Meet Memphis - Earl Randle
You can find Earl Randle playing piano at St Patrick’s Catholic Church in Memphis on Sunday morning. His journey to that position began when he was born in Indianola Mississippi on March 1, 1947. His inspiration grew out of the cotton fields of the Delta and took him far from home. Music had him making a living in Los Angeles, San Francisco, for a year in Montreal, and then on to Chicago. But it wasn’t the hymnal he was playing from. His piano lent itself to the music he heard from those powerful AM radio stations he tuned into as a child and young man - WNLA in Indianola and WDIA from Memphis. From these unformatted stations (i.e. they played everything), the young man heard jazz, blues, gospel, and rock ‘n roll. He loves Fats Domino. While he was in Chicago, he met Syl Johnson ("Come On Sock It to Me,” “Is it Because I’m Black”), who had been asked by Willie Mitchell to come to Memphis and record at Hi Records and Royal Studios. Johnson asked his fellow Mississippian to come along.
So it took some years for Randle to make the 130 mile journey from Indianola to Memphis. Mitchell put him to work. “It was a machine” at Hi he told me, focused on superstar Al Green, but with so many other talented artists and musicians. So the man with Delta mud in his roots and boots went to work writing some great songs. He wrote “I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down” and “Come to Mama” for Ann Peebles. He also wrote for OV Wright, Otis Clay, and his friend Syl Johnson. Somewhere along the way Al Green was born again and told Mitchell he could no longer do the same type of music. Randle wrote “God Blessed Our Love”, which Green remembers as a song “that split the difference between the sacred and profane” in his autobiography ‘Take Me To the River.’ Randle too was changing. “The spiritual comes out the older I get” - he had done the “man/woman thing.” Probably the high point of that change was writing the music for Henry Partee’s words in “God Bless Martin Luther King”
‘Mama’ was later reworked into ‘Poppa” by Bob Seger. “The money really came in” when the ‘80’s found ‘Playhouse’, recorded by singer Paul Young and his band - “the disco version” Randle calls it. Of course it was the only version I knew for thirty years. In the decades since, Randle has worked with The Memphis Arts Council to bring music to schools and now works with Creative Aging to bring music to senior citizens in nursing homes, retirement communities, senior centers and senior daycare facilities. He plays that music he loved, which evokes strong memories - Fats Domino, Al Green, Otis Redding, Charlie Pride. He even reworks Christmas classics like “Santa Baby” assuming the Santa role in “I’m Your Santa.” He plays from his own song book. He can relate to music helping with the challenges of aging - he suffers from cervical dystonia, nerve damage in the neck which leads to involuntary movements.
When I heard him at The Center for Southern Folklore, he played “I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down” and in my mind I saw and heard that Paul Young video - at half speed. It was like the first time I heard Muddy Waters’ original “I Just Want to Make Love to You” after knowing only Foghat’s version. On Sunday morning, I imagine he got up early and headed to St Patrick’s to play from someone else’s playlist - the classic hymns we all know and love which evoke strong memories.
Come to Memphis, meet Earl Randle, and ask him about why musicians don’t need to speak other languages!