Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Fame Studios Story 1961-1973 2011

I'm a terrible sucker for the soul box set/compilation. I've reviewed quite a few in the past here and here.

So now this one comes along, and you know it's a great story. The Fame studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, was one of the preeminent purveyors of that funky, gritty soul style our U.K. friends like to call Southern soul, or deep soul, in sharp contrast to the slicker, smoother sounds coming from up north in Motown and Philadelphia. 

Rick Hall is the man. He made the sound his signature, he hired fabulously talented house bands that provided the rhythm for most of the featured artists. He also regularly used some of the best writers available, with George Jackson, Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham among them.

Add the singers- Arthur Alexander, James and Bobby Purify, Arthur Conley, Clarence Carter, Wilson Pickett, Candi Staton, Mitty Collier, Otis Reddding- and you've got the recipe for a hit-making palace. A funky-looking cinder-block palace with all the exterior appeal of the warehouse the building had been before Hall turned it into a studio. All of those great singers are featured here, but so are many lesser-known artists that give no less riveting performances.

It's three CDs with a built-in booklet that includes an excellent history of Hall and his studio, an in-depth discussion of the signature sound of that studio, and a track-by-track narrative that is the rival of any product in the box set category. It's what I've come to expect from the Kent label, an English reissue company committed to unearthing everything soul and every sub-genre of soul possible. These guys released an entire CD of Vietnamese soul (no, I don't have that one). They released the four volumes of Dave Godin's Deep Soul Treasures Taken From The Vaults, the most remarkable treasure trove of lost soul classics you (or I) can imagine.

They did a stellar job putting this one together. There are a few familiar songs, but this isn't a product meant to provide you with a greatest hits/chart-toppers sort of package. Rather it does its intended job of showcasing the sound of one of America's most famous studios in fine fashion. And the studio is worthy of this deep investigation, because it, and Hall, leave their mark on every song. There are also several interesting never-before released selections (Otis Redding accompanying himself on guitar on a demo of You Left The Water Running, anyone?), and a few surprises as well. The third CD features a few non-soul acts that came to benefit from the sound of the place. This may upset a few purists, but they need to lighten up.

If you still enjoy buying music that comes with well-thought out packaging and supporting material, here you go. If you just love deep, Southern soul and want to discover a few new artists or songs in the genre, here you go. If you need research material to write a thesis for a music appreciation class with an open-minded professor, here you go.

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