Mike Yoffie of Otis and Freddie Hughes say they’re just trying to keep soul alive. They’re in good company; soul music is seeing a huge surge in popularity again right now, but Freddie and Mike have been soaring off of that beat for a long time. Both will take to the stage as part of the soul extravaganza happening this Friday night at The Chapel in San Francisco. Freddie Hughes has graced stages around the world with his powerful, heartfelt vocals since the late 1950s. He’ll be joining Mike Yoffie (keyboards) and the rest of Otis, a Stax inspired soul revue, which features some of the West Coast’s very best soul players and singers, all of whom are more than ready to deliver an unforgettable night of music.
Wendy Oakes: People may look at the name of your show and think that the Otis Soul Revue is an Otis Redding tribute, but it’s more of a revival of the Stax soul revues that featured multiple artists in the 1960s.
Mike Yoffie: Yep. The goal is to bring that idea of a show. We’ve had different people and we’ve done it in different ways but we’re inspired by – it’s on YouTube – you can see the Stax revue from Norway from 1967. There’s just an energy and a rawness to it which is really the goal.
Freddie Hughes: My individual singing as Freddie Hughes is in the same order of how Otis might have done it. We’re just trying to keep soul alive.
WO: And as you said Mike, you’ve worked with different artists but this is your second year working with Freddie, and of course last year’s show at The Chapel was a huge success. Freddie, you bring with you not only your voice and experience, but you were actually a part of that original soul scene when it was happening.
FH: Yes, that’s who I come up listening to. The group sounds like the fella that does “Green Onions”, Booker T. & the M.G.s; they have that kind of air about them. There’s so many different kinds of music now but to be able to go to that soul funk rock sound again is fun [for] me.
MY: We’ve had a lot of different singers, a lot of different styles, but from a generational perspective I think the reason we have come back to Freddie, asked him to work with us again, is because there’s an extra level of authenticity and feeling and communion about it, which isn’t to disrespect any of the great singers we’ve had but sometimes we say working with Freddie feels like the real deal just for the reason you were saying; he was there during that period. Everyone else we’ve worked with brings their own thing to it and their own deep attachment to that music but they’re looking back at it, whereas Freddie really was living it; these were his contemporaries. It’s really special for us. Rehearsals are as special as the shows, just the vibe. There’s so much respect among all our musicians for Freddie when he comes in and when he starts singing it’s chills.
FH: They have patience with me too. I’m not no young whippersnapper anymore; I’m 72 years old, but I’m blessed to still be able to design music. I love singing; I’ve been singing since I was five years old. “Send My Baby Back” was my biggest record in 1968, so if you look it up you might know kinda where we’re coming from.
WO: “Send My Baby Back” was your biggest record but you’ve made lots of records while singing in a number of different bands throughout the years. It’s great that you continue to find so many satisfying musical partnerships and communities, and that we’ve had the opportunity to see you all along.
FH: Very good musicians, like I recently was with the California Honeydrops at The Fillmore auditorium. I have my own gig at a place called The Cheese Board in Berkeley every other Tuesday and the first Saturday of each month with my own band. I’m trying to stay busy. I’m just so glad I worked at Fleet Week with Lavay Smith & Her Red Hot Skillet Lickers. I was out there with the big band and they allowed me to do four numbers with them and I had that big orchestra around me. They played “Send My Baby Back”, “A Change Gonna Come”, songs that I’ve recorded and come up listening to. Whatever mix it is I sure appreciate having the opportunity because I love to sing. I’m looking forward to having more gigs with Otis and I’m hoping that we might be able to collaborate since I’m from that era. I have songs that they might be interested in adding to their repertoire.
WO: Otis seems like a likely environment for that because you don’t just do the top hits; you do some of your own numbers as well as some of the more forgotten treasures.
MY: We’re trying to keep this music alive and keep this show tradition alive within people who are our contemporaries and people who have memories of that music; they love it, but we’re also trying to reach forward to this next generation. It’s amazing that the younger audience, more and more, I’ll reference Booker T. & the M.G.s or Otis Redding and get a blank stare from younger people and think, wow, you’re talking Otis redding, probably one of the most influential singers in just about any genre. To your point about B-sides, we are starting with not the top 40 hits. We’ve learned to sprinkle a couple of those in but we’re looking for not super obscure, but things that we love, that we react to. We’re also developing our own originals. It’s a journey and it’s a project that’s evolved slowly because it’s pretty ambitious and a lot of people in it are involved in other things. I think Otis as a main tribute versus original band will really make sense to people at a deeper level when we put out more original music.
FH: I think that they’re a baby Tower of Power. Just my opinion now. (laughs) I’m very happy to be a part of it. Whenever they want me to be a part of it I’ll sure try to make it.
WO: How did you come to know of each other?
FH: I think they came to The Cheese Board and saw me perform. They wanted to do a show, and they wanted to try a variety of shows. They already had performers; they have some very good singers that sing with the group on a regular basis, but they said they [were] starting a new thing.
WO: Who will all the players and singers be on your night at The Chapel?
MY: The rhythm section is David Wiens on bass; he’s our musical director. The drummer is named Hud Bixler; he’s a great musician. Dave and Hud and I have played together for years, mostly in ska bands. We have a lot of history in that genre and what happened was we would always play around with this Booker T. stuff at rehearsals, when we weren’t rehearsing the stuff that our bands were doing. Over time we were taking a break and Otis kinda grew out of that. We played, the three of us, probably for a couple years before we even brought a guitar player in, just working on the feel. Our guitarist is a guy named Craig Daniel. I have now played and recorded with him a fair amount but he and Dave and Hud have a lot of history; those guys are all from Fresno. Horns, we have Patrick Wolff on tenor sax. Patrick’s from the East Coast. He’s just one of the best tenor players in the area. He plays with Marcus Shelby; he’s one of the first call tenor players around. He’s got his own show on KCSM now on Monday nights; he picks an under appreciated jazz musician and really digs deep into their recordings and the whole story of them. Patrick’s a great player but he’s really a musicologist and arranger and all sorts of things wrapped into one. Shawn Williams is our trumpet player. He’s a young kid from the South Bay in his early twenties, maybe mid-twenties now, who’s won – at least one – some sort of national Thelonius Monk jazz competition. The Stax sound is pretty much the tenor and trumpet horn section, so those guys work together. Then we have a woman named Lilan Kane, who for this show is a backup singer; she’s been a featured singer. All these people are very accomplished in their own right, have their own recordings, and are playing all over the place. Our opening singer is a woman named Erin Honeywell. She and Lilan actually teach together. We’re recording an original with [Erin] that we’re gonna debut at The Chapel. She has a tremendous voice. You have somebody like Freddie who is a great draw, just has a great spirit, and Erin is this up and coming talent. Last time we played with those two it was pretty split between people saying, “Freddie was amazing” and people saying “Erin was amazing.” There’s really a tight chemistry between everybody. When we put it all back together, even for rehearsals or recordings, it’s really got this great family vibe. Ultimately it’s all about the singer. It’s really about just creating this platform for people to just shine, and for somebody like Freddie to go out an just have a great platform for his singing.