“Soul Music will never die,” proclaims Herbert Wiley, a veteran of a 1960s-era Southern Soul band now staging an improbable comeback.
And indeed he makes a very good point. Originated by black singers who brought the fervor, spirit and “testifyin” of Gospel to secular concerns, it was as much a part of the soundtrack of the 1960s as Surf Music, Motown, Beatlemania or Folk Rock. Think Ray Charles, King Records’ James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Aretha and more.
It faded from the Hit Parade in the 1970s and onward as younger generations favored less straightforward intensity and more stylized artifice in their singing. (Can you imagine Wilson Pickett suffering the indignity of an American Idol contest in order to get heard?)
But lately Old School Soul has been coming on strong again — sometimes with a middle-aged (or older) singer fronting a red-hot horn-and-guitar band. Sharon Jones (age 50-plus) and the Dap-Kings, a brassy, funky new act on Brooklyn’s Daptone Records, is the role model to date, having developed an international following. And members of the Dap-Kings backed the young British singer Amy Winehouse on her breakthrough 2006 album of updated Classic Soul, Back to Black.
Now, as the Soul revival gains steam, other acts are stepping forth, such as Nashville’s Dynamites featuring Charles Walker — who have built a sizeable Cincinnati following — and Wiley and the Checkmates from Oxford, Miss. The latter, touring as an eight-piece with Wiley and a younger woman, Amber Knicole, handling the singing, has scheduled two free shows at The Comet in Northside — this Thursday and again on May 15. In between, the band’s tour stops at one of the nation’s greatest showcases for Soul (and classic Roots Music of all types), New Orleans’ Ponderosa Stomp. They will support Bobby Patterson, a Rhythm & Blues veteran out of Dallas.
For 66-year-old Herbert Wiley, this second time around might become much bigger than the first.
In 1960, not long out of high school, he formed the first Checkmates, a six-piece band that became a club favorite in Mississippi and Memphis and played throughout the South. Wiley played bass, some drums and sang. The band even made forays to Chicago and elsewhere and played with some of era’s bigger soul singers, like Percy Sledge, Otis Clay and Syl Johnson. And they were favorites in Oxford, home to the University of Mississippi.
“In the 1960s, there was a lot of Soul going on around here — Stax out of Memphis was hot and so was Motown out of Detroit,” Wiley says. “And so this area became pretty much of a Soul-sounding kind of town.”
But there were neither hit records nor big money for the band, so in the early 1970s Wiley reluctantly gave music up as a career. He had a family. He also had a family business he could take over — Wiley Shoe Shop, an Oxford tradition, located just off the city’s central public square.
“Actually, I started in (the shoe shop) when I was kid,” he says. “It was something I liked, working with my hands. Of course, when my dad said I’m going to have to do it, I better like it!”
And so the decades passed. But in 2002 he heard a younger Rock band playing next to his shop, in a space that was undergoing remodeling to become a nightspot called Longshot. That got him in the mood to play a little bass. The club’s owner, liking what he heard, encouraged Wiley to play in a band. And he did — on his terms.
“I thought, ‘Let’s get a group together,’ ” Wiley says. “And I said, ‘My thing is Soul — Tyrone Davis, James Brown and Wilson Pickett.’ That’s how we got started.”
The new Checkmates — which feature no members from the first incarnation except Wiley — includes some younger musicians with Rock backgrounds: guitarist J.D. Mark and percussionist Matty Crockett. They have helped Wiley with songwriting and arranging. Mark produced the band’s latest album, its second, called We Call It Soul, which showcases Wiley’s voice to great effect on such new but classic-sounding numbers as the heartrending “I Did My Part” and “All the Way Wrong” and the swampy, unexpectedly serious-minded “I Don’t Want No Funky Chicken.”
After Wiley had to sell his shoe-repair shop in a divorce settlement, the new Checkmates became his fulltime gig. And he found a Soul revival underway.
Putting on a show night after night in small clubs like The Comet can be a lot more intense work than shoe repair. But it can also be more rewarding.
“Somehow the energy just comes, even though I complain a lot,” Wiley says. “I just reach back and pull. I enjoy people enjoying it. That gives you a little more to go on.”
WILEY AND THE CHECKMATES play a free show at The Comet Thursday. Get details and find nearby bars and restaurants here.