Sunday, November 21, 2010

Steal Away, Jimmy Hughes (1964)

In the lexicon of soul musicology, a reference to Muscle Shoals conjures up recordings that were quintessential deep South, grittier than anything wafting in from Detroit or Memphis, and often referred to as "swamp" music. But if you're an aficionado of soul as I am, would you know the answer to the question: what was the first song released by the FAME record label (at the studio location that still operates today) that became synonymous with the Muscle Shoals, Alabama, sound?

Me neither.

I can't tell you how much fun it is for me when the backstory of a song I didn't know about is laden with people and places I do know about and I just have to piece all the strands together.  That's the case with the ultra-marvelous Steal Away by Jimmy Hughes, which, it turns out, was that first song.

I discovered it on - where else - Pandora, earlier in the week, on my Joe Tex station. I had to go lie down after I heard it - what a scorcher in both the vocal and the killer rhythm section which would become the Muscle Shoals signature. But who was/is Jimmy Hughes? Was this song a hit?

Yes it was, and it all ties back to one of my favorite musicians in the world, Dan Penn, about whom I've written numerous times. I hope he writes a book someday because he's led a glorious life and known glorious people. And most especially, heard and helped shape some of the most spectacular music ever recorded. 

Jimmy Hughes worked at ES Robbins, the maker of floor mats that's still based in Muscle Shoals, and had been singing lead in gospel quartet The Singing Clouds since he was a high school senior. He was keeping close tabs on his friend Arthur Alexander ("Anna"), who had suddenly catapulted to success with both the A and B sides of his first single (You Better Move On and A Shot of Rhythm and Blues), produced out of a makeshift studio by local bassist Rick Hall. Hughes wanted some of that success - and justifiably so.

Dan Penn - who would become one of the primary movers and shakers that made Muscle Shoals the crucible it was - was in the picture at this time because his group, the Pallbearers, was one of the backup bands for the Alexander songs. Penn, who has always had a knack for nurturing talented people in addition to having his own native musical abilities, prodded Hall to give a song Hughes had written a chance, believing it had a lot of potential. Hall didn't get religion right away, and it was two years before he got all his ducks in a row, opening the full-service studio that still stands today and dusting off and refining the Steal Away demo Hughes had earlier recorded.

By the time Hall was ready to be blown away by Hughes, the record companies Hall approached with the song weren't interested. It was time for his own label, FAME, to be born. Failure was not an option; the solution was a road trip. Hall and Penn schlepped a thousand 45s of Steal Away from one black radio station to another across the South, and they hit the jackpot. The DJs played it, everyone wanted it, and this was the beginning of the storied legacy of FAME, the seductive Muscle Shoals sound and the unbelievable number of artists who recorded and achieved success there.

What happened with the rest of Hughes' career has been chronicled in minute detail by soul musicologist extraordinaire Red Kelly, so I won't reconstruct that here; just surf on over to his blog post on the topic if you're really interested. What's great is that there is now a CD compilation, The Best of Jimmy Hughes, that packages 18 of his FAME recordings with a bonus two-hour roundtable discussion with him and the engineers, producers and musicians who midwifed the output of his heavenly pipes for us mere mortals. Happy birthday to me! 

1 comment:

Holly A Hughes said...

Again, a great job of delving into a very special corner of music history. And to think Jimmy Hughes was Percy Sledge's cousin, too! Love this song, and I intend to go get that compilation CD. And how fitting that it would be your Joe Tex Pandora station that tipped you off in the first place!