The Fame Studios Story: 1961 – 1973
A Shot of Rhythm and Blues
By Rev. Billy C. Wirtz
Each week Rev. Billy C. Wirtz tells us about artists, albums, and music that we need to know about. Last week he urged us to find the awesome collection Take Me To The River: A Southern Soul Story 1961-1977. This week he says that you need its sister collection, too!
Not long ago I was reading all the posts about SxSW (shorthand for the annual South By Southwest Music Conference & Festival) the annual clusterfu…sorry, music conference held in Austin, Texas.
Damn, has it been twenty years?
I guess it has.
Back in 1992, I was there with Hightone Records, the label that virtually founded the Americana format. It was there that I met Bob Doershuk, editor of Keyboard magazine. We talked out back of La Zona Rosa, and somewhere along the way he told me that I was a world-class bullsh—ter.
Coming from him, I took it as a compliment… It was.
He allowed as to how such a talent could be of use to his magazine and, with the “Road Stories” column, my writing career was hatched.
As the years have begun to catch up to me and the thought of driving thousands of miles to play gigs becomes less appetizing, I am grateful on a daily basis that he gave me a shot at what is now a full-time occupation.
South By Southwest
Every year at SxSW, a legendary artist makes a special appearance that has everyone scrambling for a ticket. Favors are called in and in many cases outright bribery is considered fair play.
Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, and Lou Reed are among those who have used the conference to springboard new life into careers.
In 1992, the word was out, there was to be a special show featuring Arthur Alexander.
Arthur Alexander, singer/composer of such classics as “Every Day I have To Cry Some,” “Soldier Of Love,” and (one of John Lennon’s favorite songs) “Anna.” He was also the only songwriter in history to have songs covered by the Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan.
After an extended absence from the music world, Alexander had recently resurfaced. It turned out that for the past twenty years, from the early seventies onward, he’d been working as a custodian in Cleveland, Ohio.
In 1962, he recorded a song, “You Better Move On.”
This song enabled producer Rick Hall to bankroll Florence Alabama Music Enterprises, or as it would soon become known to the world, Fame studios.
The Fame Studios Story
Back in the mid ’60s America was in a state of upheaval, Vietnam tore us apart and the civil rights movement was becoming increasingly militant. Even before the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, cities were exploding in rage-fueled riots and extremists on both ends of the spectrum were running amok.
In the midst of all of this, down in the buckle of the Bible Belt, white and black southerners were turning out music that has endured to this day.
The Fame Studios Story (Kent UK, Kentbox 12) is more than a collection of some great songs, it is a historical document that deserves a place in any collection of American music.
For the obscenely low price of around thirty bucks you not only get three CDs, once again arranged in chronological order, but also an eighty-page book, detailing each song, and the techniques used by Hall and company to obtain that specific sound he was after.
My favorite part of the liner notes are the trade ads for the studio, after listing numerous million-selling albums and the artists (everyone from The Osmonds to Wilson Pickett, from Aretha Franklin to Liza Minelli??!!) it entices prospective artists not with all-night parties and an endless supply of groupies and stimulants, but offers instead: “Hunting, fishing, camping, hiking and cook-outs on our 1600 acre ranch.”
At first glance, it appears to be mainly a collection of deep southern soul, with the occasional pop hit in between. Indeed it is a bit of a butt-clencher to realize that out of all the great music, the #1 selling title to come out of there was “One Bad Apple” by the Osmonds; but then again, read the backstory on it and you’ll find that although George Jackson was initially disappointed at seeing Hall pitch it to “…A bunch of white kids,” he soon got over his misgivings. The total sales of Osmond Brothers’ songs recorded at Fame eventually topping out at around fourteen million.
In many ways this set is a part two of last week’s featured set, Take Me To The River: A Southern Soul Story 1961-1977, following the same formula of dividing the tracks between the well known and the obscure.
Once again however, even the well-known songs are represented by different versions than the ones that became major hits.
Personally, I love it when they leave in the studio chatter and count-offs, which they do on several of the cuts here. Heck, they even leave in the mistakes, although there aren’t very many of those.
There are a couple of highlights worth mentioning:
-The second CD opens with a recently discovered demo of “You Left The Water Running” by Otis Redding. It’s just him playing an acoustic guitar and an unknown drummer. I swear, he could sing a cereal commercial and make it soulful, on this cut he misses a chord or two, flubs the words, and still brings the whole set up a notch… And then there’s this other guy:
For me, the highlight of this collection is the presence of a singer I mentioned in my last column. Of all the relatively unknown artists highlighted on this set, Spencer Wiggins is my number one favorite.
On the Fame box he is given two songs. “Once In Awhile” is about a guy so in love that he’ll settle for even the occasional encounter rather than lose his woman forever.
His version of Etta James’ “I’d Rather Go Blind” takes that sentiment to the next level, opting for visual impairment over abandonment.
I don’t know, maybe it’s his phrasing, maybe it’s the arrangements, but to my ears no one has ever injected that much pain into a couple of three-minute songs. “Once In Awhile” opens with something between music and a primal scream of pain, and then proceeds to get intense. At the risk of blasphemy, his version of “I’d Rather Go Blind” runs neck and neck with the version by Ms. James. It’s that damn good.
In Album Reviewing 101, they tell us that we have to find something to take off points for, otherwise it will seem like we are pimping for a given record company.
All right, they could have skipped the Bobbi Gentry cut and western civilization would have endured. Are you happy now?
Otherwise, I paid for this collection with my own damn money, money that these days I don’t really have, and I would gladly do it again. I get no kickbacks for any of my recommendations, just some great comments from like-minded lovers of this great music and the satisfaction of knowing that somewhere someone is listening to Spencer Wiggins and shaking their head in disbelief.
As far as Kent UK goes, when people put this much time and love into a project (that they’ll be damn lucky to break even on), it’s my job to insist that you take the cash that barely buys the sushi/sashimi combo platter and spend it on music that quite literally can change your life. I dare you to buy this and not tell me that, if anything, I am understating my case.
I didn’t get to see Arthur Alexander that year at South by Southwest, but I heard from Marcia Ball and others that he stopped Austin in its tracks; jaded musicians and writers were crying as they sang along with “Anna.”
It would prove to be his swan song as he passed away from a heart attack shortly after that show.
For me, 1992 proved to be a beginning, and twenty years later “You Better Move On” is still great, and I’ve discovered that being a world-class bull-sh-ter isn’t such a bad thing after all.
Rev. Billy C. Wirtz is a weekly columnist at BluesWax. Each week he finds artists, albums, and music that you should know about. He also plays piano. His radio show, Rev. Billy’s Rhythm Revival, is available in podcast. To hear the latest, go to William Wirth’s page on Facebook and look for the link.
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