REACHING OUT! CHESS RECORDS AT FAME STUDIOS.

REACHING OUT! CHESS RECORDS AT FAME STUDIOS. 

There aren’t many recording studios that play such an important part in their town’s history, that they’re added to the list of local landmarks and designated part of the town’s heritage. That’s what happened to the Fame Recording Studios in December 1997, when the recording studios were added to the Alabama Register of Landmarks and Heritage. That was fitting.

The Fame Recording Studios is no ordinary recording studio. It was where some of the greatest soul music of the sixties was recorded. Fame Recording Studios was also home to one of the greatest house bands in soul music, the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. Along with the Muscle Shoals Horns, they featured on countless recordings. Record labels sent their artists to Fame Recording Studios seeking that elusive hit single. 

This included Atlantic Records, who in the summer of 1966, started sending artists to the Fame Recording Studios. By the spring of 1967, Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section and Muscle Shoals Horns had worked their magic, playing on hits by Percy Sledge, Arthur Conley and Wilson Pickett. They would later send Aretha Franklin and Jimmy Hughes to the Fame Recording Studios. By 1967, so would Chess Records. 

Reaching Out! Chess Records At Fame Studios, which will be released on Kent Soul, an imprint of Ace Records, on 28h August 2015, features twenty-four tracks recorded the legendary studios. The Chess brothers who no longer had their own studio band, sent their artists to Alabama, hoping that they would enjoy the same success as their counterparts at Atlantic Records. By then, Chess Records was one of the best known independent labels. The story began in Chicago, in 1947.

That’s when brothers Leonard and Phil Chess bought part of Aristocrat Records in 1947. Eventually, they owned the entire company, and renamed the company Chess Records. Next step was for Chess Records to release its first single.

The newly renamed Chess Records released its first single in June 1950. This was Gene Ammons’ Your Cheating Heart. It was the nascent Chess Records’ biggest hit of 1950 and launched Chess Records. However, a year later, and Chess Records released one of the most important singles in musical history.

In 1951 the Chess brothers began an association with Sam Phillips. As part of the deal, Sam Phillips’ Memphis Recording Service would give Chess Records first refusal on releases. One of the first releases they were offered was Jackie Brenston and and His Delta Cats Route 88. The Chess brothers liked the song, and released Route 88 on Chess Records. It reached number one on the US R&B charts, and nowadays, is regarded as the first rock ’n’ record. However, it wasn’t with rock ’n’ roll that Chess Records became famous.

1952 saw the Chess brothers forming another label, Checker Records. This wasn’t unusual. Often record companies setup subsidiary companies for different types of music. Mostly though, it was because radio stations would only play a certain amount of singles from any one label. By forming numerous labels, this was a way of circumventing the rules. The following year, 1953, Leonard Chess and Gene Goodman set up a publishing company Arc Music BMI. It would go on to publish songs by the numerous R&B artists that passed through Chess Records’ doors. However, before that, Chess Records had a brief dalliance with doo wop and Alan Freed.

By the mid-fifties, Alan Freed was a DJ and promoter. He was yet to be embroiled in the payola scandal of the early sixties. Alan Freed brought two doo wop groups to The Coronets and The Moonglows. While commercial success eluded The Coronets, The Moonglow proved a successful group. They enjoyed a string of hit singles, several of which Alan Freed cowrote. However, The Moonglows biggest single was Sincerely. It reached number one on the US R&B charts, and in 2002, was inducted into the Grammy Hall Of Fame. It seemed regardless of the musical genre, success was coming the Chess brother’s way.

Whether it was blues, R&B or soul, Leonard and Phil Chess had the magic touch. They signed some musical big hitters. Blues men Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter and Willie Dixon all found their way to Chess Records. So did R&B singers like Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. Soon, they were releasing singles, and from 1958, albums.

By then, Chess Records’ had a new imprint, Argot Records, which in 1958, became Cadet Records. It would release many of jazz and soul releases. 

While many remember Chess Records for its blues release, it was also home to numerous soul singers. Etta James, Mitty Collier, Irma Thomas, Marlena Shaw, The Dells, Terry Caller. At first, they were accompanied by Chess Records’ very own house band. 

The Chess Records house band featured future Earth, Wind and Fire rhythm section of drummer Maurice White and bassist Louis Satterfield. They were joined by guitarists Pete Cosey, Gerald Sims and Phil Upchurch, pianist Leonard Caston and organist Sonny Thompson. This was the band that featured on many of the early Cadet Records and Chess Records soul releases. However, by 1967, Leonard and Phil Chess were casting envious glances to Alabama.

Ever since the summer of 1966, Atlantic Records had been sending artists to the Fame Recording Studios, in Alabama. By the spring of 1967, Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section and Muscle Shoals Horns had worked their magic, playing on hits by Percy Sledge, Arthur Conley and Wilson Pickett. Leonard and Phil Chess were needing hits. 

They had also just signed Irma Thomas to Chess Records, and wanted to get her career at Chess of to the best possible start. So the decision was made to send Irma Thomas to the Fame Recording Studios. This was no surprise. Ever since the late fifties, there had been a relationship between Fame and Chess Records. That’s when the Fame story began.

It was the late fifties when Rick Hall, Tom Stafford and Billy Sherill founded their record label, and built their first studio above the City Drug Store in Florence, Alabama. However, by the early sixties, this nascent partnership would split-up, resulting in Tom Stafford and Rick Hall needing a new studio. 

They decided to move to what had been a tobacco warehouse in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. As if by magic, Rick Hall soon recorded what would be his first hit single, Arthur Alexander’s You Better Move On. Wisely, he decided to invest the profit in a better studio, and moved to their current location Avalon Avenue in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. The first hit single Rick Hall recorded in his new studio was Jimmy Hughes’ Steal Away. Little did Rick Hall know it back then, but soon his new studio would see artists coming from far and wide to record at Fame.

After Rick’s success with Jimmy Hughes, word got out that Fame was the place to go to record a new single or album. Quickly, everyone from Tommy Roe to The Tams, and from Joe Tex, Joe Simon, Wilson Pickett, George Jackson and Clyde McPhatter to Irma Thomas, Etta James, Mitty Collier and even Aretha Franklin arrived at Muscle Shoals. It was at Muscle Shoals that Jerry Wexler brought Aretha Franklin, to record her 1967 album I Never Loved A Man the Way I Loved You. However, why did all these artists choose to head to Muscle Shoals to Fame?

Part of the reason was the session musicians that worked with Rick Hall. This included the legendary Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section and Muscle Shoals Horns. They were some of the hottest and tightest musicians of that era. This included drummer Rodger Hawkins, bassist David Hood, guitarist Jimmy Johnson and keyboardist Barry Beckett. When they recorded together, they were one of the finest backing bands ever. Between 1961 and 1969, when they departed from Fame to found the rival studio Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. However, for eight years, they graced numerous hit singles and album, and played on the tracks that Rick Hall sent to Chess Records.

From the mid-sixties, Rick Hall had been recording songs on spec, and then sending them to Chess Records. Some of these songs were picked up, ands released as singles. This included recordings by Billy Young, The Entertainers and Spooner’s Crowd. The most successful singles was Bobby Moore and The Rhythm Aces’ Searching For My Love. It reached number twenty-seven on the US Billboard 100 and number seven in the US R&B charts. In the process, Searching For My Love sold over one million copies. Rick Hall and the Chess brothers had hit the jackpot. Their relationship continued during the sixties, and is documented on Reaching Out! Chess At Fame Studios.

There’s a total of twenty-four tracks by eight different artists on Reaching Out! Chess At Fame Studios. This includes Bobby Moore and The Rhythm Aces, Charles Chalmers, Etta James, Laura Lee, Lee Webber, Maurice and Mac and Mitty Collier. These artists were accompanied by the hottest house band of the sixties, in the search for that all important hit single.

Laura Lee features five times on Reaching Out! Chess At Fame Studios. Originally, she was a gospel singer, but crossed over in 1965. She signed to Ric Tic, and released two unsuccessful singles. Her luck changed when she signed to Chess Records in 1966. The first thing the Chess brothers did, was send Laura to the Fame Recording Studios. That’s where she recorded her debut single for Chess Records, Dirty Man. It gave Laura a hit single in 1967, reaching number eighty-three in the US Billboard 100 and number thirteen in the US R&B charts. For the followup, Wanted: Lover, No Experience Necessary was chosen. It’s one of the five tracks on Reaching Out! Chess At Fame Studios.

Wanted: Lover, No Experience Necessary was released in November 1967, reaching number ninety-three in the US Billboard 100 and number sixteen in the US R&B charts. By September 1968, Laura made the journey to Fame, and recorded several tracks. Two of them became Laura’s next single. Hang It Up was released as a single, with It’s How You Make It Good on the flip side. It features a vocal powerhouse from Laura. When Hang It Up was released in November 1968, it stalled at forty—eight in the US R&B charts. That was as good as it got for Laura Lee at Chess Records. She left the label in the late sixties, and resurrected her career.

By 1972, Laura Lee had left Chess Records and was enjoying now enjoying commercial success at Hot Wax. So Chess Records released the album Love More Than Pride. It featured It’s All Wrong, But It’s Alright which had been recorded in 1968. So was Sure As Sin, which has never been released before. It’s a soul-baring ballad from Laura, that’s akin to a confessional. 

Another new name at Chess Records was Irma Thomas. She had been dropped by Imperial in 1966. To onlookers, it looked as if Irma’s career had stalled. However, Chess Records took a chance on her and singed her in 1967. The first thing they did, was send Irma to Fame, where she recorded Cheater Man, her Chess Records debut. Unfortunately, Esther Phillips had also released the song as a single, and neither version was a commercial success. So Irma made the return journey to Muscle Shoals.

This time around, Irma recorded her single A Woman Will Do Wrong and Let’s Do It Over. While A Woman Will Do Wrong was released later in 1967, this tender, wistful ballad, failed commercially. Let’s Do It Over didn’t fare any better. Sadly, it wasn’t released by Chess Records, and only made its debut on a 1990 Ace Records compilation. However, Irma enjoyed a minor hit single in 1968.

In 1968, Irma released Good To Me as a single. This impassioned and hopeful ballad stalled at forty-eight in the US R&B charts. While it wasn’t the biggest hit of the Soul Queen of New Orleans’ career, it showed that Irma was getting her career back on track. Chess Records didn’t see it that way, and Irma left the label. Her career was at a crossroads. So had been Etta James career in 1967.

Etta James was a familiar face at Chess Records. She had been there from the early sixties. By 1967, Miss Peaches’ career had stalled. No longer was she one of Chess Records’ most successful artists. Four years had passed since Pushover gave Etta a major hit single. The closest she came was when I Prefer You reached the lower reaches of the charts. Something had to give. So a decision was made to send Etta to Fame Recording Studios.

Between 22nd and 24th August 1967, Etta, who was heavily pregnant, recorded eight tracks at Fame Recording Studios. She recorded again in November 1967, then March and August 1968. By the end of her final session, Etta had recorded twenty tracks. One of these tracks, Tell Mama, relaunched Etta’s career, when it reached number twenty-three in the US Billboard 100 and ten in the US R&B charts. Another four of these tracks feature on Reaching Out! Chess Records At Fame Studios.

This includes Security, which Etta released as a single in February 1968. It reached number thirty-five in the US Billboard 100 and number eleven in the US R&B charts. Rick Hall and Muscle Shoals rhythm section had worked their magic again. They accompany Etta on Don’t Lose Your Good Thing, which featured on Etta’s 1968 album Tell Mama. Quickly, Tell Mama became Etta’s most successful album, reaching number eighty-two in the US Billboard 200 and number twenty-one in the US R&B charts. However, The Same Rope has lain unreleased until now. The Same Rope makes a welcome debut on Reaching Out! Chess Records At Fame Studios. It’s one of the hidden gems from Etta James’ back-catalogue, that was made in Muscle Shoals.

That was the case with the two tracks from Mitty Collier on Reaching Out! Chess Records At Fame Studios. Just like Laura Lee, Mitty started life as a gospel singer, but crossed over. By 1967, it had been a year since Sharing You reached number ninety-seven in the Billboard 100 and number ten in the US R&B charts. So Mitty was sent to Muscle Shoals, where she recorded six songs. 

When Mitty arrived in Muscle Shoals, she was suffering from polyps on her vocal cords. Once the session was complete, only Gotta Get Away From It was released as a single. The other four tracks have never been released. Two of them, Too Soon To Know, which was originally recorded by Roy Orbison and the bluesy You’re Living A Lie feature on Reaching Out! Chess Records At Fame Studios. There’s a rougher, tougher sound to the former gospel singer’s voice. She wasn’t the only gospel singer signed to Chess Records.

Originally, Maurice and Mac were gospel singers. However, they too crossed over, and were perceived as Chess Records’ answer to Sam and Dave. They made the journey to Muscle Shoals, where they recorded a cover of So Much Love. It was released as a single on Cadet in 1967, but failed commercially. Lightning struck twice when Lean On Me was released as single in 1968. Commercial success eluded Maurice and Mac. Their third contribution to Reaching Out! Chess Records At Fame Studios, Run To me, is akin to a homage to Sam and Dave. It’s never been released before, but this joyous slice of soul to have been inspired by Soul Man. Lee Weber’s Party Time has a similar good time sound.

Party Time is one of two singles Lee Weber released on Chess records in 1968. Both feature on Reaching Out! Chess Records At Fame Studios.Just like his cover of The Beatles’ Good Day Sunshine, it was recorded at Fame Recording Studios. Neither single was a commercial success. However, the neo psychedelic soul of Good Day Sunshine is a captivating cover of this Beatles classic. Another captivating track is Charles Chalmers’ Take Me (Just As I Am).

Charles Chalmers was a jazz saxophonist, who signed to Chess Records in 1967. The first thing Chess Records did, was send C Charles to Fame Recording Studios, where he recorded Sax and The Single Girl. Three tracks from the album feature on Reaching Out! Chess Records At Fame Studios, Take Me (Just As I Am), The Sidewinder and Two In The Morning. Each of the three tracks feature the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section and the Muscle Shoals Horns. They’re joined on Take Me (Just As I Am) by gospel harmonies and Charles’ sultry saxophone. It’s a truly beautiful combination, that’s one of the highlights of Reaching Out! Chess Records At Fame Studios.

The final tracks on Reaching Out! Chess Records At Fame Studios come courtesy of Bobby Moore and The Rhythm Aces. Rick Hall had recorded the band, and sent a master tape to Chess Records. For the next three years, Bobby Moore and The Rhythm Aces were signed to Checker. Each of their singles were recorded in Muscle Shoals, at Fame Recording Studios. This includes Come Back Baby, which features on their 1966 album Searching For My Love. The following year, 1967, Bobby Moore and The Rhythm Aces released Reaching Out and I Wanna Be Your Man. Neither single was a commercial success, and in 1969 Bobby Moore and The Rhythm Aces left Checker. They were a truly talented band, who should’ve enjoyed much more commercial success. Sadly, that was a familiar story.

That was the case with each of the eight artists on Reaching Out! Chess Records At Fame Studios. Bobby Moore and The Rhythm Aces, Charles Chalmers, Etta James, Laura Lee, Lee Webber, Maurice and Mac and Mitty Collier were all talented artists. However, often, commercial success eluded their releases. Singles and albums passed record buyers by. It was nothing to do with the quality of music.

Far from it. A combination of Etta James or Irma Thomas accompanied by the legendary Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section and Muscle Shoals Horns was a tantalising prospect. They brought out the best in Etta and Irma. That was the case with each of the artists on Reaching Out! Chess Records At Fame Studios. After all, they were working with the hottest house band in America.

Artists came from far and wide to work with this legendary group of musicians. Along with producer Rick Hall, they were hit-makers. Careers were rejuvenated, artists whose career had been at the crossroads enjoyed a new lease of life. Etta James is proof of this. So is Aretha Franklin. Both had their career transformed. However, in Aretha’s case, she was signed to a major.

While Chess Records was one of the best known independent labels, it didn’t have the same power as Atlantic Records. They had an enviable budget for promotion, and were able to get their singles and albums into shops nationwide. Major labels also had the staff to ensure their singles were played on radio. To some extent, labels like Chess Records were fighting a losing battle. While some felt the music should speak for itself, that wasn’t how it worked in real life. 

Time and time again, Chess Records, like many smaller labels, released singles that oozed quality. All too often, they stalled in the lower reaches of the charts, or failed to chart. For artists signed to independent labels, it was disheartening. That’s why so many artists turned their back on music, including Irma Thomas. The Soul Queen Of New Orleans.

After leaving Chess Records, Irma Thomas turned her back on music for four years. During that period, one of soul music’s greats was lost to music. By the time she returned, Aretha Franklin, who started out at the same time as Irma, was a multi-million selling superstar. How times had changed. However, she wasn’t alone.

Just like the rest of the artists on Reaching Out! Chess Records At Fame Studios, Irma Thomas never reached the heights her talent deserved. She may have enjoyed fame, but the fortune that came the way of Aretha, never came her way. That was the same for Bobby Moore and The Rhythm Aces, Charles Chalmers, Etta James, Laura Lee, Lee Webber and Maurice and Mac. None of these artists reached superstar status, nor made a fortune out of music. However, they leave behind a rich musical legacy, one that nobody can put a price on. This includes the twenty-four tracks on Reaching Out! Chess Records At Fame Studios, which will be released on Kent Soul, an imprint of Ace Records, on 28h August 2015.

REACHING OUT! CHESS RECORDS AT FAME STUDIOS.

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