‘It’s as if I took two girls out of Bnei Brak and put them on the road in a rock ‘n’ roll band. But instead of synagogue they went to church. And they love rock ‘n’ roll but nobody lets them play it. Then one day they say to their family: ‘we’re going to do it our way and you better deal with it.’” Ori Naftaly was describing the unlikely pairing of a long-haired, moshav-raised Israeli guitar whiz steeped in the soul and blues tradition (himself) and a pair of fiery, Memphis-born, gospel-trained, church-bred women – vocalist (Tierinii Jackson) and her younger drummer sister Tikyra (or TK).
Their band, Southern Avenue, has reaped the reward of their natural chemistry. Aided by Memphis pros, bassist Jeremy Powell and keyboardist Gage Markey, they’ve made waves on the American roots rock circuit in two short years, with a sweet retro, groove-oriented debut album that has won rave reviews, endorsements from guitar master Joe Bonamassa and dates this year at prestigious festivals like Bonnaroo, Okeechobee and Sweetwater 420.
“All the dreams I had as a kid, playing my guitar at home and thinking about performing in America, have come true,” said the gregarious 30-year-old Naftaly last week in a phone call from Memphis, a day before Southern Avenue was going to perform in Chicago with blues legend Buddy Guy.
The album’s gospel-tinged r&b, spiced by bluesy leads and Stax soul revue riffs, only hints at the band’s fiery dynamics onstage, where Naftaly and the 20-something vocalist Jackson play off against each other like they’re the hardest-working people in showbiz.
“I immediately felt comfortable with the girls, from the moment we met,” says Naftaly, who grew up in Even Yehuda near Netanya surrounded by “orange trees and the beach.”
“It’s almost like they have an Israeli mentality – maybe it has something to do with us all being minorities – alive, loving and passionate.”
Naftaly’s passion has always been music, from the time he picked up his first guitar at age five. His father, originally from Kazakhstan, had kept all his illegal contraband, hissmarred bootlegs of the late ‘60s hard-rockers like Deep Purple and bluesmen like Albert King that were illegal in the former USSR, and Naftaly was enthralled.
“There was blues, soul, jazz, funk and rock... my dad was feeding me so much music because he had to fight for it when he was growing up,” said Naftaly, who played in bands through high school and after his army service, even while pursuing a day job a Microsoft system engineer.
In his early 20s, in somewhat of an epiphany, Naftaly realized it was only music he wanted to focus on – and not with other people’s bands, but his own.
Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the Ori Naftaly Band, which gained a sizable following in Israel, with its debut album being chosen by 88FM as the debut album of the year in 2011.
“When I started my own band, that’s when my dreams started to come true,” said Naftaly.
The next dream fulfilled was heading to the US in 2013 to represent Israel in the International Blues Challenge held in Memphis.
“I’ve been listening to Memphis music and Stax all my life – Otis Redding, Albert King – and I’m more of a soul guitar player than a pure blues guy, so I thought ‘why not?’” With thousands of artists competing in the challenge, Naftaly’s band reached the semi-finals, the highest ever finish at that time for an Israeli artist.
The realization that he and his band could hold their own in the soul and r&b homeland prompted Naftaly to shift the focus of the band to the US, where they performed over 400 shows in 2014 and 2015.
“We lived in a van and there were all the romantic parts that come with that, and the not romantic parts,” said Naftaly.
“There were times when I was on top of the world and then you have three days when you don’t have money to eat – literally.
And if your mom wants to send you money, the post office is closed because it’s the weekend... so you don’t eat, or you find ways to eat.
“For me, it developed my perseverance and helped it become clearer to me why I’m doing what I’m doing.”
Just as the band was picking up steam in 2015 and beginning to talk to record labels, an internal soap opera tore them apart. Naftaly discovered that his love, the band’s lead singer Eleanor, had secretly been in a romance with the band’s tour manager for a year.
“It broke my heart and I didn’t know what I was going to do.
She was half the face of the band,” said Naftaly, adding that he considered packing it all in and going back to Israel.
I n st e a d , he drove by himself from Memphis to Colorado, where he wrote many of the songs on Southern Avenu e ’ s debut, songs of loss and longing, but also of hope.
“I chose not to give up, basically. I returned to Memphis and asked a bunch of people ‘who’s the best singer in Memphis?’ And everyone told me about this woman Tierinii singing in cover bands on Beale Street,” said Naftaly.
“When I went to see her, it was love at first sight. And when I talked to her afterwards, she said that she had a 19-yearold sister who was a drummer.”
The revamped Ori Naftaly Band began to play shows in mid-2015, but very quickly Naftaly realized he was on to something far bigger.
“There is a chemistry between us and we quickly became like family to each other. They were everything that I had and still have, so I said ‘let’s start a new band that will be a partnership.
I don’t pay you anymore, you pay yourselves now.”
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Southern Avenue. In January 2016, when the band entered the International Blues Challenge and made it to the finals, they were representing Memphis, another “dream come true” for Naftaly.
But it was in a small Memphis club a couple months later that their fortunes really changed.
An executive from Los Angeles- based Concord Records (whose subsidiary is Stax) walked into the club with Boo Mitchell, the head of Memphis’s famed Royal Studios.
They had been recording Melissa Etheridge and were out blowing off some steam after a long day in the studio.
“They heard the band do our set and afterwards, and said ‘we want to sign you to Stax,’” said Naftaly. ‘They saw the potential in us that we saw from the beginning.”
Fast forward a few months and Southern Avenue’s debut album with its signature song “Don’t Give Up” added to radio playlists becomes a scintillating calling card for the band, who have been touring constantly over the past year and turning curious club goers into believers.
“I feel like being on Stax is a responsibility,” Tierinii Jackson said on the band’s website. “I grew up in Memphis, seeing the name Stax everywhere. It was a constant presence, and now it’s up to us to live up that.”
“It’s happened fast for us, but life is short. I’d rather do things fast and good than slow and good,” said Naftaly, who added that the band will be performing all over Europe this year, with an outside chance of a visit to where it all started, Israel.
“People in Israel need to know about Southern Avenue.
Our songs are influenced by me, even when the lyrics come from Tierinii, and they’re songs that speak to Israelis – ‘Don’t Give Up,’ “No Time to Lose,’ ‘Peace Will Come.’ “I wrote ‘Peace Will Come’ not about peace between Israelis and Palestinians, but peace within ourselves. That’s a big difference and it’s something that Israelis need. I just came back from 10 days visiting my family and we all just need to relax for a second. I need to do that too, I’m just as guilty.”
But relaxation doesn’t seem to be a part of Naftaly’s makeup – he lives, breathes and thinks about music and Southern Avenue during his waking hours.
And he’s brought the Jackson sisters along for the ride.
The change of life from gospel music in church to soul struttin’ on nightclub and concert hall stages didn’t exactly endear Naftaly to the Jackson family. He described his band mates’ parents as being “concerned” about their life decision to move away from religious music for the music of the flesh.
“They love me, but I’ve taken their daughters away to do something that they would prefer they didn’t do,” he said.
“I don’t want to say that we’re secular – we all believe in God.
I’m very spiritual, very Jewish, but there’s a big difference between that and following the rules on a daily basis.”
Playing by his own rules, Ori Naftaly has created his own world full of passionate roots music, his savvy Israeli sense of the universe and his Memphis sirens, who he said have learned to put up with his quirks.
“They like that I’m from Israel and I look like Jesus.”