The Fame Studios Story: 1961-1973 Home Of The Muscle Shoals Sound (Kent/Ace)

Christmas is right around the corner and The 13th Floor can think of no better gift for the astute music appreciator than this 3-disc set just released locally by Ace UK/Border NZ.

Fame Studios were responsible for some of the finest Southern Soul records to be recorded during the 1960s. The studio and subsequent label were run by Rick Hall who produced and engineered many of the 75 tracks included on this collection. Among the most prominent artist to record at Fame are Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Etta James and Clarence Carter. But as this release proves, there was a lot more to Fame than just this handful of hitmakers.

Unlike many of its contemporaries (Stax, Motown, Atlantic), Fame was not located in an urban center. Instead, one had to travel to rural Alabama to record at Fame. The studio was located in the tiny town of Muscle Shoals, a name that, thanks to Rick Hall, has become synonymous with Southern Soul.

The studio’s first success was with r&b pioneer Arthur Alexander. His 1961 recording of You Better Move On kicks things off. But the real Fame sound gels with the release of Jimmy Hughes’ 1964 release Steal Away. It was the first national hit for the new Fame label and the first to spotlight the classic Muscle Shoals sound.

Click here to listen to Steal Away by Jimmy Hughes: 

The musicians who became the house band for fame are some of the most respected names in 1960s music. The classic Fame rhythm section consisted of Roger Hawkins (drums), David Hood (bass), Jimmy Johnson (guitar) and Barry Beckett (keyboards). These guys played on hundreds of sessions for Fame between 1967 and 1969, but there were other equally talented players passed through Fame including David Briggs, Norbert Putnam, Spooner Oldham, Travis Wammack and Duane Allman. Fames also had the songwriting contributions of Dan Penn, Spooner Oldham, Donnie Fritts and George Jackson (along with Hall himself) to help keep the hits coming.

What is impressive about this set is the consistent high quality of all the tracks recorded at Fame. Many of the vocalists are fairly obscure…folks like James Barnett, Billy Young, Art Freeman…but thanks to Hall’s production and the fine playing on display here, there are no duff tracks, just undiscovered gems.

By the mid-60s, other labels realized what was going on at Fame and sent their artist down to Muscle Shoals to grab some of their mojo. Atlantic sent Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett, Chess sent Etta James and Irma Thomas. Etta scored hits like Tell Mama and I’d Rather Go Blind, while Irma missed commercial success even though single like 1967’s Cheater Man were superb.

Click here to listen to Cheater Man by Irma Thomas: 

By the late 60s, the studio started branching out to recording more pop and country sides. This collection’s third disc is its most eclectic, mixing soul classics by Clarence Carter and Candi Staton with the likes of The Osmonds, who recorded their Jackson Five sound-alike hit One Bad Apple at Fame and Bobbie Gentry, whose 1969 hit Fancy, was fashioned at Fame.

Click here to listen to Fancy by Bobbie Gentry: 

The 75 tracks presented here are a mix of hits and misses commercially. There are previously unreleased demos from the likes of Otis Redding along with well-worn chart-toppers such as Arthur Conley’s Sweet Soul Music, Wilson Pickett’s version of Hey Jude (featuring Duane Allman) and Aretha Franklin’s I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Loved You).

In true Ace tradition, the package includes extensive liner notes with plenty of historical info on Rick Hall, his recording techniques, the Fame Studio itself and track-by-track annotation full of plenty of trivia and insights. As I mentioned…the perfect package to find under the tree this Christmas.

Marty Duda