Ori Naftaly remembers listening to his father’s expansive record collection with “all the famous blues guys” as he was growing up in Netanya, Israel.
He’s been playing guitar since he was 5 years old. Although he plays other genres, the sounds of Memphis music and New Orleans jazz and soul music have kept his attention.
“Later in life, I had a decision what to do with my music career,” he said, “and when I decided to go with blues, it was because after playing with other bands and after doing a lot of other things, I realized that’s the one thing that I liked to do the most and I feel comfortable doing the most.”
In 2013, he represented Israel in the International Blues Challenge, placing in the semifinals. But even without winning the actual competition, he won in another way. He moved to Memphis and started playing clubs on the famous Beale Street and made a name for himself as a solo artist with his own band.
Then, he met Tierinii Jackson — who was also with other bands and got her start singing in church — and her sister Tikyra. Together, with Tierinii Jackson on vocals and Naftaly on lead guitar, along with Tikrya Jackson on drums, Daniel McKee on bass and keyboardist Jeremy Powell, they formed Southern Avenue.
In 2016, he entered the competition again with Southern Avenue representing Memphis, making the finals. Soon after, they got a deal with Stax Records, the label under Concord Music Group responsible for legendary blues acts like Otis Redding and Booker T. and the MGs.
The band is named for the Memphis street running from the town’s easternmost part to Soulsville, the original Stax home, and released its self-titled debut album in February.
The unique sound of the band blends all genres, from blues and jazz to R&B, and you can hear it when the band performs at World Cafe Live on Aug. 15.
For Naftaly, the blues provided him a deeper connection.
“As a minority, growing up I really related to the message and to the stories behind blues and soul,” Naftaly said. “When I was 5 and 6, I just liked the beats but when I grew up and read the lyrics and really learned more about it, I related a lot to that.”
He related to the stories in blues music and acknowledged its significance in African-American culture as well.
“Good blues, real blues is not ‘My baby left me, I’m so sad, whatever, blah blah blah,’” Naftaly said. “Real, good blues is very sophisticated and has a lot of messages in it and it’s not cliche. Blues is really poetry.”
When it comes to songwriting, which is a collaboration between him and Tierinii Jackson, he said blues is more about emotions and feelings.
When he wrote “Peace Will Come,” for instance, he was thinking about Israel.
“It’s not about peace between nations,” he noted, “it’s more peace between one person within himself and how to be at peace with yourself and that, I think, that will solve all the problems in the world, really.”
After he wrote it, however, he took it to Jackson who rewrote most of it, save a few chords and half-verses, and added her own history.
“So now the song became both of our peace, the peace that both of us share,” he said.
Signing with Stax was a “dream come true” for him, harkening back to the Stax artists he listened to growing up, though he noted one achievement he’s excited for was getting a call from manager Jonathan Schwartz that an Israeli record label will release the album, too.
Schwartz met Naftaly through a mutual friend in the music business. Naftaly’s agent at the time from his early blues band introduced them on Facebook basically saying, “Hey, you are the only two people from Israel I know, talk among yourselves,” Schwartz recalled via email from Pardes Hanna-Karkur, Israel.
“We clicked and had a Facebook friend relationship and I took an interest in his career as he was a young Israeli trying to make it in the U.S.,” he wrote.
When he asked Naftaly to send him the tracks when he started Southern Avenue, he was “blown away.”
“Literally that night I started managing them and the next day I had a record deal on the table,” said Schwartz, who called Southern Avenue “my musical mishpacha.”
Naftaly has enjoyed being able to tour with Southern Avenue, which Schwartz noted is the first Memphis band signed to Stax in 40 years.
“Playing music while I’m looking at lakes and mountains and rivers — you know, the Jordan River and the Hasbani can get a bit tired at some point,” Naftaly joked.
That he’s playing with musicians he cares about is key.
“You do 200, 300 shows a year, you get to a point where if you don’t love the people you’re with, you can’t do it. You just can’t,” he said. “Now we know that Southern Avenue is a legacy and something we’re going to do for life.”
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