Saturday, October 24, 2009

Southside Jerry

southside jerry
Southside Jerry Mellix

Jerry Mellix was born in the Lower Hill, and went to Soho and Forbes schools. He got his start in music in 1961 at the age of fourteen, blowing a sax for the Fifth Avenue High School band and with his Hill District community players, the Hill City Marching Band.

But his muse was his brother Ron, looking sharp while marching in the Saturday morning parades with the HCMB. Ron would then spend his Saturday nights with Clairton's Shirley and The Splendors, coming home after a gig with his cut of the pot - $15. Jerry wanted to get a piece of that action.

Not that there weren't other influences over his career. "Sax players like Art Nance, the late great J.C. Gordon, Stanley Turrentine, Hammond B-3 player John Papi, guitar player Larry "Butch" McGhee, vocalist Hattie Taylor, members of These Gents, the late Johnny Jack and Jerry Betters, and of course everyone from the group The Memories, inspired and encouraged me," he said.

"A lot of those players, too many to name, were cats who only got to play in those hole in the wall joints. They never got recorded or will never be known outside their neighborhoods, but I appreciate them all."

When he was sixteen, Mellix hooked up with his first professional band, Little Willie Beck & The Crossfires (Beck forged Mellix's folks signatures on the work permit papers). Mainly a club band, they never recorded, though they did perform at the Stanley Theater for a 1963 show headlined by Lee Dorsey and Derek Martin of "You Better Go" fame. In fact, the Stanley performance was Mellix's first gig.

The Crossfires rode the circuit of the local venues - The Holiday House, Twin Coaches, and the other supper clubs that once dotted the region. They got to open for groups like The Miracles, Brook Benton, the Coasters, and ‘Wicked’ Wilson Pickett.

While the band may have never cut wax, they did get on radio, doing live commercials for WAMO DJ Bill Powell.

Like the other young males of the day, Mellix spent his year in 'Nam, joining Uncle Sam's crew in 1965. Then he came back home to a long run with the Memories.

He spent the next twenty plus years as a member of the band. They started out as an acapella doo-wop group the first year, then changed some personnel and added musicians, putting together a sweet show act. The Memories did an album worth of recordings in the mid 70’s for Terry Lee, but the DJ never released the cuts.

But the Memories did record again, on their MEMCO Label, and released their first wax, "Can I" b/w “Lovey Dovey” in 1976, followed in 1978 by "Sha-Boom" b/w "Once And Awhile." They later recorded and released a 4-song mini LP on cassette, a hot medium in 1981.

The band based their later choreography ala The Temptations, as they found themselves opening for a number of Motown acts playing the area like the Temptations (who were duly impressed by the Memories' show; imitation is the greatest form of flattery, no matter what biz you're in) and the O'Jays.

By the late 80’s, the members of the group were being raided by The Vogues, who took Keith Dix & Dave Wingo, The Marcels, who lured Jules Hopson, and The Clovers, who added Richie Merritt. The Memories became a memory. Mellix cast his lot with The Laurels.

He spent a few years performing with them, and decided to strike out on his own. His first gig was as a member of a South Side blues house band. The leader had trouble pronouncing Mellix during the group intros, and so "Southside Jerry" was born.

In 1997, he taped his first solo effort under his new stage name. That recording, released on cassette by RAM, was titled "Blues 'N' At" and won Pittsburgh's EXCEL Award for best independently produced Jazz/Blues record. Southside Jerry reissued it on CD in 2000 on his own impress, the Jermel label.

Now on his own, Mellix expanded beyond his Motown roots, and added blues and jazz to his R&B and doo-wop repertoire. He also expanded his stage, performing in places like Buffalo, Rochester, Charlotte, New Orleans, and Atlanta.

His favorite gig was at Trump Plaza in Atlantic City. There, Mellix got to perform with The Clovers, which included his old band mate from The Memories, Richie Merritt, who sang for a host of local groups, including the Electrons and the Marcels.

He joined forces with Morgantown's oldies/shag act, the Subway Band, which toured the east, and in 2005 cut the album "Black, White, & Blues" on their own label. His playing is also heard on albums with Pittsburgh's Stingers, Memphis Mike, and Kari Throm.

Heck, in 2006 he even played a gig with Gary Racan and the Studio E Band for the opening night gala after Matthew McConaughey's and Matthew Fox's "We Are Marshall" movie premier in Huntington, West Virginia.

The Subway job landed him an opportunity to play with Chicago's "Daughter of the Blues," B.B. King's girl Shirley, as a member of the R&B Station. His last performance with her was in Toronto, where Mellix parted ways to work in the Reno and Carson City casinos with a R&B show band called Musicole w/Michael Coleman.

But when the economy went south, so did the casino budgets. Mellix returned to his old stomping grounds in 2007 to earn his daily bread, and has been doing nicely ever since.

Here, he's back on the oldies circuit, backing The New Holidays, The Four Townsmen, and the Soul Merchants; he was with the El Monics before they broke up. He also performed with his own band, the Blues 'N' At Band, under his Southside Jerry persona.

Mellix plays the tenor sax, but also has been known to blow on a alto, bari and flute when it's called for and still is a pretty fair vocalist.

Forty-five years in the show, traveled the country, and yet got to come home again, to Wilkinsburg. Oh, and made enough of the long green to send his daughter through medical school (a day job with the Post Office helped that cause).

Southside Jerry is one of the unsung blue-collar success stories of the Pittsburgh music scene, and we hope he's back to stay.

Southside Jerry doing "Jerry's Blues"


Anonymous said...

I remember back in the early 70s, I was in a band called The Insyders playing at the Longview Gardens on Babcock Boulevard, in the North hills. Southside Jerry came up and asked if he could sit in with us. Naturally, we said yes. We were just a four piece band, and never had a sax player before. To make a short story long, for not knowing our music Jerry put on one super performance ~Jim Ehrhardt

Ron Ieraci said...

Dom, Storymeister - thanks for sharing your tales. It just reinforces what a tight-knit and collegial community Pittsburgh musicians have created for themselves.

Cynthia Brandon-Barnes said...

Some would consider my following comment as being bias, but when you are related to someone who has a gift ... you want to shout it off a mountaintop. I can remember when Jerry practiced his scales and other melodies in the front room of his home along with his brother while me and his little sister laid on the floor mesmerized by their talents. Who would have ever thought we were listening and seeing "greatness" in the making!

Ron Ieraci said...

Cynthia - you should be proud. Jerry's a great musician and a better person.