Nov. 15--On Monday, pop star Justin Timberlake returns to the Mid-South for his first local concert in six years. The show at FedExForum will be a homecoming -- not just for the Millington-bred Timberlake, but also for his guitarist, Memphis musician Elliott Ives.
A veteran of local bands such as CYC, Lord T & Eloise, and FreeSol, Ives has become an important collaborator for Timberlake, having played on his two recent chart-topping albums as well as helping anchor his live band, The Tennessee Kids. "Justin and I are the only actual Tennessee kids in the band," says Ives, chuckling.
For Ives, the relationship with Timberlake has been a profound one, as his life and fortunes have been changed by the singer not once but twice over the past decade.
Born in Birmingham, Ives grew up in East Memphis, besotted by a strange mix of hip-hop and classic rock influences. "I wanted to be in the Fat Boys and Europe at the same time," Ives says. "That was like my mission statement growing up. I was into rap music and watching it evolve, but also really into '80s rock."
After moving to Midtown, where he attended Rhodes College, Ives found success as a multi-instrumentalist with the funk-fusion outfit CYC and hip-hop satirists Lord T & Eloise while developing the contemporary R&B ensemble FreeSol.
By late 2006, Free Sol had become a hot commodity, the subject of major-label interest. The band had performed for Timberlake, who'd established his own production company, Tennman, and was looking to sign acts. "We played a few showcases for Justin," says Ives. "We did three for him, but never heard from him. He said 'you guys are great,' but there was never talk of signing or working with us."
Eventually, the band decided to sign with Konvict Musik, an imprint of Universal. "We'd already negotiated the contract with Universal, but we hadn't signed," Ives recalls. "They'd gotten us a loft in downtown Atlanta, and we were moving there. We were actually on the highway heading down there when Justin called. He said, 'You have to turn around and come back to Memphis and sign with me.'"
"We sat there in the car and had a vote -- I was actually one of the ones in the minority, saying let's not go back to Memphis. But we decided: We're from Memphis, Justin's gonna give us a better deal, and we all wanted to work with him. So we turned the van around."
Signing to Timberlake's production company, FreeSol would spend the next four years in an intensive development deal. "Tennman would send us to work with all these producers, meet people and write songs," says Ives. "We were being shipped all over, spending a couple weeks here and there recording. It was a serious process."
By 2010, they'd put together almost 120 tunes. Timberlake then took the best of the material to Interscope Records executive Jimmy Iovine, who signed the band. But during the years FreeSol had spent woodshedding, they'd lost crucial career momentum amid a rapidly changing music business. "The whole industry had been altered; in the four years we'd been developing, everything had changed," says Ives. "It had become about mixtapes and Facebook followers and Twitter, and adapting to that was sort of frustrating.
"In the meantime, we'd basically stopped touring. We'd had a great regional following. We should've turned up the grind even more. But we had some advance money, some cheddar in our pockets, and we were happy to be in the studio working. We never found great management either; we were going back and forth on what to do next. It was a learning experience for a group of young guys."
They would ultimately release a couple of tracks -- one that appeared on the TV show "Entourage" as well as a single featuring Timberlake. Interscope even printed up promo posters with a hard release date for their LP -- but the album would never come out.
In the winter of 2012, FreeSol was about to launch a Canadian tour when they were informed by the label's accountant that they had been dropped. "Some of that was political; some of it had nothing to do with us," says Ives. "But that was basically the demise of FreeSol. Everyone was so disgruntled. Then everybody started going off and doing their own thing."
For Ives, it meant seriously considering quitting music as a full-time pursuit. "I was thinking about getting out of it all. I had experienced so many extreme highs and lows. I'd gotten to do extraordinary things and then been totally let down. It was killing me."
That spring, while he mulled his fate, Ives' father called him. "He said, 'Son, you've had a great run; you might want to consider making some money now.' He told me his best friend's son had a new company (in Georgia), and he'd be interested in interviewing me for a job."
Ives drove down to Atlanta for an interview. "With my ponytail and studded leather boots and everything," he says. "Sitting there in this office and looking over these cubicles and dudes in suits, I literally had a small breakdown. Afterward, I sat in my car almost in tears. Just then, I look down, and my phone is ringing, and it's (Timberlake's) manager."
The call brought an offer for Ives to come out to L.A. with a promise of a few weeks of unspecified studio work. "I went out there and walk into the studio -- scared, not knowing what was going on. I can't see into the booth, but then I hear someone on the talkback, and it's Justin. He said, 'Yeah, man, I'm ready to make music again, and I've picked a cast of characters I want to record with, and you're one of them."
Ives had been recruited for what would be Timberlake's comeback project, the two-album set The 20/20 Experience. Three weeks turned into seven months as Ives worked on the recordings alongside producer Timbaland. "And, of course, being in a room with Timbaland, you're getting to play on other projects. ... I got to work on tracks for Jay Z, Nas, Kerri Hilson and some I don't even know. You do music with that guy so fast, the next thing you know, it's on the radio."
When Timberlake decided to tour earlier this year, he asked Ives to join the band. Ives soon found himself playing high-profile gigs: a buzzed-about industry set at the SXSW festival, an appearance on "Saturday Night Live" and on and on.
For someone so close to quitting music entirely, it was a remarkable reprieve, like hitting the career lottery. What was it that Timberlake saw in Ives?
"I've been asking myself that for the last year and half," says Ives, laughing. "Listening back to his older music and the stuff he's doing now, especially this last record, he wanted a little bit more of a guitar edge, and some Southern-ness, and some bluesier stuff. That's what I did in FreeSol, and that's been my style: a more distorted, ugly sound, rather than a clean, polished R&B tone."
Ives has become a familiar sight on stage with Timberlake -- though he recently shaved off his signature beard and long hair -- as part of a guitar tandem with Prince veteran Mike Scott. "Putting these shows together has been work," he says. "We've rehearsed our asses off, doing 12-, 13-hour-a-day rehearsals. I never did that in any other bands. This is a job: We get up in the morning, go to work, go to bed and get up and do it again. But it's a great job."
Ives hopes to parlay his current gig into a career behind the scenes. "It's opened up amazing opportunities, just from all the people I'm meeting. When this is all done, I definitely want to get into production and songwriting." But whatever the future holds, he remains committed and grateful to Timberlake for the opportunity he's been afforded. "Anything Justin does," says Ives, "I'd love to be there with him always."
'The 20/20 Experience' World Tour
8 p.m. Monday at FedExForum, 191 Beale.
Tickets are sold out.
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