Ladies & Gentlemen...Mr. Keith Sykes
Keith Sykes (circa 1967) as a teenager exhales smoke beneath a poster of Steve McQueen.
Seems like Keith Skyes and I met somewhere in-between songs while listening to the Dewey Phillips radio show. It all developed when this new kid moved-in across the street from me and heard my radio a'playing. That's when Keith came over to my house to investigate. I think that we were about in the 9th grade at the time. I forgit. Keith Sykes had just moved to Memphis from Murray KY when we first made acquaintances. He was peculiarly shy and slightly introverted but displayed a precocious interest in music. Conversations with Keith would always revert back to his Kentucky background as he displayed a deep source of pride. He often referred to several of the popular musical artists in that area but unfortunately I had never heard of them. This lead me to believe that he was bluffing about their legacies and trying to pull my leg about their authenticity. In the immediate sense, our common ground between us was that he always had in his possession a full pack of cigarettes. Keith smoked Lucky Strike non-filters. Hence the entire neighborhood gang would also smoke Lucky Strike non-filters. Or whatever Keith would be generous enough to provide. Sitting around puffing cigarettes together brought out conversation about all the relevant guy talk sprinkled with the philosophical bullshit. I liked him because of his willingness to always listen attentively. Seemingly, when conversing with him about a provocative subject matter, sometimes his lack of emotion would convey his deep analytical thinking. Keith seemed amused by the bohemian behavior of his new neighbors. We respectfully tried to educate him of our inter-city ways all while his laid back country style presented a luring attraction to us. In our neighborhood everybody came from blue collar backgrounds. Kids talked with a rough and tough flare displaying a misguided demeanor. We talked trash-talk years before it was invented and acted like a bunch of adolescent geeks. But in hindsight I think that we were just searching for our identities. Keith was much different however, as he always remained effortlessly calm. His recent family separation was weighing heavy on his persona and sometimes you could feel his pain. His chameleon-like personality blended perfectly with our sophomoric behavior. But through it all -Keith was cool and as it turned out, he would be the one who taught us survival skills. An example was when he was the first member of our street gang to have a paper route which learnt' us about essential pocket change. More importantly he was the first young man in the neighborhood to own a Ducati Motorcycle. Frequently early in the morning you could hear him crank-up that bad boy with it's kick start ignition. The bike's tailpipe would just roar with a deep throaty sound that popped-off and backfired like a shotgun. It would always give me a big rush as he would speed off from his drive way while shifting those beautiful synchronized gears. All the neighbors would be pissed off from it's loud noise as he cruised by with a Lucky Strike hanging out of the side of his mouth.
In Keith's back yard was an old rustic picnic table and often he would just perch on the top for hours while strumming his old pawn-shop guitar. He'd talk and sing about his favorite Hank Williams for a while. Then he'd tell stories and sing about Woody Guthrie. Man, I didn't know beans about Woody Hanks or Guthrie Williams. Furthermore I thought that Keith had gone hillbilly and turned into a hayseed. It was during that same time that I was digging a group called The Yardbirds who played music with pulverizing guitar distortion. I couldn't figure out which one of us was out of touch with the real music scene, him or me.
One afternoon we were hanging out at my house listening to 45's when Keith pulled-out a new record he'd purchased titled "Subterranean Homesick Blues." I put the song on my Victrola record player that was wired to the back of my AM radio. The connection made a single Mono speaker sound sweet. As the tune began, the song twanged with a honky-tonk hillbilly effect as it awakened a new musical horizon within me. Keith said the song was by Bob 'Dieland.' Before Bob Dylan became a popular music icon, the local rocket-scientist DJ's mispronounced Dylan's name by calling him "Bob Dieland." We must have listened to that song a hundred times that day. With that being said, till this very day I still haven't forgot those memorable lyrics. "Johnny in the basement mixing up the medicine... I'm on the pavement thinking about the government...Man in the trench coat...Badge out, Laid off...Says he got a bad cough...Wants to get laid off...
Within a short period, Keith decided to vacate the residence of his mother's house and travel about to explore his free spirit. Coming to realization that his aspirations conflicted with his lack of income, he began to pursue his fond desire to give a music career a serious roll of the dice. Upon doing so, he played occasional happy hour gigs within the Holiday Inn bar circuit plus he played solo at several coffee houses. But the insensitive grind of performing in a cocktail lounge for an audience of business men gathering after work motivated him to search for higher artistic values. Keith became fed up with the zero authenticity of the local scene and declining social climate in the deep South. He aspired to adjust his goals to a different standard and began to reevaluate his immediate future. This was a requisite for him to pack his bags and hit the highway in search of answers. With his dollar store suitcase and pawn shop guitar strapped on his back, a destiny of Greenwich Village became his objective. Sometimes later, I received a postcard announcing that he had arrived in the Big Apple.
Keith moved-in a flat in the village and encouraged me to visit. Upon attending meetings at my home office in New York, I visited him shortly there afterwards. By this time I had become a regional promotion manager for Atlantic Records. On numerous occasions I tried desperately to get him signed to the label. But after several months I realized that it wasn't a good fit for either. Yet times were improving for Keith as he signed with agent Michael Brodsky and began to play the folk circuit throughout the East Coast. There he made many contacts which he would embellish for years to come. One such contact was with record executive Bobby Reno who would sign him to the prestigious New York based folk label Vanguard Records.
Keith Sykes first effort was a self titled album on Vanguard Records. There he released two LP's with the label as both records established him as a serious player within the folk circuit. Keith soon became a road-rat as traveling proved to be a way of life for recording artists to perform their craft. By 1971 Keith travels were paying off as he was hanging with some major players such as Jerry Jeff Walker, John Prime and Jimmy Buffett.
Keith Sykes (L) and Phillip Rauls (R) reconnected again in 1971. This time the reunion was in Coconut Grove, Florida where Phillip had transferred for Atlantic Records. By this time the city of Miami had become a hot spot for recording, especially for Atlantic artists, as Phillip would settle out of Atlantic's satellite office located at Criteria Recording Studio. Keith visited Coconut Groove often as he and Phillip would trace the roots of famed writer Ernest Hemingway's old stomping grounds. Each and every bar they visited would have a different Hemingway tale to share.
Keith frequently visited his friend Jimmy Buffett who lived in Key West, Florida. Out of that alliance came the song "Coast of Marseilles" written by Keith Sykes for the Jimmy Buffet monster album titled "Son of a Son of a Sailor."
Keith's travels would take him to other musical hot spots such as Nashville, TN. From there he would venture to Austin, TX for even more seasoning. In Austin he would hang with the likes of Willis Alan Ramsey and Uncle Walt's Band. But the aching of a lonesome heart brought him full circle and back to his hometown, Memphis TN. By now, this Greenwich Village folkie, this South Florida Kumquat, this Austin-Nashville hybrid, would ironically settle, of all places...in Soulsville USA. When Keith finally settles in Memphis, he puts down firm roots. After all, he can roam anywhere in the country, anywhere that his music takes him.
Even though Keith is back in Memphis, he is proudly independent and doesn't want to change his music to funky horns and as Lou Reid says, "colored-girls singing." His musical journeys around the country weren't to educate him about sounding like someone else, it was to develop his own style. By 1978 Keith was now a seasoned veteran and had recorded his third album "The Way That I Feel." Next came the Backstreet Records release "I'm Not Strange I'm just like You." And soon, he would be the featured artist and appearing on Saturday Night Live.
Now in the 21st Century and still churning-out songs with passion, Keith Sykes is on his 10th album release. His folk-influenced and plain spoken lyrics have propelled this word of mouth artist for decades. Rarely has there been a more down to earth and authenically original artist who is so very comfortable with mentoring aspiring young songwriters. His Woodshed Studio in Memphis offers recording facilities for those to develop their craft. Many recording artists have been influenced by this gifted singer-songwriter. Artists who have recorded his compositions are; The Judds, Guy Clark, John Prime, George Thorgood & The Destroyers, Rosanne Cash, Jerry Jeff Walker, Mitch Ryder, Lacy Dalton and Rodney Crowell.
Keith Sykes and Phillip Rauls entered the music industry at the same time in 1968. To this day they are still good friends and associates.
To visit Keith Sykes Web Site: http://www.keithsykes.com/
Photographs by Phillip Rauls. Copyright protection applied. Duplication prohibited.