Prior to the widespread mechanization of music, studio and house bands were the unheralded backbone of the recording industry, providing each studio with a unique sound that would help define their individual character.
Motown had the sophisticated, urbane sound of The Funk Brothers. Muscle Shoals had the country-soul of the Swampers. Stax had the genre-defining Booker T. and the MGs. And at Hi Records there was the Hi Rhythm Section, one of the most talented and distinctive studio bands of all time.
During the late 1960s, Hi Records producer Willie Mitchell assembled his house rhythm section around three very young and extremely talented local brothers: guitarist Mabon "Teenie" Hodges, bassist Leroy Hodges, and organist Charles Hodges. Along with keyboardist Archie Turner and drummer Howard Grimes (and occasionally MG's drummer Al Jackson Jr.), the group laid down some of Memphis’ most unforgettable grooves for Royal Studio regulars like Al Green, Ann Peebles, O.V. Wright, Syl Johnson, and Otis Clay.
Born in Germantown, the Hodges brothers grew up in a large family that was led by their pianist father, Leroy Sr. The elder Hodges ensured that music was at the center of familial life for his children and encouraged them to follow in his musical footsteps. "We didn't compete. We worked together," Charles Hodges told The Memphis Flyer. "We didn't go to school for it. It was a gift from God. My dad just helped us develop our talent."
As teenagers in the late 1950s, the brothers began playing with their father’s blues band, The Germantown Blue Dots, before founding their own group, The Impalas. The group began practicing at the home of Willie Mitchell, whose stepson Archie Turner was also a member of their band. This chance encounter would prove to be a critical moment for both the individuals present and ultimately for the history of Memphis music. That is not to imply, however, that everything went smoothly. According to Teenie Hodges, Willie Mitchell was not immediately sold on the groups talents, telling the budding guitar player “you can’t play worth a damn.” Mitchell suggested using a flat pick rather than a thumb pick and a then 16-year-old Hodges was happy to oblige. Before long, Hodges was living with the Mitchells and spent the next seven years learning and honing his skills under the famed bandleader’s roof.
By 1965, Hodges had become a central player in Willie Mitchell’s celebrated band. Leroy and Charles joined him soon after, followed by Howard Grimes and (occasionally) Al Jackson, Jr., both of whom had been instrumental in developing the early Stax sound. The newly formed group, now known as the Hi Rhythm Section, traveled on tour extensively throughout the remainder of the 1960s. In the latter part of the decade, Willie Mitchell had become the head of Hi Records and sought to relaunch the label as a bastion of smooth Southern soul. The band’s tour dates were curtailed so that they could return to Royal Studios and begin the momentous task of filling the void in Memphis soul music not that Stax Record’s star was rapidly waning.
As the members of the Hi Rhythm Section continued to improve as a band--the result of a grueling schedule of live performances, practices, and studio gigs--Teenie Hodges was working on improving his skills as a songwriter. Several years prior, a young and rising Hodges had met with the legendary songwriting team of Isaac Hayes and David Porter. In Robert Gordon’s book Express Yourself, Hodges remembers being told by the duo, “All you’ve got to do is play like you play onstage. Just do it your own way. You do it all the time.” Armed with confidence and an innate skill, Hodges emerged as an essential songwriter at Royal Studios. In partnership with Al Green, Hodges helped co-write some of the soul singer’s biggest hits, including “Love and Happiness,” “L-O-V-E (Love),” and “Take Me to the River.”
Throughout the 1970s, Mitchell and the Hi Rhythm Section worked tirelessly to innovate and redefine what R&B and soul music could be, in large part by pushing the boundaries of what was possible in the studio. The band, which was renowned for both its musicianship and each member’s painstaking attention to details, developed a sound that was simultaneously pristine and airy, yet still firmly planted in the Memphis mud.
As is true with all great bands, each member of the Hi Rhythm Section contributed a distinctive and inimitable ingredient to the soul stew. Teenie Hodges, the de facto leader of the group, was a masterful guitarist with a knack for getting to the pure, simple essence of a song. Organist Charles Hodges brought a sense of spirituality and sultriness to many of Hi Record’s greatest recordings, his work during Al Green’s golden period being especially notable. Bassist Leroy Hodges had the impeccable feel and rhythm that one would expect of a world class player, with the added ability to switch up his patterns mid-song as an exciting interplay with the melody. Howard Grimes and Al Jackson, Jr., both proven Memphis music veterans by this point, applied their reliably amazing backbeats and impeccable timing to the tracks.
As accomplished as each member was individually, however, the group’s greatest strength proved to be their almost psychic ability to anticipate and react to what the other members were about to play. As Charles Hodges told the Memphis Flyer in 2014, “The bass player knew what I was going to do. I knew what the guitar player was going to do. The drummer knew what we were all going to do. We didn’t get in anyone’s way. We came together spiritually…. We just feel each other.”
By the mid-1970s, when Hi Records was at its creative peak, the Hi Rhythm Section had provided the backing grooves for a countless number of hit songs and appeared on nearly 20 gold and platinum albums. In 1976, the group released their first solo album, On the Loose, an appropriately titled LP that exhibited a funkier and less restrained side of the band. Unfortunately, the following year would prove to be catastrophic for Hi Records: Soul music’s popularity was waning as disco was on the rise; Al Green had left the label in order to return to the church; and Hi Records was sold to label mogul Alvin Bennett. The band would break up in the midst of the chaos.
The Hodges brothers continued to perform for the next couple of decades, working with Albert Collins, Otis Clay, Syl Johnson and others while also sporadically reuniting with Grimes and Turner during special gigs and studio sessions. In 2005, the band came together as the Memphis Rhythm Band with singer-songwriter Cat Power on her critically acclaimed album The Greatest, also serving as her touring band.
From the steamy “I Can’t Stand the Rain” to the pleading “Call Me,” the Hi Rhythm Section proved downright virtuosic in capturing the mood of a particular song and were instrumental in helping to define the sound for some of the 20th Century’s greatest singers. After decades of continuously defining and redefining the sound of Memphis soul, the Hi Rhythm Section has earned their rightful place as true icons of Memphis music history.