Blues Bytes


March/April 2022

Fame Gang
Grits & Gravy: The Best of the Fame Gang
Ace Records

Fame Gang

Fame Recording Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama was the hot recording spot for soul, R&B, and pop artists in the ’60s and ’70s, the main reason being the in-house band, known as the Fame Gang. Similar to other recording units like the Funk Brothers of Motown, Booker T & the MGs at Stax, and Los Angeles’ Wrecking Crew, the Fame Gang was the driving force behind dozens of hits for artists like Arthur Alexander, Percy Sledge, Clarence Carter, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Joe Tex, and Solomon Burke.

There were actually three Fame Gang house bands over the years. The first unit consisted of David Briggs and Spooner Oldham on keyboards, Norbert Putnam on bass, Earl Montgomery and Terry Thompson on guitars, and Jerry Carrigan on drums. After they drifted about to pursue their own successful careers as songwriters and session artists, the second unit --– Jimmy Johnson on guitar, Barry Beckett on keyboards, Roger Hawkins on drums, and David Hood on bass --– became even more popular and successful, and eventually left Fame to open their Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, where they thrived for many years.

Fame Studios owner Rick Hall replaced the second unit with a larger band, featuring Junior Lowe and Travis Wammack (guitar), Jesse Boyce (bass), Clayton Ivey (keyboards/guitar), Freeman Brown (drums), Harrison Calloway (trumpet), Aaron Varnell (tenor/alto sax), Ronnie Eades (baritone sax), and Harvey Thompson (tenor sax/flute), who continued to back the artists recording at Fame. Unlike the other two groups, this Fame Gang actually recorded under their own name, releasing several singles and an album, Solid Gold From Muscle Shoals, comprised of the band’s version of several current hits of the day.

The U.K. label Ace Records has collected the recordings of the third Fame Gang on the fascinating Grits & Gravy: The Best of the Fame Gang. The 25-song set included all of their released tracks as well as a boatload of their unreleased material, which is every bit as strong as what was released.

There’s a fairly even mix of originals by the band members and covers. With the cover tunes, the band really puts their personal stamp on each, while retaining the distinctive qualities of the popular versions. The originals are very distinctive, too. Each song is memorable in its own way, which is sometimes a challenge with all instrumentals.

To these ears, the Fame Gang comes off as a rawer, funkier version of the Stax bands of that time, almost jazzy on some of the numbers. The title track, “Cannonball,” “Sax Appeal,” and “Muscle Soul” are the standouts among the original tracks, but they are ALL good.

It’s hard to believe that some of these songs didn’t make more of an impact, but they hold up incredibly well some 50 years later. If you like those classic soul instrumental bands of the ’60s and early ’70s, one listen to Grits & Gravy: The Best of the Fame Gang will have you wondering how you made it this long without hearing this fantastic music. Just plug this one into your car stereo as you cruise down the road, and you may never take it out.

--- Graham Clarke



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