The Rhythm Sections
First Rhythm Section
The first FAME Rhythm Section, which played on the historic Arthur Alexander records including "You Better Move On" and "A Shot of Rhythm and Blues", consisted of some of the members of the local group Dan Penn and the Pallbearers, a band that played the southeastern circuit traveling to their gigs in a hearse. These sides were cut in an old abandoned tobacco and candy warehouse on Wison Dam Road.
The money made on "You Better Move On", selling over 800,000 singles, was put towards a new studio built at the current FAME Studios site at 603 East Avalon Avenue in Muscle Shoals.
The first song cut in the new building was the rhythm and blues classic "Steal Away", was written and performed by a local man, Jimmy Hughes.
This was the start of Muscle Shoals becoming "The Hit Recording Capital of the World". The rhythm section playing on these historic sessions was the first full-time rhythm section for FAME. The section consisted of David Briggs, Norbert Putnam, Earl (Peanut) Montgomery, Terry Thompson, Spooner Oldham and Jerry Carrigan.
All of these players went on to become major forces in the music industry. After opening successful studios and publishing companies in Memphis and Nashville Norbert Putnam and David Briggs went on to play with Elvis Presley.
Although Terry Thompson died at a very young age, he made a huge impact as both a session musician and songwriter. Terry wrote "A Shot of Rhythm and Blues", which has been recorded hundreds of times, most notably by Jimmy Hughes, Arthur Conley and The Beatles.
Norbert Putnam, who went on to open studios in Memphis and Nashville with Briggs, was a very successful producer.
Jerry Carrigan went to Nashville and became the hottest drummer in town. He also toured with Elvis for several years.
Earl (Peanut) Montgomery went on to write hundreds of songs, several of which were Number One singles for the likes of George Jones and Tammy Wynette.
Spooner Oldham is the quintessential Muscle Shoals Keyboard player. He has played on hundreds of hit records for artists such as Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett Etta James, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Jewel and Percy Sledge. Spooner has also written hundreds of hits including "I'm You Puppet", "Cry Like A Baby" to name a couple.
This rhythm section played on hits by artist such as The Tams, Tommy Roe and Joe Tex and some of these players returned in the 80's to play on hits by Jerry Reed, Mac Davis and the Gatlin Brothers.
Second Rhythm Section
The next FAME Rhythm Section, which is the most famous of all the FAME rhythm sections, consisted of Jimmy Johnson, David Hood, Roger Hawkins, Junior Lowe and Barry Beckett. Duane Allman & Spooner Oldham also played with this section.
This section cut hits on artists at FAME such as Wilson Pickett, Etta James, Aretha Franklin, Arthur Conley, Clarence Carter, Candi Staton and James and Bobby Purify.
Jimmy Johnson and Roger Hawkins were the Del Rays and had a hit with "Fortune Teller". Jimmy was Rick Hall's first employee. He worked as secretary, janitor and engineer. As the first section started to move away to Memphis and Nashville, Jimmy and Roger eased into their positions as session players.
Barry Beckett had moved to Pensacola, Florida from Birmingham, Alabama and was playing on sessions for Papa Don Schroeder in Pensacola. Papa Don came to FAME to work on a James and Bobby Purify record and brought Barry with him. Beckett soon moved to Muscle Shoals and began playing as the house keyboardist at FAME.
At David Hood's first FAME session he was not on bass, which he later became renowned for. Hood played trombone on "Tell Mama" by Etta James. Later David worked his way into the house bass position and played on most of the hits that came out of FAME during this time.
On March 20, 1969 this rhythm section of Johnson, Hood, Hawkins and Beckett came into FAME to tell Rick Hall of their intentions to open their own studio across town. With the financial help of then Atlantic Records Vice-President Jerry Wexler, they opened Muscle Shoals Sound Studio on Jackson Highway in Sheffield, Alabama.
Wexler had found the magic in Muscle Shoals at FAME and had brought Atlantic's biggest acts to town to record. Wilson Pickett had cut "Mustang Sally", "Land of 1000 Dances", "Hey Jude", and "Funky Broadway". Aretha Franklin had cut "I Never Loved A Man" and "Do Right Woman" at FAME. Rick Hall had also assisted Quinn Ivy by contacting Wexler about a song by Percy Sledge called "When A Man Loves A Woman", which Quinn had cut across town using FAME's rhythm section.
Wexler had become dismayed with Rick when he brought Aretha to Muscle Shoals. Although there are several accounts to this story the outcome was that Wexler would never return to FAME to cut a record. By most accounts the trouble began the first day of what was supposed to be a week long session. After cutting a monster track on "I Never Loved A Man", everyone started celebrating, and the spirits flowed. After a while Aretha's husband, Ted White, accused one of the horn players of making a pass at Aretha. Wexler had Rick fire the player, but White was still angry. The session ended with everyone leaving and a half finished "Do Right Woman" still on the tape machine. Rick decided he would go to the hotel and straighten things out with Aretha and Ted White. Not only did Rick not straighten things out but he and White got into a cussing fight and called each other every name in the book. Aretha, White and Wexler were on a plane the next morning with a monster track on "I Never Loved A Man" and a half finished track on "Do Right Woman".
After opening Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, Johnson, Hawkins, Hood and Beckett ran off a string of hits of their own. Paul Simon, Rod Stewart, The Staple Singers, The Rolling Stones, R. B. Greaves, Bob Seger and many more found success with Muscle Shoals Sound Studio.
The second rhythm section later moved Muscle Shoals Sound Studio to a new location in Sheffield next to the Tennessee River. A few years later they sold the studios and publishing companies to Malaco Records out of Jackson, Mississippi.
After the sale of the studios these guys went on to be individual forces in the music industry. Jimmy Johnson has produced Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Rossington Band, The Amazing Rhythm Aces and many more highly successful acts. He also continues to play as a session guitarist. Jimmy's electric guitar is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
David Hood has continued to be a busy Bass player. David's credits are a mile long, playing on everything from Sawyer Brown to Bob Seger.
Barry Beckett moved to Nashville and became one of the major producers in town. He has produced Confederate Railroad, Neal McCoy, Lorrie Morgan and Etta James recently.
Later being named the Muscle Shoals Sound Rhythm Section,, They were inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of FAME in 1995.
The Fame Gang - The Third FAME Rhythm Section
After four membersof the second rhyhm section left FAME, Rick Hall built another legendary group of musicians. At this time FAME Records had come into being and "The FAME Gang" was on every one of these records. The FAME Gang even did an album on themselves, produced by one of the members, Mickey Buckins.
The Fame Gang isn't just a title for whatever musicians happened to be available on a given day. It was eight special players plus arranger-producer Mickey Buckins. They liked Rick, Rick liked them, and they all had a thing for the music they played. That's the reason it worked out so well. The Fame Gang cared … they didn't do it for the money alone.
Primarily, the Fame Gang backed-up singers like Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Clarence Carter, Bobbie Gentry, Etta James, Candi Staton, and many more of the best.
Members of the FAME Gang:
- JUNIOR LOWE - guitar- Born and raised around Muscle Shoals, Junior also plays bass and writes songs. There is no shortage of versatility among the Gang.
- HARRISON CALLOWAY - trumpet - From Nashville, where he knew Aaron, Harvey and Freeman before joining Fame. He also plays trombone in the Fame Gang album and, along with Aaron, did the horn arrangements.
- JESSE BOYCE - bass - Also plays piano, drums, guitar, and writes songs. He came to Fame from Pensacola. Florida.
- AARON VARNELL - tenor and alto sax - Known to the Gang as "Heinz". The other half of the horn arranging team. He and Nashville buddy Harrison Calloway used to play in their school band together.
- RONNIE EADES - baritone sax - Doubles on tenor. Pensacola was his last stop, but it all began in Birmingham.
- MICKEY BUCKINS - producer/arranger - All-around talent Mickey has lived in Muscle Shoals for about as long as he can remember.
- HARVEY THOMPSON - tenor sax - Another Nashville man. Also plays flute on the Fame Gang album; at other times alto sax, and a few other things, too.
- CLAYTON IVEY - piano, organ - Also plays guitar, comes from Pensacola. and is known to his intimates as "Proton."
- FREEMAN BROWN - drums - He, too, once called Nashville his home but spent much of his time on the road with bands. His buddies call him "Ring."
(standing, left to right) Aaron Varnell, Jesse Boyce, Harrison Calloway, Freeman Brown, Junior Lowe. (sitting, left to right) Harvey Thompson, Clayton Ivey and Ronnie Eades.
The Fame Gang II - The Fourth FAME Rhythm section
In the late 1980's Jackson, Mississippi flooded. Rick Hall heard of some talented young musicians that worked in a studio that had been damaged and closed by the flood. Rick contacted the studio and moved the entire rhythm section and part of the studio staff to Muscle Shoals to work for FAME.
The musicans included Ralph Ezell, Chalmers Davis, Owen Hale, Jimmy English and David Barone. These five, plus Muscle Shoals' own songwriting and guitar wizard Walt Aldridge, made up the FAME Gang II.
This group played an important role in many of the country records done at FAME. They played on projects for Jerry Reed, Larry Gatlin, T. G. Sheppard, Wilson Pickett, Wild Cherry, Mac Davis, Lacy J. Dalton, Marty Stuart and Dobie Gray.
The Fame Gang II individuals have made their own acheivements in the music industry. Ralph Ezell was one of the founding members of the country supergroup Shenandoah.
Owen Hale has become one of the most sought after studio drummers in country music and is now a member of the southern rock supergroup Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Chalmers Davis is a highly sought-after session keyboardist and has been touring with Little Richard for several years.
David Barone has been a contemporary Christian artist for the past several years.
Walt Aldridge has become one of the top country songwriters in the world with hits by BlackHawk, Reba McEntire, Pam Tillis, Earl Thomas Conley, Ronnie Milsap, Steve Wariner and many others. Walt was also a founding member of country-rock band The Shooters. Walt continues to play as a studio musician, write songs and produce records. Walt has produced T. G. Sheppard, Marty Stuart, The Shooters, Jason Sellers, and Lacy J. Dalton.