax and Hi put out the massively popular – then and now – music by artists like Otis Redding, Al Green, Booker T. and the MG’s, Sam and Dave, Carla Thomas, and the Bar-Kays.
The cover to Stone Crush was created by Memphis artist James "Brick" Brigance.
Light in the Attic record cover
But the decade after that heyday has been largely overlooked, which many of the locally-made 45 singles of small numbered-pressings disappearing into memories or grandma’s dusty attic.
That was, until record collectors/DJs Daniel Mathis and Chad Weekley went on a hunt for the music and the people that made it. The result is the incredible compilation Stone Crush: Memphis Modern Soul 1977-1987 (Light in the Attic Records), for which the pair also served as co-producers with Matt Sullivan.
The idea for the project started a decade ago. “Nobody have ever really focused on the whole after-Stax period of Memphis [soul and funk] music,” Mathis explains. “It was territory that had never been covered before, and we could introduce it to a new audience. We had our ears to something that is out of the norm. This music brought in a lot of synthesizers, drum machines, and home recording setups.”
And indeed, the music on Stone Crush is something of a revelation: Deep, fast-paced, and funky soul awash in sex, synthesizers, drum machines, and dance beats – with several slow jams thrown in. It includes artists known only to expert crate diggers like Captain Fantastic & Starr Fleet (“Under Cover Lover”), Magic Morris (“[I’m] Choosing You”), Sweet Pearl (“You Mean Everything to Me”), Kick (“Lollie Pop”), Cato (“Slice of Heaven”), Sir Henry Ivey (“He Left You Standing There”), and J-Phakta (“Is It Love”). There are 18 tracks, plus one bonus with the digital package – Mark Anthony & Lyte Speeds’ “I’m a Boogie Roller.”
There was also an actual bridge from Stax for some of this material, as associates of the Bar-Kays and Isaac Hayes hand their handprints on the music, along with some Stax-affiliated producers and engineers.
But tracking down the music – and the artists – proved something of a quest for Mathis and Weekley. Some of the records were found in local thrift stores or hunted down using old city phone directories and knocking doors. Lots of doors.
“We tried to get into home record collections. Some artists were a little weary of working with us and some didn’t own their music. Some artists were already deceased or it was hard to find or their relatives,” he says. “It was a crazy, time-consuming process. Some artists took five years to even commit. One [Mark Anthony] didn't give us permission until everything had been finalized, so we had to use his track kind of a side promotional thing. And we really wanted to use that video.”
As to why these artists aren’t better known, especially given that the music on Stone Crush could stand toe-to-toe with much put out the Gap Band, Kool and the Gang, or Earth, Wind and Fire, Mathis says it boiled down to economics and exposure.
“It was easy to get something cut as a 45 single, but pushing it was the hard thing. How do you get it picked up by the right people? And Memphis back in the day and even now is sort of a step behind where things are going on,” he says.
“People look for that quick, local recognition and think that will get them onto the national scene. But a lot of them barely had the money or means to get the records cut. Marshall Jones of Kick didn't even drive – he rode a bike around town, and that’s how he would roll up.”
For many of the artists, music was also a side hustle. O.T. Sykes (“Stone Crush On You”) was (and still is) a dentist, known more for extracting molars than his music. And Frankie Alexander (“No Seat Dancin’”), was a minimum-wage bricklayer.
But perhaps no artist has a more interesting backstory and present than Libra (“Convict Me”). As Mathis and the extensive and informational liner notes by Andre Lisle relate, Libra Lee had worked at Stax and done costume design for the Bar-Kays.
A drug problem derailed her career. But then she successfully completed rehab, found God, and now presides over the Cathedral of God Holy Word Temple in North Memphis as “The Prophetess Libra” with an emphasis on promoting women’s rights.
“Her story is off the chain! Her energy is insane!” Mathis notes. “She’s recording what she calls her reality TV show she says a label will put out [more music]. She had her church used in small, independent films, but she would demand a role in it. Once she saw that I was legit, she finally started answering my calls. Now, she’s calling me every other day!”
Ultimately, Mathis hopes that Stone Crush finds an audience not just with Soul Detectives or DJs looking for new beats to crib, but with music fans who otherwise might not even know about the period. “This music has an obscurity to it, but also an organic quality,” Mathis sums up. “There’s nothing else like it.”