Hi Records Brought the Music of the People to the People

By Shannon Seaton, for SoundBoard

In the height of 1960’s, the beacon of Memphis Soul Music shone bright.  

Multiple stand-out labels cut vinyl records during the time, and a few of them are still thriving. Many are the things that Memphis music legends are made of – Stax and Sun are both places that bring tourism to our city. They are both pillars of music magic that continue to produce amazing music.  

The Hi Records Story

The Memphis sound is universal. It connects people, crossing genres, evolutionary. Hi Records was a label that genuinely understood the progression of the times, and strived to progress with them. 

Hi Records was the brainchild of Jim Coughi and Ray Harris, a record storeowner and singer, respectively. Harris was originally signed to Sun Records before deciding to branch out on his own and try something different. When Bill Cantrell and Quinton Clauch were added to the crew, it was pretty evident that Hi Records had the makings of an extremely successful label, and it was. Hi came along at a time when the history of Memphis music was rooted in the records that were listened to by white people. They entered the scene as a Rockabilly label – in 1957 that was the mainstream – signing white talent and playing to the mainstream.  

The Civil Rights Movement had just since begun three years prior, and the nation was at a crossroads. That is the wonderful thing about the music industry – you can track history through it, beyond the history we are taught in school. 

As the Movement progressed and made change in our world, many doors were opened, doors for many talents. The climate began to change the ways and tracks of popular media, record labels that once signed artists like Carl Perkins and Ace Cannon, that were suddenly starting to change the way they looked at what music was. And what it meant. 

October is Memphis Music Month – Tell us your story!

During the era, record labels in Memphis were, as they are still, an entangled web of producers and musicians trying to get their sound out into the world. This innocuous goal joined the labels of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s in a sort of sisterhood. They were all striving to bring the music of the people to the people. And considering the firm, white establishment grip on the industry of the era, it is still hard to believe that Hi and several other labels succeeded in doing so.  

The music of the 1960’s in Memphis music would quickly, though not entirely seamlessly, transition to reflect the population of the city. Black people in Memphis had been writing and performing music in Memphis for decades. Their music was taken, used, and profited from – there was rarely if ever credit given to the talented people whose labor of love this music was. During the early years of the civil rights movement labels like Hi saw this as a way to give these artists their voice, albeit a profitable endeavor.  There is no denying that Hi had hurdles to jump and people to convince. In spite of that the label began to focus on black artists. 

The Royal Recording Studios (and Hi Recording Studio), founded by the owners of Hi Records, located at an old movie theatre at 1320 Willie Mitchell Blvd. (jbcurio, wikicommons)

If nothing else, music is about representation. It is about thoughts, feelings, and the sounds that stir up varying degrees of untapped emotions from listeners – feelings we didn’t know we had. In the ’60s it was time for a change. It was time that all listeners felt connected to the music coming out of Memphis. Hi Records was ready for a change and it drew its fame from it. The 1960’s would usher in some of the best music there was to offer, and a great deal of that music would come from Memphis.  

The artists signed by Hi Records in those early years of the ’60’s were indispensable. One such artist was Willie Mitchell. He signed on as a recording artist around 1963 and recorded several notable albums with Hi Records. Mitchell recorded early soul hits at Hi, like his album “Hold it!!!” and “The Many Moods of Willie Mitchell,” before moving into the role of producer. What Mitchell was most known for was his brilliant production of Al Green’s albums in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Mitchell ran Royal studios, where most of Hi’s recording took place. Together they sold more than 20 million records.  

Al Green, still a notable figure in Memphis, rose to soul royalty following the release of “Let’s Stay Together” in 1972. Green would go on to win eleven Grammy’s. The reverend released some of the staple songs of Memphis soul, his buttery soulful voice was and still is unmatched. 

After Hi dissolved in the late ’70’s Green moved in and out of the world of secular music, and he also recorded several gospel albums. He has influenced generations of musicians, and continues to stand for a time in Memphis music that lives in renown. His years at Hi were the highlight of his career.

Notable artists of Hi Records
Some of the notable artists of Hi Records, from label’s website.

While Green was certainly one of the most traditionally successful artists signed with Hi, he certainly wasn’t the only talented artist. In 1968, Ann Peebles came to Memphis from Missouri to perform with Gene “Bowlegs” Miller, a local trumpeting legend. There she caught the ear of Willie Mitchell. Mitchell quickly signed her to Hi Records and they began recording together. 

In Peebles’ early Hi recordings you can hear the Hi Rhythm Section and deep expressive Memphis horns. In the early ’70s she began working closely with Don Bryant, a songwriter for the label, and together they reached Memphis music nirvana with “I Can’t Stand the Rain,” in 1974. Peebles was a gem. She released 7 albums with Hi Records, all of which maintained the roots of the Memphis sound that Hi became so celebrated for.  

Hi Records made illustrious records up until 1977, when both Hi and Stax were sold to Al Bennett, who combined their power and influence to create Cream Records. 

During the soul years at Hi Records Memphis became the booming mecca of music that it was born to be. There are few things that project culture in the way that music does – it is an art of the people and for the people. Music, in its truest form, creates understanding and ties humanity together. Hi Records is a little piece of that puzzle that holds Memphis music in such high regard on a global scale.  

Shannon Seaton contributes to StoryBoard’s SoundBoard. Shannon has a Master’s Degree in Literature, grew up in a very small town in rural Tennessee, moved to Memphis at 18 and didn’t look back. “I fell madly in love with the grit and soul of this city.”

Check out more music on the Hi Records website.

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