Live at SXSW, March 2013, photo by Jason Gross
Interview by Jason Gross
Among the 1000's of acts at this past SXSW music festival in March 2013 was one particularly curious legend that mostly flew under the radar while the press swarmed around younger buzz bands appearing there. Thanks to the fact that he doesn’t tour much anymore, guitarist/songwriter Mabon "Teenie" Hodges was giving the Austin crowd a rare treat to see him perform outside of his native Memphis. Hodges was there for the world premiere of a documentary about him, appropriately titled A Portrait of a Memphis Soul Original. In conjunction with the film, Hodges was also there to perform with the house band for Hi Records during its ‘70’s peak, aka Hi Rhythm which included his brothers Leroy (bass) and Charles (organ). The group appeared on hits from Al Green, Ann Peebles, Syl Johnson and others. Hodges wasn’t just playing on the sessions but also the co-writer of a number of best-selling songs from that time. For the SXSW show, Teenie teamed up again with Leroy and Charles as well as brother Fred Hodges (keyboards), Hi Rhythm veteran Archie Turner (keyboards), drummer Reginal Ector and singers Lisa G. (who doubles as the group’s manager) and Percy Wiggins. Teenie, who suffers from emphysema, was hooked up to an oxygen tank to help him breathe but because of the lights/heat and poor air flow, he struggled to finish the gig though he treated the crowd to his famous guitar licks for the show.
A few weeks later, I did this phone interview with Teenie from his Memphis home. As I contacted him and Lisa recently to fact-check a few things, I was glad to hear that the band was still actively gigging in their area and that Teenie had also contributed to an album coming out in early 2014 by singer Paul Rodgers (Bad Company/Free) called The Royal Sessions. Another project that Hodges has in the works is a collaboration with his nephew, who you might have heard of- best-selling rapper Drake.
PSF: Where did you get your nickname?
TH: My oldest brother the bass player Leroy gave it to me. He nicknamed all of the children, gave all twelve of us our nicknames. I was big when I was baby- not really fat but I had a big stomach and he thought I would be fat.
PSF: What was the music you loved when you were a kid?
TH: The music I loved was Delta blues like Robert Johnson. Really during that time it was Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters and Lightnin’ Hopkins. Jimmy Reed was one of my favorites. And Little Walter and anybody on Chess more or less. My daddy was a keyboard player also so he had a keyboard always in our home and I didn't know he played. As a matter of fact, he taught Memphis Slim things on piano. So when I found he did that, it excited me too. And then Bobby Bland would come and visit a neighbor of ours all the time. And when I found out that he was there 'cause he was (doing) the same thing, I was interested in it.
PSF: What was it about these musicians that piqued your interest?
TH: Because it seemed like everybody I was around enjoyed it and we would listen to it all the time at home. The blues on the radio. I just liked the music- it made me happy and it seemed to make people happy so I just thought... when I grew up, I would be willing to give my time to try to make people happy because I thought the music would do it and it just so happened that it did. I'm so thankful for that.
PSF: How did you learn how to play?
TH: A fellow I grew up with...As a matter of fact, he was in my dad's band. My dad didn't have a band until I started playing at 12. But he had played in bands before. But this guy, his name was Earl Banks, we called him all kind of things like 'Chino' and 'Earl the Pearl.' There's a book about him in England that I saw. But anyway, he taught me how to play. The first time he sat down to show me was on a Saturday evening and a Sunday. And then after, I learned two songs and it was "Honky Tonk" and "I Woke Up This Morning" by B.B. King and then I played those little songs religiously just forever and ever. And a month later, I was playing with my father on the road- he was in the band also. Earl Banks, my dad and myself and then there was a guy named James Summers and we called "Muggy" and he passed on. And there was Peter Rabbit and his real name was Sanders and he played with the Field Stones. All those guys- I watched all of them play. So I started playing guitar then and I've been playing ever since.
PSF: What kind of bond did you form as you were playing with your brothers in bands?
TH: Well what happened was if my father wasn't playing and there were playing... It was really just one brother, Leroy the bassist. He and Willie Mitchell's two sons started a group with Tommy Lee Williams. Tommy, Leroy and I went to the same high school which was out in the country. And then there was Archie Turner, who is playing with Cyndi Lauper right now. They had formed a group in high school. After they formed the group and I wasn't playing with my father, I'd go and play with them because they were playing R&B, stuff like Jackie Wilson and James Brown. They were playing that type of music and I wanted to learn to play that so I stated playing with them. So that was all the time more or less.
PSF: How did working with Willie Mitchell change things for you?
TH: I went for a rehearsal at Willie Mitchell's house and when I finished rehearsing, I asked him 'how did I play?' It was the first time I met him. And he said 'you play like shit.' I was really shocked and I couldn't say anything. He said 'You wanna know why I tell you that? Because you play with a thumb pick and you should play like Reggie Young.' And he's my idol in the whole world. He said 'he plays with a flat pick so you need to go buy some and then I'm going to give you some exercises to learn from.' So I was around him from that day until I was 18, more or less. And every time I saw him, I would ask 'So what do yo think of my playing?' and he would say 'You need to keep on practicing' and blah, blah, blah. And so I went to his house- we lived in Germantown and he lived in White Station, which is in Memphis. So I went by there one day, and no one came there when I rang the doorbell so I went around to the back and he was there putting a window pane in this house. I asked if I could do that and he said 'you ain't got no business doing that- you'll mess around and cut your hand. I can do that myself.' I said 'no I'm serious, I could do it.' He said 'No, I can do that.' So I was leaving as he was sawing and he said 'But I will allow you to play guitar.' I thought he was kidding and I walked away so he said 'No, no, I'm not kidding. I'm serious. But what you need to do is to move in with me.' So he adopted me and he approached my daddy and he wasn't rich but my daddy and mommy had 12 kids. So he (Willie) said, ‘if you let him move, you won't have to worry about him and you won't have to sign any papers.’ My daddy said 'let his mother and I think about it for a week and I'll let you know.' So he worked hard every day and go home after working in a concrete mixing company- he helped build Memphis, highways and bridges and stuff. So I would ask him every day and on the second or third day, he said 'Boy, if you ask me that one more time, you ain't goin' nowhere.' So every day he'd come home and I'd meet him out in the driveway but I wouldn't ask him that question anymore. So he finally he told me that Friday, he came up and I did the same thing, I went out back and went about my business and a couple of minutes later, he said 'Teenie come here, your mother and I want to talk to you.' So I did and that's when he told me and said 'But you gotta promise us that you won't get high.' I did and he let me go and that was it.
PSF: So what did you learn from Willie when you went to go live with him?
TH: I would go to the studio with him and he more or less taught me everything except for writing. He did teach to me to a certain extent but I learned to write when I saw 16 years old. David Porter and Isaac Hayes taught me. I wrote "I Take What I Want" with them for Sam & Dave. And then after that, when I moved in with Willie, we did in the Willie Mitchell Group (where) I co-wrote, Willie and I, it must have been about four albums. And he just turned it over to me and said 'Anything you write, I get half of it and anything I write, I'll give you half of it.' And we worked it like that. Al Jackson was the one who disciplined me as far as timing and playing on time and behind time and all that. So he was instrumental in that part for Willie. I miss him so. I miss him tremendously. But he (Willie) taught about everything that I should do in the music business. And he taught me the in's and out's of it, I guess you would say.
PSF: How did you get inspiration or ideas for songs when you first started writing?
TH: Well, it was from life experiences. Things that I saw, thing that were told to me and then later on, something would happen in front of my own eyes and then I would realize 'that's what such-and-such was talking about.' It just came like that. That's the way I write, period. It's gotta be something that I believe in or that I know, more or less. It's been in my psyche for... quite a while.
PSF: When Howard Grimes came to join the band as a drummer, how did that change things?
TH: What happened was, Al Jackson was playing with Booker T. and the MG's also, but he was the drummer in Willie Mitchell's band too. And so Al, he was recording at Stax with Booker T. and whoever would record there. Al stopped playing in '66 maybe with Willie Mitchell's group and that's when I got Howard Grimes. I found he was playing with a group called Flash and the Board of Directors. I went and talked to him about playing 'cause I liked the way he played and I talked him into him coming to play with Willie Mitchell. We had a drummer, Jeff Grayer, who played with Mickey Baker and Jack McDuff and Jimmy Smith. Now he's a jazz drummer and so he was playing with us but he said that he wanted to play jazz. He played with Willie Mitchell's group for a couple of years and then when I finally got high with Howard, (he) took his place and he just worked out.
PSF: Could you talk about working with Syl Johnson and OV Wright? What was that like?
TH: It was absolutely wonderful with both of them but OV Wright was quite unique. You couldn't fool him. With a full band playing, he could tell what instrument played a wrong note or what singer sang the wrong note and where it was in the song. But he seemed like he was real slow- he talked real slow. You'd think he was a dummy but by no stretch of the imagination was he, not when it came to music or a whole lot of other things. Syl Johnson was just always sharp. Syl is almost a genius. Syl is wild. I love him. He's something else and he know what want.
PSF: What was Willie Mitchell like to work with as a producer as Hi Records was growing?
TH: Well, he knew what he wanted too. The thing with that was, when we'd record, there's nothing written that says 'play this note.' Normally, we would do those with letters, not by numbers- it's called the numbers chart or a music chart. We would play what we want. If he don't like it, he'll tell you and you have to change it. But very seldom did that happen. It might be played in a different key or played (with) a different feel or something. But he was very supportive of us. Sticking together more or less made us work together. You can't have five leaders in a five piece band- it's gotta be one leader.
PSF: How did you see your guitar playing fitting into the music on those records?
TH: I just always tried to play something not the way someone else would play it. It was the way that I wanted to play it. It always had my own feel and it just seemed like everybody liked the feel that I played with. So I got away with it like that I guess.
PSF: Where there any guitarists that were a big influence on your playing otherwise?
TH: Like I said, the only one is Reggie Young- he was a member of the Memphis Group, they were the band at Hi Records and he was always in the band at American Studios with (pianist) Spooner Oldham and (bassist) Mike Leech, (guitarist) Tommy Cogbill, and Gene Chrisman and Sammy Creason, both of them were drummers. They were the toughest group I ever saw, I ever heard. They did 52 top Billboard records in a period of 12 months. It was the biggest success that I've ever heard of.
PSF: What was the Hi Records studio like to work in?
TH: Absolutely wonderful. It was like being around a bunch of school kids. As a matter of fact, we used to have the Memphis State basketball players there- Larry Kenon and Dexter Reed and Billy Buford and Clarence Jones and Ronnie Robertson, they would come by the studio more or less every time we'd record, to just hang out. They seemed to really enjoy it and it was just fun for us. We always felt at home.
PSF: During these sessions, how could you tell when you had a good one going on?
TH: Everybody would do something unique and each of us would feel what they did and say 'this is a taker.' And that's just how it happened. We cut a song one time on Al Green, maybe it was "I'm Still In Love With You," 28 times and it turned out to be the third take that was the final one. Willie asked me after that take if we had it and I said yes and he said 'Naw, let's come back tomorrow.' So we did end up cutting it 28 times and listened to it overnight and then the next day, he said 'Guess which take it was.' I said 'Number three?' and he said 'Yep.' And (I said) 'I told you.' So we had stuff like that that we did too.
PSF: How did you write songs with Al Green?
TH: What happened was, after the Green Is Blues album, when he first came with the company, he wrote that album also 'cause he called himself a songwriter. I thought all the time about it but I thought to myself 'this isn't going to work- his music isn't so great.' So after that album, which didn't sell, I was with him and we used to hang out five to six days a week for years. We went out and I took him to dinner all the time. One of my sisters would take him out to eat and we hung out in nightclubs every night. So Al said 'we're going to have to go and get some of the guys from Motown and different places to write this song 'cause I can't write' and blah, blah, blah. So I said 'Well, that's not the problem. Your lyrics are good but you can't do music." Because he'd be telling us what to play and I said 'It's not so good- it's not good at all.' So I said 'I know that I got the answer for it. If you write the lyrics, I can write the music and it'll work.' And sure enough, that's what we did the next day. That's when we cut "Love and Happiness." When I took it to him as the last song for the session, we had finished and Willie said 'we need one more song' and asked me if I had it and I said 'yep.' And I played it for him. But I just had 'love and happiness' and part of the first verse and so he said 'do you think that you and Al could get together this evening and write it?' I said 'Yeah, I'll stop by his house.' So I did and we wrote it and it took us about 15 minutes and then we walked out and went back the next day and that was it. I told Al though, 'let me tell you something- when we get ready to record the song and during the introduction when I'm playing the chords on the guitar and you start singing 'love and happiness' I'm telling you, Willie is gonng tell you 'don't do it!' He's gonna tell you to go straight- dun-dun-dun, dun-dun! But you got to tell him 'NO!' This is the way you wrote the song and this is way it's gonna have to be.' And sure enough he did- he followed on in everything I tell to do, that's the way we'd approach it and we had a beautiful time. That's exactly what happened.
PSF: What about "Take Me To the River"? How did that get written?
TH: Actually, we started writing that song in Boston with Ann (Peebles). I went on a short tour and we were going out that night after the gig 'cause we only had to play for 45 minutes or an hour. And it was hot when we left Memphis and we got there with no coats and stuff, so it's started snowing. Once we went out on stage, it was snowing so we couldn't go out. So we were thinking about the snow and it reminded me of a river and Ann said 'why don't we write a song?' So I said OK and started thinking it about and thinking about the snow. I said 'I was thinking about being baptized.' And somebody said 'take me to the river' and we were on the Mississippi River in Memphis anyway. And that's really how that song got started so when I got back, the same thing happened- there was one song lacking to finish that album. And so I started this song "Take Me To the River." And I did the same thing, gave him the first verse and then he went on and that's how it happened.
PSF: What was it like working with Ann Peebles otherwise?
TH: She's unique. She came out of St. Louis. Gene 'Bowlegs' Miller actually brought her to Hi Records for us to record her and produce the first record on her actually. So from that time, we just thought she was such a nice, cute little thing. She became the Queen of Hi. And we just worked with her. And we had good writers- Earl Randle, Don Bryrant and Don Mitchell who actually wrote "I Can't Stand The Rain" but he got no credit on it. But there's a lot of stuff happened at Hi, but not (just) Hi but at any record label I guess. But I know that it happened at Hi- not a whole bunch but I was a ghost writer on five of Al Green's songs and they took five of them that were absolutely not given to me for some reason. But I haven't raised anything about it, you know. I haven't sued anybody about it or anything. But it's the truth. There's some things like that got past. But no, she was wonderful to work with.
PSF: How about "Here I Am, Come and Take Me," which you did get credit for writing with Al?
TH: I used to listen to the group Redbone all the time. And their music, it sound like Indian- dun-da-da-da, da-dun-dun-dun-dun. It's just like the drums. And I had the title. Everything that my name is on, I came up with the title for it. And the music, period except for the arrangements, like the horns and the strings, and the melodies for it. So it was just like 'here I am, come and take me, I can't believe that it's real.' But that's my favorite song of a lot of songs that I've written.
PSF: What about another great song of yours "Full of Fire"?
TH: This was one song that there were going to give me another... ghost writer credit. But Al Green said 'I think it's time for Teenie's name to go on the song.' That's how I got on there but it wasn't my idea, I just did what I did with it, you know. And the guitar player was always there when they wrote (the Al Green songs) "Let's stay Together" and "Call Me" and "You Ought To Be With Me" and "Full of Fire" and "Oh Me Oh My (Dreams In My Arms)"- I always there for the part to do something that would make it unique. And Al Jackson, Willie Mitchell and Al Green, the four of us would always get together to write them.
PSF: For those songs that you wrote with Al, there were a lot of cover versions afterwards. Any favorites of those?
TH: I like Talking Heads' "Take Me To The River." UB40 "Here I Am, Come And Take Me"- I love it. I like Toots' "Love and Happiness." A friend of mine, John Kilzer, he played basketball at the University of Memphis and I taught him to play guitar and I like his version of it- it's on Geffen Records. And Tina Turner's "Let's Stay Together." And aw, she did "Take Me To the River" too but I don't remember hearing it! I don't why. I like what Annie Lenox did with it and Bonnie Raitt. Bonnie Raitt did another song of mine though, "I Sho Do."
PSF: What was Al Green like to work with in the studio?
TH: He was great. He's one of the best song stylist I ever heard. He knew exactly the way he wanted to sing it. But I like said, at first, his music wasn't there. But if you put the music before him, he'll sing it. But he was great. He was easy. And now, the last album, that song "The Truth," it didn't go on that song on the Right Stuff label... He wanted to sing like I sing. Ever since "Love and Happiness," he tried to sing like I sing and I be telling him 'why you wanna sing like I sing? I CAN'T sing!' But I'm serious- it makes no sense to me but that's the way he wanted to do it! As a matter of fact, he wouldn't sing his song and he had been singing it for a couple of days. So I go to the studio 'cause he couldn't come up with another verse for it. I had written two verses for him but it so happened that I had five more verses. And I go down to Al and we're doing it with Willie Mitchell too and gave him the verses. And Willie said 'Now Al is trying to sing the song like he wanna sing it down low.' I asked him what was he doing and I said 'that's not the way you sing, you need to sing it the way you sing.' (laughs) And sure enough, he did it in one take. It hasn't been released yet but if you ever hear it, you'll see what I'm saying.
PSF: What was it like touring with Al?
TH: I was the only one at first who would go with him. It was fine. But there was trouble in Baltimore once... I stood between him and somebody with guns 'cause Al was going off on him. We were the only people there- everybody else had left. But anyway, it was good. But I just couldn't... I guess I could have done it... I tried to get him with Hi Rhythm when the album came out to have us open the shows for him but something happened that I don't want to... Well, I was told something that he told me that happened and I don't want to talk about it at this point.
PSF: What did you think about his religious conversion?
TH: Well, he was always religious anyway when he came to Hi. Every album we did, he had a gospel song in it. But he was in church anyway- it used to be the only music that he could sing at home. When he was in Grand Rapids, his daddy wouldn't have anything else. He couldn't even take records into the house. No R&B, no Jackie Wilson, he couldn't take that in the house. It had to be gospel on. He and his brothers had a gospel group.
PSF: Any other special memories about recording for Hi or any of the other artists there?
TH: Well, Joseph Cuoghi, he was special. He died of a heart attack at 45 years old. He started the company and he was the one who convinced everyone to just let me be who I wanted to be and do what I wanted to do. I guess that's why Willie Mitchell did the same thing. But Willie had started it because I knew Willie first but Joe expressed it- 'just let him go.' And that's what I did.
PSF: How would you describe the Hi Records sound?
TH: I would say the Hi Records is what I would call 'R&B pop' but then you could get a lot of other stuff. You could get jazz out of it also 'cause Willie Mitchell and his group, we did jazz also. And all those guys, like George Coleman, he's a jazz saxophonist and his brother James Mitchell was a jazz saxophonist and different people at Hi would also do country and western, like Bill Black and Ace Cannon and Gene Simmons. It was different people and you could get any kind of music out of the studio.
PSF: How was Hi's sound different from Stax and Motown?
TH: I could call Motown 'pop R&B' instead of 'R&B pop.' And Stax would be R&B and pop but Stax ventured out so much further like with Richard Pryor and Billy Eckstine and different artists- they just took on a whole other thing. And then eventually they did blues. But we did a blues album on Jimmy McCracklin out of San Francisco. That was about it. We tried to record Albert King and Willie told him... he called Jim Stewart and told him that he had Albert there and he sent Albert to Stax and Albert would deny it though I would say I know exactly what happened. And he sent him to Stax 'cause Stax had an outlet for the blues and he became very good.
PSF: How was the Hi rhythm section different from other studio groups like Muscle Shoals?
TH: The guys at Muscle Shoals, some of them were in the Memphis Boys Group also- they played up here too. They're just unique. I can't explain it. And all these guys are Caucasians. At Hi, we had a Caucasian play with us- he played organ with... this band out of Memphis and he sounded like James Brown playing. He sounded black.
PSF: Do you hear any recent music that compares to what you were doing at Hi?
TH: No, no.
PSF: How did the Hi Rhythm record On the Loose come about?
TH: It was us wanting to do an album and I figured if we did it, then we could start playing on our own and Archie Turner (who's Willie Mitchell's son), and Charles, my brother the organ player, we decided to write. We wrote everything more or less. We wrote the whole thing and it was unique. We just did the way we felt the songs. Like we were writing on the airplane and out in Los Angeles. I'd go out there and Archie and Charles went with me to record Ike and Tina Turner. I used to record them for years. So we wrote some stuff on the airplane. I took a guitar of mine on the airplane and (we were) just doing stuff crazy, just being wild.
PSF: Were you happy with the end result?
TH: Not the way it sold. The record label actually stopped the record from being sold, so I was told by several people. They called the record in and wouldn't press it anymore. They sold 10,000 copies in about 10 days and they called to get more and they told 'em they didn't have any more and they wasn't going to press anymore. And that's what happened with that. Maybe something could be done, maybe I could do something with it now. I don't know.
PSF: What was it like to work with Cat Power?
TH: Very unique, very unique. She's quite a unique person. I really enjoyed it, with the travel and everything was done in time. The two tour managers I really enjoyed- Shaun Foley out of New York and ... out of Minneapolis, he's gonna kill me! I'm just missing the name right now. And then Susanna Vapnek was her assistant and some kind of manager. And she and I got to be real good friends. As a matter of fact, we had a screening for the documentary for the SXSW film festival last week and then the Hi Rhythm section played afterwards. And Susanna produced it. So she turned out to be a good friend and so the whole situation (happened) thanks to Robert Gordon. He introduced me to Cat Power. He thought I would fit with what she was doing, so when she came to town to record, I met with them and I met her for the first time and we hit it off and everything went great.
PSF: I've heard that Drake the rapper is your nephew, right?
PSF: Have you talked to him about your own work?
TH: Yeah, we've talked about it. As a matter, there's something going on now. Maybe we're going to get a chance to work together. He's going to record with us. It's going to be a compilation. I don't want to talk about it right now. It's a great project. And I just found out about it. I was asked about it two weeks ago so it should come out pretty soon.
PSF: Do you have other plans to tour or record more?
TH: Yeah, I'm recording all the time. As a matter of fact, I played on a couple of songs on Boz Scaggs' new album (Memphis). Yep, I'll definitely be recording. Touring I'm not sure about. I can't sit... I can't stand the way I used to. I've got emphysema and it's hard for me. When it's hot, I can't breathe very well at all. It's a problem with that.
PSF: I loved the show the band did at SXSW but I felt a little bad for you because it looked like you were struggling up there at times.
TH: I couldn't breathe. I was trying to get the air on and the (electric) fans to come to my face. Normally, there's a fan in my face and I can breathe. And plus that stool was too high. I had to prop my foot up on the stool and the guitar wasn't fitting correctly. They told us we had 40 minutes and then just before we came on stage, they said we were 13 minutes into the show. And so, I'm figuring we only got 32 minutes. And I couldn't use the tuner that Leroy had sent to me.
PSF: How does it feel to be playing with the same band after all these years?
TH: It feels great, like I know what everybody's gonna do. And that's a relief. Except the drummer- that was the first time I'd ever played with him. But everybody else I feel comfortable with.
PSF: Is it special also because you have family playing with you?
TH: Ah, yeah. I was one who always wished to see my brothers and sisters be able to retire and enjoy life and wouldn't have to work so hard. I saw my daddy do it and all of my uncles and aunts so I just prayed for that ever since I could remember.
PSF: What kind of advice would you give to a young musician?
TH: Go to school, learn to read. If you learn to read, you can get in any door. You can go on any TV show. You can go anywhere, in any studio because there'll always be someone that can write what you need to play. And if you don't know how to read, it's harder. You can make it. A lot of people don't know how to read. Don't even know how to read words, let alone music, and they make it but it's still best to know how to read. Yeah, that's what I've spoken about before- the people at Stax who brought some kids over there and both times I told 'em the same thing- just learn to read and everything will be wonderful.
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