Charlie Wood’s Memphis Memories

Having relocated from the Bluff City to the U.K., singer-songwriter Wood looks back on his time with Albert King, lessons learned on Beale Street, and the lasting influence of Mose Allison.
by Larry Nager

GLANCE at this singer/pianist’s bio and you might think you’re dealing with a Delta piano king of bygone days. Born and raised in Memphis, he apprenticed with an older blues master before taking off on his own to hone his skills on Beale Street. He learned how to win over that city’s notoriously tough crowds,but, frustrated by the hardscrabble life the home of the blues afforded its musicians, he followed the expatriate road to Europe’s more salubrious musical climate.

Memphis Slim? Eddie Boyd?

Nope, we’re talking about Charlie Wood, a suburban white kid who stands firmly in the venerable Memphis music tradition. “It’s a wonderful place to be from,” Wood says during one of his increasingly rare visits to his hometown, “and it gives you something, to be from here, that you can’t get elsewhere – musically, not just in a marketing sense. It does that, too, but it gives you an approach other people just don’t have. They can appreciate it, but they don’t think about music the way people from Memphis do.”

That’s not just hometown pride. Things are different in Memphis. Among local musicians, the biggest difference is their approach to timing: Memphis players hang as far behind the beat as they can without actually falling off.

“It has to do with a relaxed feel, a laid-back approach to time, and timing, in music,” Wood explains. “People from here lay way back, and they’re probably not even conscious of it until they do a session somewhere else and they’re told to stop playing so much behind the beat.”

But he points out another element of Memphis music, one that runs through the country blues of Furry Lewis and Gus Cannon and up to Wood’s original material. “People have a strong sense of humor here and a strong sense of irony – of things being other than how they seem, and that being OK and kind of funny – not only verbally, but even in instrumentalists. People are resigned to the impossibility of having a clear idea of what’s going on.”

You can hear plenty of that ironic humor on Wood’s latest album, Flutter and Wow. In the past, he’s recorded straight blues and funky jazz on both piano and organ, but here, working with Adam Levy (Norah Jones’ guitarist) as producer, Wood takes a different approach. “Both with my compositions and with the tunes we picked to cover, we wanted to emphasize the singer-songwriter aspect of what I do,” Wood says.

Flutter and Wow includes material by four of the best contemporary singer-songwriters – Paul Simon’s “American Tune,” Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows,” Tom Waits’ “Johnsburg, Illinois,” and the title track, penned by Elvis Costello. And though Wood doesn’t cover him here, the influence of the great Mississippi blues pianist/raconteur Mose Allison can be heard in Wood’s own songs on the album, notably “Let’s Get Up and Walk Around.”

Love for Allison’s music runs deep in the Wood family. Both parents are musical: Wood’s father, Mike, was an amateur drummer, and his mother, Willie, plays piano. Charlie started taking piano lessons at 7. A few years later, his father introduced him to Allison’s music. “When I was about 12, he gave me his copy of [1960’s] ‘I Love the Life I Live’ on vinyl. He probably thought he was loaning it to me,” Wood says with a laugh. “But at least it’s still in the family.”

Wood, now 42, studied classical piano and jazz in high school and college, including a stint at Tulane in New Orleans, before finishing up at Memphis State (now called the University of Memphis). At the latter, he studied with legendary pianist/educator Gene Rush, head of the school’s jazz program.

Elvis Presley and the Memphis blues tradition are the city’s biggest musical claims to fame, but there’s also a strong jazz tradition – particularly jazz piano – that goes back to the genre’s pioneers, notably Lil Armstrong, the Memphis-born pianist who famously bested Jelly Roll Morton in a cutting contest and played with Joe “King” Oliver and Louis Armstrong’s early bands (and was Armstrong’s second wife). More recently, Memphis’ jazz-piano pantheon has included Phineas Newborn, Harold Mabern, James Williams, and Donald Brown.

Jazz might have been Wood’s first love, but in 1990 he got a dose of the blues – or as he tells it, maybe an overdose _ when he hit the road with Albert King. It was a serious learning experience for the 22-year-old.

“He was a force of nature, an amazing guy,” Wood says of the guitarist and notoriously irascible bandleader. “It was tough. It was often very, very unpleasant, and I think anybody you ask who did it will say the same. People called it boot camp. But you certainly learned the realities of the road and how to make things work, how to economize and how to get from point to point and keep body and soul together, ’cause there often wasn’t a lot of compensation. And you learned how to do a show, for sure.”

From there, Wood’s next move was to Beale Street, just as the revival hit its stride with the opening of B.B. King’s Blues Club. Wood landed a regular gig at King’s Palace, a restaurant/bar that had kept live music on Beale for years. If his stint with King taught him how to deal with tough bosses, King’s Palace taught Wood how to handle tough crowds. More than one Memphis musician has admitted the need to be able to sing, dance, do comedy – anything to get the audience’s attention. It’s true that they play behind the beat, but Memphis’ versatile musicians have to work their butts off to stay ahead of crowds.

“The type of venues you have in Memphis @ tend to encourage a lack of attention to the performers,” Wood explains. “Most places people play are not designed for listening audiences; they’re designed for music as something that goes on in addition to what [else] is happening.”

Wood says one reason for that is the city’s quirky laws. “You have to serve food along with liquor, so basically every place you play winds up being a restaurant to some degree. In other places, you can have a theater where you could serve alcohol and not have a meal. I like playing in places where people listen.”

King’s Palace became Wood’s postgrad work, as he had to figure out how to distract audiences from their dry-rubbed ribs. “You get a lot of training in how to handle different audiences,” he explains. “Some nights you’ll have a crowd that’s listening really attentively, and other nights you get a crowd that’s barely aware you’re there. My take was always to interact as much or as little as they seemed to feel comfortable with. In a place like that, it’s not going to be a loud, rowdy electric blues thing. It’s a more gentle form of music that I play, so if they were feeling rowdy, I might play them a few Ray Charles tunes or an Otis Redding tune. And if they were feeling sedate, I might play them a jazz standard. That was good for me, in that I got to build a really eclectic song list. I took pride in being able to play a wide variety of material. But at this point in my career, it’s important to emphasize the composition aspect as well as performance.”

Playing all those covers served as a course in songcraft, Wood says. He cites Elmore James (‘The Sky Is Crying,” in particular), Willie Dixon (whom he first heard through Allison), and Percy Mayfield as favorite blues songwriters.

“Those are guys I draw on that I probably should draw on more,” Wood says. ‘They write very simply. I’ve compared it to haiku. It’s a very tight little form, the blues verse. And getting it right, with a minimum of words and also with a perceived minimum of effort, is important. It has to sound natural, but when it’s done right, it’s really, really effective.”

Wood, who had played Europe a few times previously, moved to England in 2009. Touring is easier there; on a trip the distance from Memphis to Little Rock, you might cross several international borders.

“The appreciation for the music is very strong there,” Wood says. “There’s a lot more awareness of the history of sound recordings and individual artists. And the touring circuit is a lot more robust than it is in the United States. There are plenty of places to play in the States, certainly, but they don’t pay particularly well and they’re physically much further apart. And all that makes it difficult to put on a full-scale tour in the U.S. I think people here consider it more a promotional expense than a way to make a living, but in Europe you actually can make a living doing that.”

And making a living remains Wood’s modest goal. He knows that intelligent, adult songs built on more than three chords probably won’t make him rich and famous. “The kind of music I write and play, it’s always going to be a long haul,” he says. “If there’s some reasonable degree of commercial success, it’s the exception and not the rule. The main job is just sort of slogging away and doing what I do and being hopeful that there’s a market for it. It’s not a huge market, but there is a market for it.”

But Wood still loves the music, and he’s happy writing his blues- and jazz-influenced songs and playing them for a growing audience. He hopes to expand his audience further with Flutter and Wow and increased festival work in the States. He’s still less than enthusiastic about the “touring” part of being a touring musician, but he faces it with a shrug and some of that famous Memphis irony.

“There’s no way around it,” he says, chuckling. “Like B.B. King said, ‘I play for free. They pay me to travel.'”

Selected Discography:
Southbound (1996) Go Jazz Records
Who I Am (2000) Go Jazz Records
Somethin’ Else (2005) Daddy-O Records
Lucky (2006) Inside Sounds
Charlie Wood & the New Memphis Underground (2007) Daddy-O Records
Flutter and Wow (2009) Archer Records