To the extent that he is known at all, Ray Stinnett is best known as the guitar player for Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs. That’s him supporting the grotty garage groove of “Woolly Bully” and shearing through “Black Sheep,” two of their biggest hits. At the height of the band’s popularity — just after Billboard magazine named “Woolly Bully” song of the year in 1965, over hits by the Stones and the Beatles — they disbanded acrimoniously and Stinnett, along with his wife and newborn, set out for California. First he made the Haight-Ashbury scene, then he settled briefly at the infamous Morningstar Commune just outside San Francisco, where he expanded his musical and spiritual horizons.
Stinnett’s sole solo album, A Fire Somewhere, reflects that westward journey, blending the folk-rock and pop spiritualism of the West Coast with the R&B-descended grit of the Mid-South. He’s a fine guitar player, with an agile strum that has much in common with his more famous Memphis contemporary, Steve Cropper of Booker T. & the MGs. Stinnett’s never quite as tight as his Stax counterpart, but commune living may have taught him that not everything had to be so squarely in the pocket. A Fire Somewhere is loose but not laconic, with a rambling vibe that belies its darker sentiments.
Nor did everything have to adhere to the strict structures of the kind of mainstream pop Stinnett played in the Pharaohs. Much like Arthur Lee of Love — another Memphian transplanted to the West Coast — he apparently felt no need to repeat his catchiest melodies or to assign much emphasis to choruses or bridges. A sudden key change imbues “Silky Path” with ominous foreboding: “If you go down to see the lights of the city,” he sings, before lowering his voice in warning, “don’t you fall off of your cloud.” Stinnett’s songs meander and lope, but they always end up someplace interesting. Closer “The Rain” begins as a stoner gospel-folk number, then morphs into a hectic pop jam, florid with saxophone and piano. The two halves of the song couldn’t be more different, yet they make a skewed kind of sense sutured together.
At the behest of friend and mentor Booker T. Jones, who was by then embarking on a second career as a producer and talent scout, Stinnett signed to A&M Records. For a variety of reasons, most having to do with friction between label and artist, A Fire Somewhere was shelved and largely forgotten for four decades. But yesterday’s insufficiently commercial dud can be today’s revelatory relic, and the album is finally getting a proper release via Seattle-based Light in the Attic Records (which has a fine track record with Memphis-related releases by unsung Stax horn player Packy Axton and singer Wendy Rene). Even so many years after its creation, this album still sounds lively and wiry and full of ideas, suggesting a very different path that Memphis pop music might have taken — one that wandered defiantly westward.