Memphis session player Charles “Skip” Pitts can weave a good yarn. But the man’s greatest invention is simply himself. “You know who this is?”, a deep voice rumbles on his outgoing voicemail. “Leave me a message and I’ll get back to you.” While Pitts was hardly a top-tier soul artist in his own right, the mark that he made on pop culture is indelible. A sixteenth-note hi-hat merged seamlessly with Pitts’ seminal wah-wah guitar parts on the “Theme from Shaft.” Along with Isaac Hayes and label home Stax Records, Pitts had a tremendous effect on the evolution of Memphis soul music, in general. The Scott Bomar-produced Got to Get Back finds Pitts working with other distinctive Memphis musicians such as founding Bar-Kays member Ben Cauley and Hi Rhythm section drummer Howard Grimes. It is under the group’s Bo-Keys moniker, however, that the best ideas from the Memphis soul scene come into full fruition. The tight, assertive Memphis-style horn section unfurls with boisterous buildup on “Work that Sucker.” The Bo-Keys have displayed muscular raw power on their recent fall tour in support of Got to Get Back (Electraphonic Recordings).
“The people make a good choice to see The Bo-Keys, guaranteed,” Pitts said. “It’s an all-around groove, man.” While in between gigs, Pitts joined Soul Train for a 20-minute phone interview. His health has been a sticking point in recent years. After his initial hello, he said, “I’ve got to get on that (hotel) treadmill and get me some water, man.” Check out what Pitts has to say about the death Isaac Hayes, rap music, samples, and his own legacy.
Soul Train: I really appreciated the inter-generational aspect of The Bo-Keys. You have the veterans and up-and-comers. I was wondering if the younger members of the band taught you any new tricks.
Skip: Well, they brought out a lot. Let me just explain this. You can always get something from a fellow musician if they are good, especially. And these guys are good. We’ve got Marc Franklin and Scott Bomar. These young guys inspire me. I think I inspire them. I like the idea of young and old together as well as black and white musicians–one end to the other end, man. I love that feeling we have as a group.
Soul Train: What has the Bo-Keys brought out in your musicianship that you haven’t gotten the chance to express before in your extensive career?
Skip: The Bo-Keys brings out my best because it’s original material that we’re doing and I’m co-writing a lot of it. I played with Gene Chandler, The Duke of Earl, in 1964. I played with Wilson Pickett and the Isley Brothers. We played at the Yankee Stadium, where they called my name out. We did a lot of other tunes with the Isley Brothers that I can’t even remember the names of. And then, I made money for Isaac Hayes. At this stage in time, I’m hoping to make some money for myself. I made everybody else a little bit richer. Now let me make myself a little bit richer.
Soul Train: Are there any up-and-coming Memphis soul bands that you like on the scene?
Skip: I really like the children that’s over there at the Stax Academy. I don’t hear a lot of the groups out of Memphis too much. I really like The City Champs, a group that Scott Bomar produced. They’re very good. I really like them. In Memphis clubs, they have good musicians all over. And everybody that records doesn’t necessarily sound good in a live setting. In Memphis, the musicians really do well in both arenas. They have some bad boys in Memphis. I’m from Washington, D.C., but Memphis is my home. I’ve been here since Thanksgiving 1970 when I got with Isaac Hayes. I’ve been with him off and on up until he passed in 2008. I even did the movies with him such as “Soul Man” with Samuel L. Jackson and Bernie Mac. And to think, Bernie Mac died that Saturday. I turned around and Isaac was dead on Sunday. When I got there, Isaac was on the floor, man. The treadmill was still running. His wife was just out of it and the little baby Kwadjo was crying. He didn’t know what was going on. I drove his wife behind the ambulance to the hospital. They tried to revive him, but he was gone. They didn’t know how long he was gone because she had been to the store. But Memphis is my home. Since Isaac’s been gone, I’ve made The Bo-Keys my main concern. I was doing both when Isaac was alive. Like I said, we were together for 37 years off and on. It really touched me when he died. I knew he was sick, but I didn’t know that he was going to leave that soon.
Soul Train: When you started your career with Hayes, could you imagine playing with him 37 years later?
Skip: Oh no, man. No, no, no. I was so young and wild. I had no idea I would be playing with him for 37 years. I lived day to day back then. When “Shaft” came out, everybody wanted to use a lick or two of mine. I did a lot of session work with Rufus Thomas and a lot of other artists. After “Shaft,” they used us on a lot of stuff.
Soul Train: Do you ever re-listen to your older work with Isaac and hear anything that surprises you?
Skip: Always. A lot of times, I hear it on the radio. When I hear it, I know my style. My wife does, too. Oftentimes, I hear something and think, “whoa, I forgot all about that song.” I did so many recordings. It’s hard to keep up.
Soul Train: What do you think of rap artists re-appropriating some of your classic licks through samples?
Skip: The rappers have to do their thing. I think they use us in their work because they like what we did. I wish we could get paid for it. In most cases, we don’t. I’m not against rap. I appreciate them doing it. Some of the artists that have used our licks such as The Beastie Boys…I really appreciate it. But I wish we had an arrangement where we would get some kind of compensation for it. Every so many years, you’ve got a different thing coming out. Now it’s hip-hop. Mine was soul. I remember when disco came out and we even did a few disco songs. We had a hit with Isaac called “The Disco Connection.” It was a big hit overseas and in Sao Paulo. But as for the rappers, they gotta do their thing. We are old-school to them. But it’s going to change again later on. In music, change is constant. Musicians will always use the old stuff because that’s what they relate to.
Soul Train: Was there ever time when you considered quitting the music business? In most creative pursuits, there comes a point where it’s too much to handle.
Skip: Never. This was the thing that I know God called me to do. Last night, I was up there on that stage like a boxer. When I started playing, I didn’t even feel the pain. Everybody always talks about my smile. I always enjoy what I’m doing. I’m enjoying the people and musicians around me. I wouldn’t do anything else. My mother said, “Baby, it’s good you learned how to play the guitar. I don’t know what you would’ve done without the guitar.”
Soul Train: Do you have any thoughts on the current retro-revivalism movement with Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings and Fitz and the Tantrums?
Skip: I love the idea. From my tastes, 1960s music was the best. I hear songs from the 1930s such as Duke Ellington. But I don’t feel music as much as I do unless it’s from the 1960s or 1970s. You can call it retro-revivalism or whatever you want to call it. It still has soul.
Soul Train: Now you mentioned church. When you first started out, were there any spiritual aspects that you carried over into the soul realm?
Skip: I started out when I was a kid with a group called The Spiritual Kings. I was 12 years old. I taught myself at 11. Bo Diddley was my idol with all the rhythms he did. I developed with the Spiritual Kings and I did utilize it when I started playing funk.
Soul Train: Do you have any future projects coming up that you’re excited about?
Skip: I’m getting ready to record a new CD. And we’re getting ready to do “Shaft” over again. All these standing ovations and everything–everybody loves the “Shaft” theme when we do it. A lot of bands can’t really play it. We’re going to use our Bo-Keys group and we might add some other people and guest artists. It’s not even on the drawing board yet. Once we finish the tour, Scott Bomar will concentrate on re-recording an album. I’m doing a book soon. It’ll be my words. I have to watch what stories I tell. There are so many stories to tell. I don’t want to bring nobody down. I’m sorry to the ones that are gone, but they were all my brothers in the music industry and slaves to the rhythm.
For more information about the Bo-Keys fall tour, visit their Website at www.thebokeys.com/shows/.
Joey Hood has been writing about musicians since 2003. His byline has appeared in “American Songwriter,” “Nashville Scene,” Nerve.com, NPR and “Ya’ll.” He graduated with a Bachelor of Science in mass communication from Middle Tennessee State University with a focus in the recording industry. Read more: Joey Hood | eHow.com.