CA: Phillips kin take over Memphis International Records
Memphis International Records will be enjoying a rebirth this fall.
The long-running Bluff City record label — founded in 2001 by Memphian David Less and West Coast PR muckety-muck Bob Merlis — was sold late last year to Jeff Phillips. Phillips is a third-generation member of the preeminent Memphis music family and a longtime employee of the Phillips-owned Select-O-Hits record distribution company.
In 2015, Jeff Phillips’ father, Johnny Phillips, himself a longtime Select-O-Hits executive, became aware that Less was looking to sell the label, initially to a Munich, Germany-based group.
“Our big thing was to figure out how to keep the label in town,” says Johnny. “I contacted two or three people about trying to buy it. Finally, Jeff and I were talking, and he said, ‘I can do it.’ He basically borrowed on his 401(k) to buy the label.”
“I had to do it,” Jeff Phillips says. “We all felt like, you can’t have Memphis International based in Germany.”
The sale — which included the purchase of all the label’s assets, catalog (nearly 30 albums by Jim Dickinson, Carla Thomas, Alvin Youngblood Hart, and others), unreleased material, and website — was finalized in November. The first few months of Phillips’ ownership have seen the label tending to overall housekeeping, starting with switching their U.S. distribution from Sony to Select-O-Hits.
Having solidified things, Jeff Phillips began looking to the label’s first project under his ownership. “We didn’t buy the label just to live off the catalog,” he says. “We want to keep it going; we want to have an active Memphis label. Bob and David did a great job with that, in terms of preserving the history but creating new history as well.”
Johnny Phillips seized on the idea of doing a tribute to the Silver Fox,Charlie Rich — the onetime Sun label artist and later country hitmaker who died in 1995. “I’m a huge Charlie Rich fan — the whole (Phillips) family is,” he says. “Uncle Sam (Phillips) always said that Charlie and Howlin’ Wolf were the two most talented people he worked with.”
At last year’s Memphis Music Hall of Fame ceremony, during which Rich was inducted, Johnny, his cousins Knox and Jerry Phillips, and Charlie Rich Jr. “began talking, trying to figure out if we could do this,” says Johnny. Those discussions quickly snowballed, and by January, “we finally were able to start working on the project …and wrapped up work on it last month.”
On Oct. 14, Memphis International will release “Feel Like Going Home: The Songs of Charlie Rich.” The 13-track tribute features performances by Rich Jr., Jim Lauderdale, Shooter Jennings, Keith Sykes, Will Kimbrough, the Malpass Brothers and Susan Marshall, among others. “Every artist on there jumped right on it,” says Johnny. “People love Charlie Rich; he was a musician’s musician.”
The bulk of the record was tracked locally at the Phillips Recording Service, with some overdubs done in Nashville and Boston. The project was produced by Michael Dinallao (who has worked with Stax star Eddie Floyd among others), but the Rich tribute effort is very much a family affair, with liner notes penned by Knox Phillips and Johnny Phillips, and label and production work by another generation of Phillips kids: “The album is kind of a full circle for the Rich and Phillips families,” Johnny said. “Uncle Sam recorded Charlie’s first recordings and now the third generation of Phillipses, Jeff, and Jerry’s daughter Halley, helped record the tribute. Halley produced one track as well.”