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Black Music Month – Part 4: Two bands, four brothers

As our Black Music Month series comes to a close, a few themes have emerged: Memphis music is heaven sent and defies genres; all who sing and/or perform it are a rare breed; and the connection it begets keeps everyone coming back for more.

These themes ran true throughout the sit-down with two amazing Memphis bands: the Sensational Barnes Brothers (Chris and Courtney Barnes) and Black Cream (Chris Barnes, Derek Brassel Jr., and Thomas “T.O.” Crivens), who are separate, but also one in the same. (Keep reading…)

Black Cream (l-r): Thomas “T.O.” Crivens, Chris Barnes and Derrick Brassel Jr. ( Courtesy Photo)

In a true “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” conundrum, neither band could pinpoint exactly when they started. But they were ALL clear on what comes next…the quest for success!

“We’ve always sang,” said Courtney Barnes, the youngest Barnes brother. “But Bruce thought it would be a good idea to do a record.”

The brothers Barnes hail from a musical family, led by their late father, Calvin “Duke” Barnes and their mother, Deborah Gleese Barnes, who sang background for Ray Charles.

No strangers to recording, the brothers recorded an album with their family in 2015, “Family Tree,” and lent their vocals in studio sessions for other artists at Delta-Sonic Sound Studio, owned by producer Bruce Watson.

In 2018, Watson deciced to record an album featuring the duo, called “Nobody’s Fault but My Own,” on his newest label, Bible and Tire/Fat Possum Records, that would revive and put a fresh take on traditional Gospel music.

Chris Barnes added, “It was really an experiment. We were just trying something!” And boy did it work out.

The Sensational Barnes Brothers are embarking on a national summer tour to promote their debut album, playing festivals like High Sierra. And who are they taking along for part of the ride? Black Cream, of course. (Is it normal for Memphis bands to comingle? Absolutely!)

Black Cream (BC) eased onto the scene in 2017…maybe.

“It just kind of happened organically, and it was perfect timing,” said T.O., BC’s lead guitar player. “We started by just getting together to play and vibe together.”

At that time, Courtney Barnes was a member and after months of “vibing out” at Chris’ house, the group decided to augment with more vocals and Chris joined, making it a four-piece.

“A lot has happened in six years,” said Derek Brassel, Jr., bass player for Black Cream. “We’ve been blessed to have a buzz that has propelled us, even without an album.”

The group, now an official LLC, put out a single, “All I Need is You,” in 2019 and plans to release a full record this year.

“We have some short and long-term goals we’re working on,” said T.O. “We have a vision and we’re going to accomplish those goals. And with the constant support, I think we’re on the right track.”

Chris Barnes, now the drummer and lead singer for Black Cream, attributes some of their success to the band’s unique sound.

“The power trio – as some call us – we put out a lot of power, but we finesse and smooth it over, and navigate musical lanes seamlessly,” said Barnes. “There’s an authenticity to the sound we produce…”

Brassel, Jr., adds, “Our different influences collectively come together and morph into something beautiful. We’ve got a big sound but it’s just three of us.”

The group agrees that success also looks like longevity in the music business.

“The ultimate goal is to not have to teeter-totter between music and a day job. I’ve worked many jobs and worn many hats as necessary, but I want music to be the thing that sustains and provides,” said Barnes.

Bassel, Jr., who also teaches at STAX Academy, added, “The pandemic hit musicians hard – everyone felt it. We all worked day jobs, for sure. But you do it. We do it out of necessity.”

T.O. chimed in, “When we started this group, we were already grown with families, responsibilities. Our fathers instilled in us characteristics of manhood that have helped us, even as band members. I’m grateful to have a day job as the executive director of Beale Street Foundation that also fuels my passion for music.”

The unity and love for music among the men is inspiring.

“The way our music touches people, it’s a different experience – you can’t help but feel that deep connection. That inspires us to keep going, even when we’re running low,” said Brassel, Jr.

Black Cream will play with the Sensational Barnes Brothers on their summer tour, on June 30 at The Pocket, and as part of “901 Day” festivities Sept. 1.

The series

BLACK MUSIC MONTH: Peeking behind a promoter’s curtain

BLACK MUSIC MONTH, Part II: Producers, band leaders on assembling the ‘A-Team’

Mining for community-based music resources


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