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VOL. 125 | NO. 133 | Monday, July 12, 2010

Irish Soul Man Promotes Memphis Music Tourism

AISLING MAKI | Special to The Daily News

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Chris Maher is one of Memphis soul music’s greatest ambassadors.

The 35-year-old disc jockey hosts a radio show called The Soul Train, he’s the founding CEO of a major soul music festival and he’s the creator of a charity – inspired by the Stax Music Academy – aimed at providing music education for urban children.

He works closely with Delta Air Lines and the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau to bring soul music enthusiasts to town through an annual contest.

But chances are you’ve never heard of Maher because he lives 4,000 miles away in Dublin.

The Irish love affair with soul music should come as no surprise to anyone who’s seen “The Commitments,” the award-winning 1991 film based on Roddy Doyle’s novel about a motley group of Dubliners who form a soul band. It was voted the best Irish film of all time in a 2005 poll.

“Soul and blues music is very popular in Ireland,” Maher said. “The music is real and full of passion, created from life experiences. Irish people understand the messages within the music.”

On his radio program, broadcast nationally in Ireland, Maher plays songs from emerging Irish soul artists. But Memphis music, he said, also receives its fair share of airtime.

“Anything from Stax, of course: The Rance Allen Group, Otis Redding, Eddie Floyd, Sam & Dave, Rufus and Carla Thomas, Booker T. & The M.G.’s, The Mar-Keys,” he said.

“Basically, if they’re from Memphis, I probably love them or have yet to discover them and will in due course fall in love with them. I don’t know what it is. Maybe you guys put something in the water, especially up around McLemore Avenue, but there just is so much natural musical talent. It’s amazing really when you think about it.”

Maher had the opportunity to meet some of his music heroes – including Isaac Hayes, Eddie Floyd and Mavis Staples – during his inaugural trip to Memphis in 2003 for the opening of the Stax Museum, where he was officially recognized as an Ambassador of Soul Music and an Honorary Tennessean.

“The two-page certificate is now framed and has pride of place in my home in Dublin,” he said.

Another memorable moment during that visit came when Maher met legendary soul guitarist Steve Cropper at B.B King’s Blues Club on Beale Street.

“He wouldn’t let me buy him a drink, he insisted on buying me one,” said Maher, adding that Cropper was “so friendly and genuine.”

Maher said his visit to Soulsville inspired him to “make the leap of faith” and in 2006, he left the comfort of his day job as a sales manager at a Dublin radio station and began organizing the first ever Dublin City Soul Festival.

The following May, Maher found himself standing in the arrivals hall at Dublin Airport, waiting to welcome legendary gospel-soul stars The Rance Allen Group for their first-ever overseas performance.

“Having seen them in 2003 as part of the Stax launch, I was determined to bring them to Ireland for the people to enjoy,” he said.

Well-received, Maher’s free public festival became an annual event. Alumni include The Memphis Soul Survivors and The Commitments from the film.

In the years that followed, Rance Allen would make more appearances on the Dublin stage, including his first ever with the Queen of Beale Street, Ruby Wilson, in 2008.

Wilson’s manager, Rollin Riggs, traveled with her to Dublin.

“It was eye-opening to see how many people in Dublin had already seen Ruby perform, either in Memphis or on a cruise. People lined up to get her autograph and have their picture taken with her, and of course Ruby is brilliant at talking with anyone, anywhere, so she made hundreds of new fans too,” he said, adding that Wilson received dozens of get-well wishes from Ireland after she suffered a stroke last year.

Through the support of Delta and the CVB, the Dublin City Soul Festival each year gives away Memphis vacation packages that include airfare, accommodation and a grand tour of the city’s major music attractions including Graceland, Sun Studio and a VIP tour of the Stax Museum.

Three trips from Dublin to Memphis were given away this spring through radio and online contests.

“We love his festival. It’s a great way to market Memphis. It was kind of a no-brainer for us to be involved,” said Regena Bearden, vice president of marketing for the CVB. “It’s the perfect marketing tool for people who already love soul music. We’ll continue to support Chris’ work. He is a Memphis ambassador.”

Maher’s mission to promote and preserve soul music includes passing it on to the next generation through The Musical Youth Foundation, which provides musical instruments and tuition to underprivileged children in Dublin.

“The Stax Academy was also an inspiration to me, to see the great work that the academy is doing for local children really made me realize that Dublin needed something similar,” he said, adding that he hopes to one day see an exchange program between the two organizations.

Maher said Tim Sampson, communications director for Stax, has been incredibly supportive of his work through the years.

“He’s a perfect example of how friendly and welcoming I’ve found the Memphis people to be,” he said.

Sampson said he stays in touch with Maher year-round, exchanging ideas and cross-promoting one another through the Web and other forums.

“Chris Maher is an incredible guy who does an incredible job of bringing Memphis soul and other music to Ireland every year,” said Sampson. “Also, much like the work we do with the Stax Music Academy, Chris does a lot of great work for young people, helping get musical instruments to those who otherwise can’t afford them.”

Sampson adds that Maher “really gets the importance of the music this city has contributed to the world.”

Maher, who traveled to Memphis in 2003 and again in 2008, said he can’t wait to make his third trip to the city that inspired his passion and shaped his life’s work, and he hopes to inspire others to follow suit.

“It’s a wonderful and magical place,” he said, “and I hope that from talking about it on my show, et cetera, that people will be motivated to go and check it out for themselves.”

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