“We all learned our craft playing in the clubs of Memphis, a great training ground for R&B, blues, soul and jazz,” says guitarist Joe Restivo about the band’s new LP Luna ’68
The City Champs play instrumental soul jazz, with a nod to 60s icons like Jimmy Smith, Brother Jack McDuff and Big John Patton.
The Memphis based trio – organ player Al Gamble, drummer George Sluppick and guitarist Joe Restivo – didn’t have any grand plans when they started playing together in 2007.
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“There’s a dive bar in town called The Buccaneer,” Restivo said. “We had a residency there every Tuesday for a couple of years. We fashioned our sound on the organ based instrumental music of the Stax/Volt and early Blue Note era. We decided to mirror the traditional line up: guitar, drums and B3 with no bass, just a solid groove and a distinct melodic structure.
“We all learned our craft playing in the clubs of Memphis, a great training ground for R&B, blues, soul and jazz. The clubs are full of musicians that have cut hit records and played with the top names. The music of the local sanctified churches filters into the club scene, giving it an extra depth of feeling. We all learned how to play by getting on the bandstand with people better than we were. We were suburban white guys, but if you listen to enough records and get good enough, you can get into an R&B band with guys that speak that language fluently. You learn how to lock in with the rhythm section and play a solo that has a beginning and an end. You discover everything by trial and error. If you’re not very good, it’s unforgiving, but if you can play, they love you.”
The trio enjoys the time they spend together playing, but they all work and tour with other bands as well. Gamble is a member of St. Paul & the Broken Bones; Sluppick has played with J.J. Grey & Mofro, the Chris Robinson Brotherhood and other pop and rock acts. Restivo, meanwhile, is a member of several groups, including the Bo-Keys, a group that recently won a Grammy nomination for backing Don Bryant on his new album, You Make Me Feel.
“Just before the pandemic shut everything down, we were all in town at the same time,” Restivo said. “Our drummer George had been working with producer Bruce Watson [manager of Big Legal Mess Records] on a couple of projects for his Bible and Tire label. We hadn’t made an album as The City Champs in about 10 years, so he said we should get together in the studio and see if we have any chemistry.”
In a few sessions, The Champs cut Luna ’68, their third album. They put it on hold for a while, because of the shut down, but Restivo said the recording process was painless. “We’re a live in the studio band. The only overdubs were some tambourine rhythms and a bit of acoustic guitar on a few of the songs. It’s all done live, one take, no overdubs, like it should be. If you don’t get it right in two or three takes, it’s on to the next tune. Like it should be, in my opinion.”
Restivo said the sound of the album is a logical progression from The Set-Up, the record they made in 2010. “We were going in a more cinematic direction on Set-Up. We wanted to continue doing spacey, film score-like things. Al and myself usually start the composition process with our ideas. I’ve been listening to a lot of work by Piero Umiliani, an Italian film composer, so some of that approach crept in. I bring in an idea and we develop it collectively.”
The nine arrangements on Luna ’68 expand the band’s musical vision. “Mack Lean” is a funky boogaloo, with Restivo and Gamble trading low-key solos. “George wrote his own grooves playing off the ideas of Idris Muhammad and Clyde Stubblefield, who made the original boogaloo single,” Restivo said. Restivo shows off his James Brown chops on “A-Meld-A-Marcos,” a sold combination of funk and blues. “Freddy King for Now” showcases Restivo’s blues guitar prowess, playing a Freddy King style solo and trading licks with Gamble’s Hammond B-3. “I also throw in some Willie Mitchell and Reggie Young licks on the guitar breaks. The back end is full on Freddy.”
VIDEO: Tony! Toni! Tone! “Thinking Of You”
“Thinking of You,” the album’s only cover, is a track from the House of Music album by Tony! Toni! Tone! It opens with gospel quartet handclaps and features a playful solo by Gamble. “’Thinking of You’ has a real Memphis vibe. It could have been written for Al Green. We cut the handclaps as a goof, but we liked the way it came out, so we left ‘em in. ‘Voyage to Vega’ uses a sci-fi sound on Al’s organ, as well as some dub-like effects. We had a lot of fun putting that track together, going heavy into the movie score vibe, with some twangy, spaghetti western guitar. It’s dedicated to a friend of ours who loved psychedelic music.”
The City Champs would like to take their music to the masses, but they’re all busy with other projects. “We’ve been playing together for 15 years, long enough to mature as musicians,” Restivo said. “We know each other musically and personally. Playing and rehearsing is like hanging out with your buddies. It’s a labor of love. We like playing for fans, although we don’t do it as much as we’d like to. If anyone out there wants to take us out on the road, we’re ready.”