MEMPHIS, Tenn- It’s an unmistakable soul sound born in the Memphis studios of Stax and Hi Records in the 1960s and 70s and cradled in nightclubs on Beale street.
Half a century later and thousands of miles away that sound is still embraced in a tiny town in the mountains of northern Italy and in the province of Bologna.
Larry Dodson is the lead singer of the Memphis R&B and funk bank, The Bar-Kays.
They’ve performed in Porretta several times.
“I’ve not seen a country, a city so infatuated with Memphis. I mean literally. I mean just bubbling with Memphis soul,” Dodson said.
Welcome to Porretta, now known as home to the world’s premier festival for vintage soul music.
Over the years, it has featured mostly Memphis artists such as The Bar-Kays, the Bo-Keys, Rufus and Carla Thomas, and musician Marvell Thomas.
“The festival is billed as The Porretta Soul Festival, a tribute to Otis Redding. It took off slowly, but after about four years it took off considerably all over the world,” Thomas said.
It’s here where you’ll find TV shows and documentaries on Memphis artists, a street is named after Otis Redding, and a park and amphitheater named after Rufus Thomas.
These days you’ll see photos of Memphis singer Toni Green on the back of buses in Italy.
“My picture was on the back of buses. I was weeping so hard child. I cried my eyelashes off. I was boo hooing and balling,” Green said.
Graziano Uliani started the festival in 1987.
“The gentleman who was the promoter of the festival was a big fan of Memphis music more specifically Stax records and more specifically Otis Redding, ” Thomas said.
It’s been 27 years and Porretta is considered the European showcase of the Memphis soul sound coupled with a die-hard fan base.
“I’m like blown away. I’m standing on the stage looking at the people and they knew me. They actually know who I am. They know your discography even before you get there,” Green said.
“They were hanging out of trees. It’s an outdoor amphitheater in downtown Porretta and it was some something to see,” Thomas said.
“We are stars over there, not just The Bar-Kays, people from Beale Street. The guys who play in clubs are stars, mega stars in Porretta, Italy,” Dodson said.
Some Memphis musicians say they even get more respect and honor in Italy, than they do back home.
Marvell Thomas says a few years ago he tried to organize a group of city leaders to travel to Porretta to show them why Memphis music is still perceived around the world as alive and relevant, but no one responded.
“People in Memphis don’t have a clue of the music history of Memphis, Tennessee. People in Porretta did. We walked in the door with an appreciative fan base,” Thomas said.
Toni Green says if she and other musicians didn’t perform in Porretta, they wouldn’t be able to pay their bills because of the lack of work in Memphis.
“I wanted to work and there was no work and all I had in between me was God and he was the one who helped me to get a call from Italy that really saved my life,” Green said.
About eight years ago, students with the Stax Music Academy traveled to Italy to take Porretta by storm.
Musician and University of Memphis music student Forrest Sansing was only 13 at the time.
“You’re looking up to all these legends struggling to pay the bills. You can go to New York or L.A. and struggle. We want to be at home to be stars here like we are in Italy and Europe,” Sansing said.
It’s why Porretta, Italy is a small town with a big place in the hearts of musicians, a city they say is singing the soul of Memphis music, a soul they think is sometimes missing where the sound was born.
“I’m not going to tell you no lie. I want a little bit more and want a whole lot more at home. I live here. I was born here. When I go overseas I’m representing Memphis, Tennessee,” Green said.
“I wish the whole city could take a trip to Porretta once a year. They’d learn a lot.”
This year, the Porretta Soul Festival in Italy is July 18 featuring Memphis and Mid-South artists such as Toni Green, Vaneese Thomas, the daughter of the late Rufus Thomas, and Denise Lasalle.