Now that everyone's seen The Documentary, it may seem like the Muscle Shoals story has already been told. It hasn't. There were, in my opinion, several glaring omissions from the cast of characters that should have made the cut. Names like Marlin Greene, Eddie Hinton and Travis Wammack come to mind, but Junior Lowe was such a major player in all of this that I don't think you can even tell the story without him...
As I write this, I just got the very sad news that Jimmy Johnson has passed away. An absolutely towering figure in Muscle Shoals history, his positive energy and enthusiasm for the music will live on in all who knew him. I am so glad we made the journey to attend his 75th Birthday Bash at The Shoals Theater in Florence last February. The outpouring of love for this gentle giant of a man was overwhelming. He will be sorely missed by all who knew him.
The photo that Rolling Stone chose for their online obituary of Johnson, though, further illustrates my point. Jimmy is pictured holding his telecaster next to David Hood on bass, but there is no mention of the guy on the right - the guy also holding a telecaster. That guy is named Junior Lowe. Thanks to our friend Billy Lawson (who grew up down the street from him), I was able to hang out with Junior at Wishbone Studios this Summer. Please bear with me as I try to put together the pieces, and reclaim his rightful place in the Muscle Shoals saga...
Albert S. Lowe, Jr. came up in a rough and tumble area of Northwest Alabama called Zip City, which got its name from the parade of cars that would zip through town on their way through 'Dry' Lauderdale County to the Tennessee State Line where the booze was plentiful and legal. This region had also played a major role during the infamous Indian Relocation of the 1830s and '40s as the Trail of Tears ran directly through it on the way to Tuscumbia Landing and the tortuous 'water route' West. Choctaw blood still runs deep here, and flows like The Singing River through many of its proud inhabitants, like our man Junior Lowe. Despite losing the top joint of the index finger on his right hand to a lawnmower as a toddler, Junior (like most boys back then) still wanted a Gene Autry guitar for his sixth birthday. By the time he was in his teens he was playing in a number of local bands, including a stint with Dan Penn's fabled Pallbearers.
Perhaps the most famous of these 'frat circuit' bands was The Fairlanes, a group which included Rick Hall, Billy Sherill and another guitar player with Native American blood in his veins, Terry Thompson. Lowe knew all of them from hanging around the SPAR office upstairs from the drugstore in Florence, and once Rick Hall hit the big time with Arthur Alexander in 1962, he was asked to replace Rick as the bass player in the band. By 1964, The Fairlanes had taken up residence as the much celebrated 'house band' at the Fort Campbell Military Base in Kentucky.
In the superb liner notes to Ace Records 2012 release Dan Penn - The Fame Recordings, Alec Palao writes about what happened next; "It was the early weeks of 1965. David Briggs, Jerry Carrigan and Norbert Putnam, the session musicians whose work over the past few years had helped put FAME Studios of Muscle Shoals, Alabama on the musical map, had suddenly, shockingly departed for more lucrative pastures in Nashville..." The oft-told story of how Rick Hall's 'first rhythm section' (who had also been members of Penn's Pallbearers) just up and left.
Initially freaked out that 'his boys' were no longer around, Dan was actually glad to come in off the road, and not have to go out there and perform every weekend. To Rick Hall's eternal credit, he could sense the raw talent that Dan had and hired him as a staff songwriter, but he was more than that. "When I built the studio," Rick told Palao, "he became my closest ally, my right arm." He gave Penn his own set of keys to the building, where he would hole up late at night with the new keyboard player Rick hired, Dewey Lindon Oldham. Together he and 'Spooner' would write some of the greatest songs of all time over the next few years.
Now faced with rebuilding the rest of his rhythm section, Hall asked Junior Lowe to return home and become his bass player at the studio. With Billy Sherill also gone to Nashville (and Terry Thompson about to enter re-hab), The Fairlanes gig had pretty much run its course by then, and Junior took the job. Roger Hawkins was brought in on drums, and a young kid named Jimmy Johnson that had been hanging around the studio was recruited to play rhythm guitar. Just as he had done with Reggie Young the year before, Rick planned to bring in other guitarists to play lead as the need arose.
During our conversation, Junior comfirmed what we had long suspected, that the guitar on The Ovations I'm Living Good is indeed being played by Clarence Nelson! He said Quinton Claunch brought him down to Fame for a session in the Summer of 1965. As fate would have it, we were planning on visiting the 97 year old Quinton in Memphis the following day, and he told us that, yes, it was Clarence on guitar, and that Junior Lowe was definitely on bass. "Rick Hall didn't know how to record Clarence," he said, "I used to plug him directly into the board, but I didn't tell Rick that - I had to keep some secrets!" You gotta love it... still sounds pretty good to me!
It was Junior's trademark big fat bottom of a bass line that helped propel Percy Sledge's When A Man Loves A Woman to number one on both the R&B and Pop charts in the Summer of 1966. One of those songs that will live on forever, Quin Ivy and Marlin Greene had 'borrowed' Junior, Spooner and Roger Hawkins (along with Jimmy Johnson as the engineer), and created this masterpiece of Southern Soul at his newly opened Norala studio in Sheffield. It was Rick Hall that pitched the record to Jerry Wexler at Atlantic, who agreed to pay him a 2% 'finder's fee' (which, I'm sure, eased the pain of Fame's musicians 'moonlighting' across town in the process).
Amazingly, while Sledge was still riding #1 on the Cash Box R&B Top 50, Junior's thumping bass (along with Joe South's killer guitar work) would send Percy's cousin Jimmy Hughes into the top ten as well with the great Neighbor, Neighbor Rising as high as #4 R&B in Billboard, it was Fame's biggest hit since Steal Away (no doubt helped by the fact that the label was now distributed by ATCO). The writer's credit on the label goes to Huey Meaux, although he apparently bought it from someone named Alton Valier back in Houston. In any event, Hall had cut a lackluster version of the song for Jimmy's Vee-Jay LP in 1964, but nailed it this time out. One of my favorite songs ever!
If you notice in the chart above, Wilson Picket's record was stalled at #11, but all that was about to change. Jerry Wexler had descended on Fame in May for sessions on The Wicked One and, as Rick Hall said in the documentary "Cutting Wilson Pickett for Atlantic was like The World Series and the Super Bowl rolled into one..."
I suppose it must have felt that way, and the single released that Summer from those sessions, Land Of 1000 Dances, paid off, climbing straight to #1 R&B. Once again driven by that big fat bottom, who the bass player was on this one has long been a bone of contention in Muscle Shoals. The accepted story is that Wexler wanted a certain bass line to lead things off after the count, and that Junior wasn't able to play it, so he asked Tommy Cogbill to take over. "Not so," Junior told me, "Wexler had this way of trying to communicate what he wanted you to play that was hard to grasp sometimes. I finally figured out what he wanted, and that's my lick on the top there... I played it with a pick."
In the Atlantic Records Discography for those sessions, however, the name Albert S. Lowe, Jr. is nowhere to be found. Hmmmm...
On the Getty Images page for the photo at left, the caption includes 'singer Wilson Pickett and keyboardist Spooner Oldham' but makes no mention of the clearly visible Junior Lowe, who is playing bass on the session. Talk about the invisible man! Well, as it turns out, Spooner Oldham ("of all people," Billy Lawson said) recently found his original Union sheets for that session and, lo and behold, Albert S. 'Junior' Lowe is the guy who got paid for playing bass...
The Fame story, as it is often told, is all about the 'first ryhthm section' and 'the second rhythm section' but I don't think enough has been said about the records cut before David Hood and Barry Beckett got there, when the house band at Fame was Junior, Spooner, Roger Hawkins and Jimmy Johnson. Leonard Chess (or more likely his Southern A&R man, Max Cooperstein) was paying attention, and released this greasy slab of late night smoky coolness by 'Spooner's Crowd' on Cadet in April of '66. Two In The Morning (with Junior given a rare composer's credit) remains an undiscovered gem of a Rick Hall production. "Say honey, you free for this dance?"
As you can see from the photo of Dan Penn behind the console at Fame (used on the cover of Close To Me, Ace's second volume of his Fame recordings), Dan was committed to making the legendary demos of the songs he and Spooner were cranking out sound as good as possible. "I started doing some of the demos with Dan and Spooner," Junior Lowe told Alec Palao, "We'd work late at night. Dan would be behind the board, and he'd run back down to sing. I'd play bass, but I liked to fool around with the guitar a little bit. Dan said "That stuff you're playing, why don't you put it on what we're cutting now?'" When Rick Hall heard Junior's guitar playing on fully produced Penn demos like Feed The Flame, he asked "Who's playing that guitar?" and when they told him it was Junior he said "Hell, I want some of that country shit on my records!" "I said I was a bass player, and that was pretty much all I knew on the guitar," Junior told me. "That's all you need to know, Junior, right there," Rick shot back, "From now on, I'm moving you to guitar!"
As near as I can figure, the first actual release to feature Junior on guitar was Mighty Sam's Sweet Dreams (Of You), from June of 1966. The way the story goes is that after Papa Don Schroeder finally talked Sam into driving up to Muscle Shoals with him, it was on a Saturday, and Rick Hall wasn't around. Dan Penn was only too happy to work the board, and cut this fantastic version of the Don Gibson classic we have here much the same way as he had recorded the demo sessions, with Junior 'ping-ponged' on both bass and guitar. Although it didn't dent the charts, this is the record that got Schroeder the deal with Larry Uttal at Bell, and set the stage for much of what was to follow.
The next time Papa Don showed up at Fame, he brought James & Bobby Purify with him. Listening to Dan's demos upstairs in Rick's office, he heard something in one of them that apparently nobody else did. The song had fallen on deaf ears when a version Rick Hall cut on Penn himself had been leased to MGM the year before, but all that was about to change. When I'm Your Puppet was released that September, it took the country by storm, climbing straight to #1 R&B in Cashbox, and going top ten Pop everywhere else. That's Junior Lowe on guitar, folks. According to Charlie Chalmers, the great photograph above was taken at those sessions, and it is interesting to note that David Hood is already in the house (although probably just on trombone). [David has been in touch to confirm that, yes, that's him on trombone here, and that Doc Bailey, who Papa Don brought with him from Pensacola, played bass.]
These two excellent Penn/Oldham Fame B sides were cut during this same period, and have long been favorites of yours truly. Until I started digging deeper here to write this piece, I never realized that they feature Junior Lowe on guitar, and I'd bet the farm that's him on bass as well. Arthur Conley's version of In The Same Old Way is one of the most heart-wrenching, soulful records ever made. The man could sing! Arthur's down on his knees, pleading take on Take Me (Just As I Am), released that October, has been over-shadowed by Solomon Burke's big hit, but this is every bit as good... Soul music at it's best!
As 1966 gave way to 1967, ATCO (aka Atlantic) pulled out all the stops for Jimmy Hughes' next Fame release, Why Not Tonight, one of the best Country Soul records ever. Although not quite 'breaking wide open...Pop' as the hopeful Billboard ad at right suggests, it would cruise to #5 R&B that Spring, with Junior's guitar all over it. When Otis Redding had taken over the studio that January, he brought his own musicians (including guitarist Moses Dillard) with him to produce Arthur Conley's next release (now moved up to ATCO), Sweet Soul Music. Just a huge record, it went positively viral in early 1967, spending FIVE weeks at #2 R&B, further cementing Atlantic's love affair with all things Muscle Shoals. It never made it to the top slot because of a certain other record cut at Fame a few days later, one that has become the stuff of legend...
"Junior wasn't a big fan of Jerry Wexler," Billy Lawson told me, and I can't say I blame him. By now you've all heard the story of how, when Wexler brought Aretha Franklin to Fame, the session blew up in his face (for various reasons) and he left town with the raw tapes, vowing never to return. Wexler hadn't hired Junior for that session, and when Atlantic decided to complete the two songs they had cut on her in their New York studio, they paid to have Spooner, Roger and Jimmy flown up, but not Junior... not a big fan - ya think? In any event, I Never Loved A Man (The Way That I Love You) did break wide open, hitting #9 on Billboard's Hot 100, and sitting at #1 R&B for an incredible seven weeks - but Atlantic's tenure as the chief client on East Avalon Avenue was through.
As mentioned earlier, Leonard Chess was hip to the goings on at Fame, and had sent legendary sax man Gene Barge down there in June of '66 to co-produce some sides with Rick Hall on the great Kip Anderson. Take It Like A Man (released as the flip of the hilarious A Knife And A Fork) prominently features Junior on guitar, his style here clearly influenced by Clarence Nelson (and, by extension, Reggie Young). Atlantic's exodus from Muscle Shoals, after the monster back to back hits mentioned above, had created a vacuum that Chess was only too happy to try and fill in 1967.
One of the coolest things the label did was cut an LP on Memphis sax man Charlie Chalmers that June. Chalmers had been instrumental (if you will) in putting together the tight horn sections heard on pretty much all of the Fame recorded material we've talked about so far, and he's joined here by Memphis legends Floyd Newman, Bowlegs Miller, Wayne Jackson and Andrew Love. Jerry Wexler had flown Charlie up to New York for the Aretha sessions mentioned earlier as well, and actually wrote the liner notes for the competing label's album, in which he name checks Hawkins, Hood and Johnson but (alas) not Junior Lowe, despite his stellar guitar work throughout. Check out this blisteringly soulful rendition of Take Me (Just As I Am), with Chalmers blowing hard like his mentor Ace Cannon, Spooner's Brother Ray stylings on piano, and Jeanie Greene's soft and sultry vocals. Wow! It would be released as a single later in the year, but went nowhere.
Dan Penn had left town after his songwriting contract was up in 1966, and signed with Chips Moman at American in Memphis. Spooner would join him there shortly after these sessions, and Barry Beckett (who had first made the trip to Fame with Papa Don) would take over as the more or less full time keyboard man. With David Hood now on bass, the 'second rhythm section' (aka 'The Swampers') was now complete. I remain mystified as to why the fact that Junior Lowe, who was such an integral part of their sound at this point (as their lead guitar player, for God's sake) is so often overlooked by people who should know better.
One of the first Chess acts Max Cooperstein brought down to Fame that Summer was Maurice & Mac, hoping they could capture some of that James & Bobby magic, I'm sure. We were first introduced to this rocking arrangement of Goffin-King gem So Much Love by Rick Hall himself when Soul Detective Tony Rounce asked him about it for us way back in 2010. At the time I had written, "Think that's Eddie Hinton on the guitar?" I never even considered that it could be Junior (people who should know better, indeed!). Despite Checker's ads in Billboard, it was another great record that died on the vine.
All that was about to change though, when Chess sent Detroit powerhouse Laura Lee down there in July. Rick Hall re-cut a song they had just recorded on her in Chicago, and the swaggering, in-your-face version of Dirty Man he produced (featuring Junior's stinging Telecaster) just took off, climbing all the way to #4 on Cashbox's R&B Top 50 that October. Although Hall had cut some great records on Irma Thomas (and later on Mitty Collier) for the label, none had hit the charts. On the strengh of Laura's breakthrough hit here, she would go on to place her next three consecutive Fame recorded releases in the Top 50 as well. Chess was on a roll.
The way the story is told, Leonard Chess himself brought a 'pregnant and cranky' Etta James down to Fame that August, and it was the song she didn't want to sing (first released by it's composer Clarence Carter on Fame almost two years earlier) that went ballistic in early 1968. Tell Mama broke into the Pop Top 40, and went all the way to #2 R&B in Cashbox. It was kept from #1 by a song Jerry Wexler had recorded in New York the week after the Charlie Chalmers LP sessions at Fame, when he had flown up Charlie, Spooner, Jimmy Johnson, Roger Hawkins and Joe South to cut Chain Of Fools. That's Chalmers in the middle in the great photo above, between James Mitchell and Floyd Newman, and the fact that he and half The Swampers (well, almost half) are on both records is just kind of amazing.
"Hey wait a minute red, you still haven't even mentioned Junior Lowe!" That's alright, because it's Junior's timeless and often borrowed licks (think 'Tennesee Whiskey') that frame one of Etta's most enduring records, I'd Rather Go Blind. Released as the flip of the big hit, it sort of flew under the radar at the time, but man is it good. I think my favorite track from those sessions, though, is the B Side of her next top ten R&B outing, Otis Redding's Security. Written by Don Covay (just like 'Chain Of Fools' had been), this mono 45 rip of I'm Gonna Take What He's Got is like a punch to the jaw. Driven by Spooner's Wurlitzer, Jimmy Johnson's 'chank' rhythm and Junior's sinewy guitar fills - I love it!
In November of 1968, Rick Hall hired a young guitar player named Duane Allman to augment the session crew at Fame. Although Jerry Wexler had held to his promise to never darken the doorway on East Avalon, he got around that by sending Wilson Pickett down there with Tom Dowd. The way the story goes is that Allman double-dog dared The Wicked One to cover The Beatles' Hey Jude, which was then riding number one on the charts worldwide. Whether that's true or not, 'Skydog' just shreds it for the last minute of the single, which went Top 40 Pop in early 1969. If you listen to it, however, there is another guitar being played during the first three minutes, identifiably by our man Junior Lowe. By the time the record was released, Wexler had hired Allman away from Fame, and brought him to New York to cut with Aretha, among others. Despite Duane's short tenure there in Muscle Shoals, his ensuing dead rock star status has totally eclipsed the fact that he was only an employee for about a month, and rendered Junior even more invisible than he was before, if that's even possible.
By 1969, For whatever reason, Chess seems to have scaled back their Fame operation significantly, and Rick Hall was busy working on a lucrative distribution and recording deal with Capitol Records out in Hollywood. He continued to take the weekends off from studio work which, as we've seen, provided opportunities for the 'staff' to do other things. Stan Lewis out in Shreveport took advantage of this set-up to record some of his artists at Fame, presumably at a reduced rate. My Baby's Gone, cut one weekend by the totally under-appreciated Wallace Brothers, was produced by Junior and Barry Beckett, with Lowe's guitar work just pure Southern Soul.
"I heard the other guys talking about leaving, and starting up their own studio," Junior told me, "but I didn't think that was a good idea. Rick had always treated me well at Fame, and we had plenty of work." When Hall came back from California, he called a meeting to explain to the crew what his new deal with Capitol would mean for all of them, but Beckett, Hawkins, Hood and Johnson told him not to bother, because they quit. Rick in turn offered Junior a 'signing bonus' for choosing to remain, but he didn't really have to, his mind was already made up. "David came to me later on and offered to more than double the amount Rick paid me if I left with them," Junior said, "but I had already told Rick I'd stay, so I did." What Junior didn't say is that he knew that Jerry Wexler was the force behind all this, and had promised that Atlantic would be Muscle Shoals Sound's first customer... he wasn't interested.
Faced with rebuilding his studio band for the second time in four years, Rick Hall built this one around Junior Lowe. He brought in Clayton Ivey, Jesse Boyce and Ronnie Eades from Pensacola after Papa Don Schroeder abrubtly closed his studio there, along with Jefferson Street veterans Harrison Calloway, Aaron Varnell, Freeman Brown and Harvey Thompson, all of whom had been cutting with John R in Nashville. 'All around talent' Mickey Buckins would become their producer and arranger. Not only had Rick succeeded in integrating the group at a time when racial tensions were running especially high in The South but, for the first time, he had his own 'in house' horn section. He had leased a single to Atlantic in 1968 by 'The Fame Gang' and decided to keep using the name for his newly hired crew.
The first thing Hall did was use his new arrangement with Capitol to release an album on them called Solid Gold From Muscle Shoals, on which they covered the top hits of 1969. Lou Rawls (who would record at Fame himself in a few months) had turned Isaac Hayes and David Porter's Your Good Thing (Is About To End) into a giant R&B smash that Summer, scoring even higher than Mabel John had on Stax in '66. I absolutely love this soulful Fame Gang take on it, with Junior's guitar and Clayton Ivey's piano trading licks in the background, and Jesse Boyce's bass just killing it. I'm not sure if that's Aaron Varnell or Harvey Thompson wailng on the saxophone but, whoah, this is excellent stuff!
If you've been with me awhile, you know how much I truly love and appreciate Fame's 'third rhythm section' here, and how I have never really understood why they don't seem to get enough credit for the incredibly tight and funky R&B records they cut. I guess, like Junior himself, they became all but invisible once people like The Rolling Stones and Rod Stewart started showing up on Jackson Highway. Be that as it may, I'd like to re-post some of my all-time favorite 45s from this period...
When Fred Foster decided to scale back his Sound Stage 7 imprint in 1969, he didn't renew several contracts, incuding those of our hero Sir Lattimore Brown and the SS7 R&B A&R man Chuck Chellman. Chuck knew talent when he saw it, and quickly inked Brown to his own newly formed Renegade label, bringing him down to Fame shortly thereafter to cut four sides with Junior and The Gang. This rockin' dance number sounds as hot today as it did fifty years ago.
My Desires Are Getting The Best Of Me
Shortly after Dan Penn left for American, Rick Hall hired quiet genius George Jackson away from Quinton Claunch in Memphis, who was in the process of shutting down his Goldwax label. As his new staff songwriter (along with his running partner Raymond Moore) Jackson would write some of Fame's biggest hits. Hall would only cut two 45s on George as an artist, and Junior's guitar helps make this one a definite keeper.
You Used Me Baby
Soon after Hall made his deal with Capitol, the brass out in Hollywood had the good sense to transfer Alabama native Willie Hightower's contract to Fame, where he would cut the best records of his career. Willie told me that this excellent Deep Soul number (the flip of #26 R&B hit Walk A Mile In My Shoes) was actually written by his Grandmother, and based on her real life experience. The Gang is just cookin' on all cylinders here, boys & girls!
How Can I Put Out The Flame
The B side of Candi's second consecutive Top 5 R&B hit for Fame in the Summer of 1970, Stand By Your Man, this side is even better. Another George Jackson/Raymond Moore tale of how painful love can be, I can't even begin to tell you how much this record just knocks me out. As I said earlier about those Arthur Conley Fame releases, until I kind of went to school here on Junior, I had no idea that he was the man playing the brilliant, essential, elemental guitar on these 45s I've cherished for so long... incredible.
Somewhere around in here, Rick Hall hired Memphis guitar slinger Travis Wammack, who would bring a little bit of 'Swamp' into the mix at Fame. He and Junior got together and wrote a down home rocker about goin' back to the woods soon thereafter. When Little Richard, who had come to Fame to cut an album with Bumps Blackwell, heard the demo he flipped and released Greenwood, Mississippi as his second single from the LP. Despite being picked by Cashbox to be 'his strongest seller in a decade', it would miss the charts entirely. Go figure!
Mumble In My Ear
This 45 is my favorite of all of these Fame Gang cuts. Just pure unadulterated Soul (once you get past the Jimmie Haskell string intro), it grabs me and has me singing along every time I hear it. My wife loves it too and, on a recent visit to Wishbone this past Summer, Travis Wammack came in and we asked Billy Lawson to play it for him. "Yup, I remember that one, that's me on guitar," he said. On my next trip down there, I had Billy play it for Junior. "Yup, I remember that one, that's me on guitar," he said. LOL - Although I'm leaning towards thinking it sounds more like Junior than Travis, I guess it really doesn't matter much. The music these guys created on East Avalon Avenue continues to amaze me...
"We sat around all morning doing nothing, waiting for The Osmonds to show up," Junior told me [probably during the sessions for their second album Homemade in 1971], "then Rick poked his head in and told us to break for lunch, and we'd cut that afternoon. I couldn't take it anymore. I told Travis, 'Im outta here, I'm here to work, not waste my time waiting around,' He tried to talk me out of it, but I was fed up. Things had changed... I didn't even say goodbye, I just walked out that door and never looked back."
Junior told me he headed down to Tupelo, Mississippi at that point and got work as a guitarist in various bar bands on the club circuit. "Hell, I learned more about playing guitar in the year I spent down there than in the whole time I worked at Fame," he said.
Moving out to San Antonio, Junior hooked up with a tight outfit that caught the attention of Hank Williams Jr, who would hire them to be his road band. "When Hank first came out there, he was like this city-slicker, Nashville type," Lowe said, "I was the one who countried him up a bit, put him in boots and that rolled up cowboy hat... the first show we did with him, he threw it out to the audience, and he had to go buy another Stetson. He held on to that one!" When Williams 'fell off the mountain' in August of 1975, that was the end of that gig. Junior didn't see him again until he came to Muscle Shoals to pick up a couple of guitars he had left behind. "I didn't even recognize him," he said, "until I heard him talk." Hank's 1977 album, One Night Stands would be recorded at Wishbone, featuring a song Junior co-authored for him, Angels Get Lonesome Sometimes.
In the 1990s, Junior (along with Travis Wammack, Jim Whitehead, Wayne Cheney, Chalmers Davis and what seems like half of the rest of Muscle Shoals) would join Little Richard's back-up band, and become a part of his historic return to Rock & Roll, joining him on both his North American and European tours... a long way from Greenwood, Mississippi! That must have been something to see, man.
In 2014, producer Scott Ward began working with Billy Lawson on a project called Do Right Men: A Tribute to Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham. Released in 2016 on Zip City Records (ya gotta love it), It features legends like Donnie Fritts and Russell Smith (both of whom have, sadly, left us this past year) covering some of the duo's greatest tunes. Check out way cool Hello Memphis, which actually features our man Junior Lowe on vocals, along with Travis Wammack on harmonica! An obvious labor of love, the album is just phenomenal and, as Elmore Magazine said, "The collection also serves as a nice showcase for a number of Southern musicians who deserve wider recognition." I hear that!
Courtesy of Muscle Shoals Now, the above video chronicles Junior's return to Fame in 2017 when he was asked to re-create the immortal guitar licks he played there fifty years before for Etta James on Grace Potter's version of I'd Rather Go Blind. How very awesome is that? Released last September as part of the Small Town Big Sound project, kudos go to Rodney Hall, or whoever had the foresight to make that happen. Just a GREAT album, it somehow brings us all home again, our souls washed in the waters of The Singing River... Say Amen, Somebody!
You know I never realized just how important and influential a figure Junior Lowe is in the history of Muscle Shoals until I went deep here for this piece... I honestly had no idea. I mean, just look at the wealth of great music there is up on this page, and that's just scratching the surface. Quiet, unassuming, this man has stayed out of the spotlight for decades, while others got all the glory. At eighty years old, he remains an under-appreciated national treasure, and I am truly honored to have finally met him and shook his hand. I have my friend Billy Lawson to thank for that, and I hope he knows how much that means to me... and Junior, if you ever read this, please rest assured that your legacy will live on forever.
Thank You, my brother!- red kelly, October 2019
Special thanks also to Quinton Claunch, Scott Ward, Travis Wammack, Charlie Chalmers, Jimmy Johnson, David Hood, Clayton Ivey, Terry Woodford, Dan Penn, Spooner Oldham, David Briggs, Johnny Belew, George Lair, Rick Hall, Rodney Hall, Fame LLC, Papa Don Schroeder, Georgette Keller, Liam Lawson, Tony Rounce, Alec Palao, Dean Rudland, Jim Whitehead, Wayne Cheney, Chalmers Davis, Willie Hightower, Chuck Chellman, Dewey Vandiver, Muscle Shoals Now, Sir Shambling, Ace Records, American Radio History and 45cat, without whom this piece would not have been possible.
Billy Lawson grew up just outside of Muscle Shoals next door to Junior Lowe and, like Junior, he had a guitar in his hand by the time he was six years old. Lowe became sort of his mentor (and guitar hero), and would allow him to sit-in with his band at local State Line clubs before he was out of grade school.
His Zip City neighborhood was also home to Earl 'Peanutt' Montgomery, the man whose career as a songwriter included a slew of top ten Country hits he penned for his main man George Jones... Billy was paying attention. The Music was in him, and he knew he had no choice but to follow where it might lead. While still in his teens, Billy and his band began working that same State Line dance hall circuit Junior had.
In his early twenties he got himself a job at Terry Woodford and Clayton Ivey's Wishbone Studios in Muscle Shoals, learning about songwriting from some of the best in the business. Billy and his band were still playing most nights out on the strip, which got them noticed by casting director Tonya Holly, who would hire them to appear in the Oscar winning film Blue Sky in 1994. Setting his sights on Nashville with stars in his eyes, it looked like he might have a shot at making it as a performer when he was signed by Epic Records... but Billy soon realized that wasn't going to happen.
His unique way with words caught the attention of Tree Publishing executive Don Cook, who signed Billy on as a staff songwriter in 1995. By the Summer of '96 Learning As You Go, a song Lawson co-wrote with Larry Boone, would top the Country charts for Rick Trevino. Within a few months, Trace Adkins would take another Lawson composition (this time written with John Schweers), I Left Something Turned On At Home, straight to number one. In just a few short years, Billy Ray Lawson had become an in-demand Music City songwriter, placing dozens of other songs on the charts. As the nature of the music business began to change in Nashville after the turn of the century, however, it would become ever more difficult to make a living as a songwriter in the digital age.
Billy Ray decided to stay closer to home...
The Shoals was his stomping grounds, and Lawson began hanging out with the man who had put the town on the map, Rick Hall. Over lunches at their favorite Italian restaurant, Billy just soaked it all in. He knew what he was called upon to do.
Opening his own Big Star Studio, Billy began producing a few records. After that, it seemed like things all began to fall into place. Wishbone Studio, which had been empty for years, became available and Lawson figured out a way to buy it. When Larry Rogers' Studio 19 was marked for demolition on Nashville's Music Row in 2015, Billy worked out a deal with Larry to install the studio's Trident 90 console at Wishbone. One of the first records cut there was Willie Hightower's great come-back album, Out Of The Blue. With the legendary Quinton Claunch on board as his executive producer, the album features some of the best songs Billy has ever written, like this one:
The first time we met Billy was when Reggie and Jenny Young brought us to Claunch Cafe in Tuscumbia so we could check out Johnny Belew's amazing cornbread salad. Billy invited us to visit Wishbone the next day, where he was in the process of cutting another come-back album of sorts, Darryl Worley's Second Wind: Latest & Greatest, with he and Darryl producing. The first single pulled from the album, co-written with the great Ed Hill, has become a breakthrough digital hit:
Billy Lawson and his band (now called 'Wishbone') are back out there performing locally in The Shoals area, to rave reviews. Performer, songwriter, producer, studio owner - it might seem like he had this whole music thing sewn up - but there was one thing missing... his own record label.
A loving tribute to Rick Hall and all things Muscle Shoals, that's Junior Lowe and Travis Wammack on guitar there, folks and Clayton Ivey and Jim Whitehead on the keys, same as it ever was...
Billy Lawson's got it going on!- red kelly, October 2019 _______________________________________
I know we talk a lot around here about places like Memphis and Muscle Shoals, New Orleans, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia and Nashville, but somehow it seems I haven't paid enough attention to my own hometown. As the site of the premier Black entertainment venue in the world, New York truly had it going on throughout 'The Soul Era'.
The Big Town knew few rivals as a recording center in those days as, in addition to Bobby Robinson's Harlem empire, it was home to 'major independents' like Atlantic, Scepter, Big Top, Roulette, Sue, Jubilee and Bell, (to name a few), all of which cut at various 'hole in the wall' studios in and around Manhattan.
Home to such luminaries as James Brown, Don Covay, Gary U.S. Bonds, Roy C and Freddie Scott, Long Island enjoyed a thriving Soul scene all its own, with night clubs and lounges that featured live music springing up wherever there was a sizable Black community.
Calling themselves 'The Showcase of Talent', the Celebrity Club on Sunrise Highway in Freeport was one of the most celebrated of those clubs, and when they brought in Leo Price to put together their 'house band' in the early sixties, he decided to stick around. As he told Seamus McGarvey in Now Dig This, "I stayed up there... playing around those clubs, and backing up groups. In those days [most] recording artists didn't have their own bands, and the Jimmy Evans Booking Agency - I was his band - he had the acts... we played behind."
It was his connection with Evans that made Leo a favorite with Long Island club owners, as he was able to bring in national level acts like Wilson Pickett and The Shirelles to keep the cash registers ringing. Price soon had more work than he could handle, and helped install a young singer named Henry Henderson as the leader of the house band at another popular club named Mister C's in Roosevelt.
Henderson had grown up in Jackson, Mississippi, and by the time he was a teenager he was fronting his own group that was represented by Tommy Couch's Malaco Attractions. After cutting a few sides for them that were never released, Henry took off for the bright lights, and wound up here on Long island in 1964.
This was right around the time that Little Buster's phenomenal Lookin' For A Home was garnering some airplay on local radio. Henry met Buster shortly after that when he was performing at Brownie's Lounge in Lakeview and the two transplanted Southerners hit it off, following each other around the Long Island club circuit from The Freeport Yacht Club and The Steer Inn to Club 91 and The Bluebird Cafe way out in the sticks.
In a scenario truly remiscent of Animal House, in the late sixties notorious bar owner Robert Matherson hired Little Buster to play for his all-white clientele every Sunday at The Oak Beach Inn. When Buster wasn't available, Henry took his place and, between the two of them, they introduced an entire generation of essentially clueless caucasians to the Real Soul music that was happening all around them.
As the sixties gave way to the seventies, The Highway Inn in Uniondale eclipsed the Celebrity Club as ground zero for Long Island Soul, with Leo Price's band once again providing the back-up. When Leo decided to move on, he called on Henry to take his place as leader of the house band, backing up everyone from Big Mama Thornton to The Ohio Players.
In the early seventies, Henry got together with producer Clyde Wilson and cut a single for a Long Island label named Interstate 95. As Henry recalls it, the studio was located in the Chrysler Building in Manhattan, and they were all set to release the 45 when the label owner, Daniel Yudow, died suddenly, and that was the end of that. Sir Shambling calls the L.L. Milton release that Clyde Wilson produced for the label "a real throwback to the 60s," and that's just what Long Island Soul has remained all these years.
As disco began to take hold in the mid-seventies, Henderson had the good sense to lay low for a while, and returned home to Jackson for a few years. By the early eighties he was back on Long Island, starting up a new band, 'The Honey Holders' that would help him carry on in that soulful tradition...
As you may know, I was a huge fan of Little Buster and, as I've said before, I'd seen him perform "more times than anyone else, ever." When Buster passed on in May 0f 2006, I was devastated. It was at a tribute to Buster held that June that I first met Henry Henderson. Once I heard him sing, I knew he was the real deal. We would become good friends, and his stories about the scene in those days have never failed to fascinate and enlighten me.
When Sir Lattimore Brown was diagnosed with cancer in 2010, we flew him up here to New York for treatment, and began arranging what we thought might be his final performance. I asked Henry if he would be willing to get The Honey Holders back together to back him up, and he jumped at the chance.
Once the two Mississippi natives got together, they were thick as thieves, and I knew that Real Soul was in the house. As anybody who was there that night can tell you, it was a performance we won't soon forget. After Lattimore tragically passed in 2011, both Henry and I decided to keep his memory alive by bringing back his Honey Holders every year to what has come to be known as the CLUB 91 SIR LATTIMORE BROWN MEMORIAL NOFO SOUL BASH.
Although the personnel may vary from year to year, Henry has never failed to deliver the genuine article. Featuring veterans like Saxy Ric, guitarist Sam MacArthur (who was a member of Leo Price's Celebrity Club band), bass player Fred Thomas (of The JB's), sax man Bobby Gaither (who played on Joe Haywood's Warm and Tender Love), drummer Joe Mannino, bass player Douglas Jackson, and many more, The Honey Holders were the place where Long Island Soul lives!
And now it is my sad duty to inform all of you of the passing of Long Island Soul legend Henry Henderson. According to his good friend Mary Forehand "He passed on January 18th... he was having chest pains and drove himself to the Hospital. He was found sitting in his car the next day." Just So Sad...
May He Rest In Peace.- red kelly, February 2019 _______________________________________