Teenie Hodges, genre-defining Memphis player, dies


Director Andrew Schoneberger, guitarist Mabon "Teenie" Hodges, and directors Susanna Vapnek, Scott Erickson and Emily de Moor attend a screening of documentary shorts at the 29th Santa Barbara International Film Festival in February. Mr. Hodges died June 22 at 68. (Mark Davis/Getty )
June 25

Mabon “Teenie” Hodges, the guitarist and songwriter who created a dynamic, rhythmic foundation for numerous Memphis soul records and co-wrote million-selling hits with singer Al Green, died June 22 at a hospital in Dallas. He was 68 and lived in Memphis.

The cause was complications of emphysema, said Lawrence “Boo” Mitchell, grandson of Mr. Hodges’s mentor, the late producer Willie Mitchell. Mr. Hodges was hospitalized in March after a performance at Austin’s South By Southwest music festival, where he came down with pneumonia.

Mr. Hodges’s bluesy, funk-inflected guitar work defined the 1970s Memphis soul sound.

Along with his brothers — organist Charles and bassist Leroy — Mr. Hodges, drummer Howard Grimes and pianist Archie Turner comprised the storied Hi Records rhythm section. They played on virtually every record produced by Mitchell for Hi Records, including 15 hit recordings by Green.

With Green, Mr. Hodges co-wrote four of the singer’s most enduring recordings, “Take Me to the River” (1974), “Love and Happiness” (1972), “Full of Fire” (1975) and “Here I Am (Come and Take Me)” (1973). According to Mitchell, Green wrote the words and Mr. Hodges handled the music.

“Take Me to the River,” though not originally a hit single for Green, has been covered by a wide range of performers including Talking Heads, Al Jarreau, Tina Turner and Tom Jones.

Mr. Hodges’s string work also graced Ann Peebles’s signature song “I Can’t Stand the Rain” (1973), Otis Clay’s original version of “Trying To Live My Life Without You” (1972) — later covered by rock singer Bob Seger — and recordings by Denise LaSalle, Syl Johnson, O.V. Wright, and Toots and the Maytals. More recently, Mr. Hodges recorded in support of his nephew, the hip-hop star Drake.

Mabon Lewis Hodges was born Nov. 16, 1945, in Germantown, Tenn., a Memphis suburb, and was one of 12 siblings. The nickname Teenie reflected his short height.

His father, Leroy Hodges Sr., played piano and led a local blues band that Mabon Hodges joined at 12. His brother Leroy Jr. later formed his own band, the Impalas, with Mitchell’s stepson, Archie Turner.

“I started going to the Impalas’s practices, which were held at Willie’s house, in ‘61,” he told the Memphis Flyer in 2004. “One thing led to another, and Poppa Willie started teaching me about music. When I was 18, I moved in with him, and I stayed until I got married.”

Mitchell’s advice to the fledging guitarist included telling him to switch from the thumb pick commonly used by country bluesmen to a flat pick favored by many jazz guitarists. By 1965, he joined Mitchell’s band. When his brothers Charles and Leroy Jr. joined the next year, the nucleus of the Hi recording band was in place.

He was married and divorced three times and had eight children, but a list of survivors could not be determined.

The session band recorded its own LP in 1976, “On the Loose,” under the name Hi Rhythm. Unfortunately, the album came out as Hi Records was winding down its operations. Green had joined the ministry and quit popular music, and Mitchell’s hits were drying up with the advent of disco.

Hi, for which Mitchell and the band worked on a contractual basis, was sold in 1978.

Although Mitchell continued to run Royal Studio in Memphis, with less consistent work, the band soon split up. They reunited in later decades to tour with the label’s former stars and perform at blues festivals.

Mr. Hodges was the subject of a documentary short, “Mabon ‘Teenie’ Hodges: A Portrait of a Memphis Soul Original” (2013).

“When I first started with Pops [Willie Mitchell], I prayed that God would let people hear my songs and like ’em,” Mr. Hodges once said. “I didn’t pray for the money part until now. . . . I just got paid for the sessions. I hardly signed any contracts, and I didn’t get any publishing rights until ‘Take Me to the River.’ ”

He noted that the lion’s share of royalties for “Take Me to the River” did not come from any of the song’s many recordings, but rather from Big Mouth Billy Bass, a mounted plastic fish that sang the song at the push of a button.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to the mounted plastic fish Big Mouth Billy Bass as Billy Big Boy Mouth Bass.

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