In my weekly reviews of the Cash Box Top 50 in R&B Locations from 50 years ago it has been inevitable that the records coming from the Soul music production lines of Detroit, Chicago & Memphis have predominated. This week my three selections were all recorded at a much more unlikely, smaller operation. FAME (Florence Alabama Music Enterprises) had moved their studio just across the Tennessee River to Muscle Shoals (population around 10,000) in 1961 & when the money came in from the first hit, Arthur Alexander’s “You Better Move On”, they were able to upgrade to a place on Avalon Avenue. The word was out that something was going on. The New York bosses of Atlantic Records sent Aretha Franklin down to record while the “hippie cat who’s been living in our parking lot” turned out to be Duane Allman who had come up from Florida hoping to get a gig. By 1970 there had been changes but that “Muscle Shoals Sound” picked me up when I’m feeling blue, now how ’bout you?
Clarence Carter, blind from his birth in Montgomery, Alabama, came up to FAME in 1965 to record his song “Tell Daddy”, an inspiration for Etta James’ answer “Tell Mama” & successful enough to gain him a contract with Atlantic. This week his latest 45, “I Can’t Leave Your Love Alone”, entered the R&B Top 10, the sixth time a song of his had achieved this mark. It’s not one of Clarence’s most remembered songs but his strong, gritty voice & his lascivious laugh when the innuendo got close to the bone complemented by the swampy, mid-tempo rhythms & the punchy Memphis Horns always got you in the end. The three albums Clarence had already recorded at FAME are sprinkled with hit singles & plenty of songs that you know given the Muscle Shoals treatment.
“I Can’t Leave Your Love Alone” is the lead single from Clarence’s newest record. The title track “Patches” was a track from the debut LP by Chairmen of the Board. Written by General Johnson, the main Chairman & Ron Dunbar, who may or may not have been a pseudonym for Holland-Dozier-Holland, it’s a story/song about a tough upbringing in rural Alabama which Clarence certainly identified with as did others at FAME. “Patches was everywhere, his biggest hit in the US, his only one here in the UK. At the time I thought that it was over-sentimental (tough guy eh?), that he had made better records. Millions of others didn’t, Clarence deservedly (I think now) got a gold record & a Grammy nomination. As public tastes changed Clarence was less in the public eye but he continued to record, he’s still around & his great music always will be.
The group of young Alabaman musicians, inspired to fuse their Rock & Roll, R&B & Country influences, who first assembled in their local studio soon dispersed to either Chips Moman’s American Studios in Memphis or to Nashville where FAME co-founder Billy Sherrill was establishing himself as a major Country producer. Two local men, bassist David Hood & Jimmy Johnson (guitar) together with Barry Beckett (keyboards) & drummer Roger Hawkins stepped up & became the celebrated & in-demand Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. In 1969 the quartet left FAME to open their own set-up less than a mile away. The guy who started it all & stayed was owner/producer Rick Hall, who integrated the fluid, funky rhythm section with the brass swagger, added strings when a little sweetness was needed & captured the brightness of it all. Hall recruited a new unit & to get them into the groove recorded an album of covers of the hits of the day. “Sweet Caroline” & “Sugar Sugar” are songs that will never make my favourites playlist but “Solid Gold From Muscle Shoals” by the Fame Gang is my kind of middle of the road Pop-Soul.
Staton married Clarence Carter in 1970 so was a natural to be signed to the relaunched FAME label. Already 30, with four children from her first marriage, Canzetta (lovely name) was prepared for the switch from backing singer to being out at the front & her work at Muscle Shoals soon justified claims to the title “First Lady of Southern Soul”. “Sweet Feeling”, #25 on the chart & rising fast, with producer Hall, husband Clarence & Candi herself sharing a composing credit, was the fourth in a run of 8 R&B Top 30 hits & it was included on both of her first two LPs issued by the label. There are four albums recorded at the Shoals before Warner Brothers & “Young Hearts Run Free” (1976) made Candi a Disco Queen. Candi is a Soul survivor, still around she had hit records across four decades, whatever she sang she did it with class & style.
In 1970 Rick Hall received a Grammy nomination for Producer of the Year & in 1971, when of all people the Osmonds called in to FAME to record “Crazy Horses”, he was awarded that accolade by Billboard magazine. He achieved this with a lot of new people around the studio & mention must be made of Harrison Calloway Jr whose trumpet playing & arrangements for the Muscle Shoals Horns made them so distinctive & such a pleasure.
Well, thanks to a Swedish documentary crew, here’s how they did it a FAME in 1970. Rick Hall is running a session where Willie Hightower is recording “Walk A Mile In My Shoes”, already a hit that year for Joe South, & at #45 on the R&B chart this week, while the Fame Gang, most notably Clayton Ivey on keys, do their thing. Willie, an Alabaman had grown up with Gospel, a meeting with his idol Sam Cooke inspiring him to make music his business. A couple of local hits brought him to the attention of Capitol Records where he made the “If I Had A Hammer” album (1969) where he’s not as smooth as Sam but the influence is clear. He came to FAME & released just three 45s, “Walk A Mile…” was the most successful though “Back Road Into Town” sounds to me like a better record. A planned LP never came around & Willie returned to shows around the South where he was still known before he did a 15 year stretch singing with a revived line-up of the Drifters.
In 2016 producer Quinton Claunch, a Shoals resident as a teenager before moving to Memphis & starting Goldwax Records (James Carr, O.V. Wright), called up Willie & asked if he was interested in recording again. QC got some of the old gang back together, including Clayton Ivey & guitarist Travis Wammack, at his Wishbone studio in…where else?. The resulting LP “Out of the Blue” is a fine example of retro Southern Soul, Willie may be over 75 but his voice still strong, more experienced & controlled while Claunch, over 90, still knows his way around. The last week in May 1970 was a good one for FAME with three records on the chart. They probably didn’t know then that 50 years later people would still want to hear that Muscle Shoals sound & that musicians would still want to emulate it.
Here’s a little lockdown bonus. In 2014 Candi Staton returned to FAME to record three tracks with Rick Hall for her “Life Happens”. Here Ms Staton, 74 years old , looking & sounding fine on it, performs a stripped down version of one of those songs, “I Ain’t Easy To Love”, & all I have to say is Flipping Heck