There’s a juxtaposition of half-hallelujah vocals and meet-me-at-the-crossroad guitar licks when International Blues Challenge semifinalists Southern Avenue takes the stage. But that mixture sounds just right for blues aficionados.
“It took me a long time, 10,000 miles and tough times to find these amazing people,” says Ori Naftaly, 28-year-old, Israeli-born guitar player who founded Southern Avenue and plays lead guitar for the band. “Southern Avenue is a manifest of my biggest dream, to be in a band that is like a family where everyone takes care of each other.”
Naftaly’s journey performing the blues started in 2011, when he put together The Ori Naftaly Band, a group that quickly became known as one of the best blues acts in Israel. But his love of guitar began earlier, at the age of five. “I had plenty of guitar teachers,” he says, “but I was so hyper active, keeping me focused was a big problem. So I spent most of my time jamming to records. Everything from Son House to Led Zeppelin, and from John McLaughlin to Stevie Wonder and Prince.”
Combining eclectic influence with his father’s tastes in big jazz, fusion, blues and 60s music, staples of Naftaly’s soundtrack from his youth were Al Green, Ray Charles, Muddy Waters and James Brown. Recognizing their son’s abilities on the guitar, his family ensured his instruction in a wide range of genres — including Spanish, classical, jazz and funk — leading to his acceptance at Rimon School of Jazz & Contemporary Music to study Arrangement and Composition.
Despite studying classical guitar with famed Israeli musician Shlomo Yidov, it would be a different teacher — Tony Pirson — who most inspired Naftaly’s future path as a musician. “From the age of 11 to 21, I had the privilege to have a brilliant guitar teacher who toured with Tina Turner and James Brown for three years. Tony Pirson was a huge influence on my style and the fact he relocated to Israel was my big lucky break in life.”
It was this kind of early exposure and lucky breaks that would prepare him to later share the stage with such acts as Tab Benoit, Ana Popovic, Bernard Allison, Shemekia Copeland, Royal Southern Brotherhood, Ron Holloway (The Allman Brothers), Marcia Ball, Danielle Nicole and others. His namesake band was named the ‘Best Blues Band’ in his home country, and in 2013, they flew to historic Beale Street to compete in the International Blues Challenge. They not only reached the semifinals that year — they also sold the largest number of CDs ever sold during an IBC event.
“Blues is the foundation,” says Naftaly. “Blues was the biggest genre in the world in the early 60s in my opinion, and you can't just ignore it when all these great bands and musicians talk about their roots... and not go after it. That’s why I moved to Memphis, to pursue a dream. I left my family and my friends. I sold my car. I moved to the other side of the world. I arrived in the United States with $700 and a few dates lined up.”
Following that move, Southern Avenuewas born, with the addition of local vocalist Tierinii Jackson and Tikyra Jackson on drums, sisters and preacher’s daughters raised performing in church in Memphis, Tennessee. “The band tome is a safe haven,” says Tierinii, thepowerhouse Southern Avenue vocalist who has starred in several musical theatre productions including Dream Girls, Spring Awakening, and Disney’s High School Musical 2. “We’re a team who look out for each other. We're a family. We are all different but passionate. And that spills over into our music and creates a warm balance. I love it.”
Tikyra "TK" Jackson is Tierinii’s sister and cites gospel music as her primary musical influence. At 21 years old, she’s been playing drums since she was 9, and grew up playing with the church band. A music business major at the University of Memphis, Jackson continues to hone her craft on the drums with the university's marching band, The Mighty Sound of the South, and in the Memphis Tigers basketball pep band.
Add to that mix Jeremy Powell on keys and local bassist, Daniel Mckee. “[Mckee] is one of the best and hard-working bass players in Memphis today,” says Naftaly. “He and I toured over 40 states with my former band and having him with us makes us all play better. The diversity and different influences we all have and also share, makes us a unique, fun group of people.”
With a self-titled EP and their first full-length LP set to be released in the summer of 2016, Southern Avenue plays multiple shows around Memphis. Their full-length LP will be recorded and produced by Kevin Houston with Luther Dickinson at the Zebra Ranch in Independence, Mississippi.
In the meantime, 28-year-old Naftaly is glad he made the leap of faith. “Living in Memphis is awesome,” he says. “So many bars have live music on a regular basis, growing a midtown community… great food, warm people. What's not to like? Life is short and I’d rather say my goodbyes happy and with no regrets. We only live once and I want to live fully…to create and perform music.”
Avenues and Opportunities
International Blues Challenge Semifinalists Southern Avenue on family and meandering paths to the blues
Story by Tonya Thompson