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VOL. 121 | NO. 163 | Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The Sound of Music Makes Itself Heard

Several high-profile showbiz projects are in the works locally

By Andy Meek

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LOCAL POWER: Luther Dickinson, Chris Chew and Cody Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars band are among several local acts producing high-profile music and film projects. -- Photograph Courtesy Of Big Hassle Media

In Jerry Schilling's new book, "Me and a Guy Named Elvis: My Lifelong Friendship with Elvis Presley," Memphis music is as much a central character as Schilling himself, the youngest member of Elvis' famed Memphis Mafia.

The book, packed with stories of Schilling's 23-year friendship with Elvis, was released nationwide last Thursday.

"I owe so much to Memphis music, because it has been the soundtrack to my life," Schilling said by phone from a hotel room in New York City last week, in the midst of a whirlwind publicity blitz surrounding the book.

He's definitely not the only one who feels that way. While Memphis music has been the soundtrack to his own extraordinary life, it's also the literal soundtrack to no less than four separate local projects at the moment.

'Too much love'

They include a small-scale independent movie, a cable TV show, and two major Hollywood films, one in wide-release now and the other to come soon.

One of those projects is partly the creation of acclaimed Memphis musicians Harlan T. Bobo and Scott Bomar. The former is a colorful singer-songwriter who doesn't use his given name and who recently released a CD that drew on his failed romantic relationship with local artist Yvonne Bobo. The latter is a veteran performer whose list of recent credits includes scoring director Craig Brewer's film "Hustle & Flow."

Together - along with a third musician based in Hollywood - they're creating the soundtrack to a Showtime reality TV show that chronicles the lives of couples in sex therapy. It's a mostly acoustic-based set of drearily melodic tunes.

Bobo, on a recent weekday, was tinkering with his audio equipment software in his home studio in Midtown. The sound of the tunes is sparse. There are sweet backing vocals and, at times, a dominant rhythm-and-blues vibe, all of which Bobo was working out in his upstairs studio.

"I've never really done something like this before," said the singer, who released his debut album "Too Much Love" earlier this year and who's at work on another. "I've written about 100 pieces of music that are about song-length - three minutes long - for this show in three months' time."

"I'll usually wake up in the morning, work till 1 o'clock - just a hamster in a cage," he groaned, good-naturedly. "The show's been airing for about five weeks now, and we'll probably be done in two more weeks."

A dad's life

Then there's Robby Grant, a father of two who works at the local communications firm archer>malmo. He's also a Memphis singer-songwriter and is writing the music for an independent film his friend is shooting in South Carolina, "The Hanged Man."

Grant's compositions so far have a haunting, spooky feel. At the moment, the dominant instruments are a piano and bass guitar.

"And right now, as movies tend to go, it's been slightly delayed, so I haven't had a chance to do too much," Grant said. "The deadline for me to finish was Sept. 15, but they've pushed it back a couple of months."

How the supernatural thriller came to be produced in the first place was that Grant's friend - Glenn Hopper, a former Memphian - wrote the movie, raised money and hired a director.

Grant's brother is chipping in to the project as well, playing a stand-up bass guitar. The music is being fleshed out in a studio on the second floor of Grant's Memphis home.

"We've known each other forever, so Glenn asked me to do the music for it," Grant said. "I've got a couple of kids, so I'm actually getting up early in the morning, around 5:30, and working for a couple of hours, because the kids don't get up till about 7:30. So I get it done in the morning and sometimes late at night.

"Being upstairs in the house kind of affords me the luxury of making some noise ... but not too much noise."

Making music - and memories

Taken your children to see the Nickelodeon/Paramount animated feature film now in theaters called "Barnyard"? The local country-blues act North Mississippi Allstars perform on several cuts of the soundtrack CD, which hits stores today.

Then, of course, there's the now-finished soundtrack to "Black Snake Moan," Brewer's much-anticipated follow-up to "Hustle & Flow." Back in April, a hodgepodge of top Memphis musicians congregated at Ardent Studios on Madison Avenue, where about 70 percent of the scoring work for the film was finished in a single day.

One of the central characters in the movie, slated for release in 2007 by Paramount, is a hardscrabble, religious blues musician named Lazarus. He's played by actor Samuel L. Jackson, who recorded about six songs at Ardent last September that will be featured in the movie.

"It was great to see Sam Jackson on my computer screen, and we got to hang out a little bit at Ardent, too," said freelance engineer Kevin Houston. "He's a great singer, got that big theatrical voice."

Houston was a music editor for "Black Snake Moan." He was also present when Brewer would visit Bomar's home in Memphis and all of them would sit together to work on the movie's score.

The soundtrack was mixed with the involvement of John Hampton, an engineer and producer at Ardent who picked up a Grammy in April for his work as a mixing engineer on "Get Behind Me Satan," an album by the White Stripes.

For "Black Snake Moan," Bomar put together a lineup for the soundtrack that included members of the North Mississippi Allstars and former Memphian Charlie Musselwhite.

Speaking of a recent recording session in April, Houston recalled: "I remember we had the movie projected out, and we recorded in the big room at Ardent. And they were all just watching the picture, improvising and embellishing and bringing the whole thing to life.

"That was a fun day."

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