The FAME Gang – Grits and Gravy
Muscle soul from the house band at Fame Studios, featuring their collectable singles and many hot unreleased grooves. Funky and then some.
The studio players of 60s soul are now celebrated names to the student of pop and R&B. Motown had the Funk Brothers; on the West Coast these were the Wrecking Crew years. In Memphis, the Stax and American teams are perhaps the most familiar. But among the most powerful, and perhaps undersung, of these backroom heroes are the doyens of 603 East Avalon Avenue in Muscle Shoals, Alabama: the unit known as the Fame Gang. It says something about the degree of respect producer-engineer Rick Hall earned over the course of the 1960s that he was able to draw not one, not two, but three separate and unique sets of musicians to become his instrumental workforce at Fame.
The group best known as the Fame Gang – the 1969-era band that principally recorded under that name – were the set of players under Rick Hall’s employ that were actually together the shortest time. The earlier groupings had done his bidding in exemplary fashion for almost eight years, but his didactic ways saw them both quit. With the Fame Gang Mk3, Hall accumulated probably the most accommodating set of musicians he could have hoped for. Not only did he now have a permanent brass section, but they were Nashville-trained, jazz-schooled and, significantly, three-quarters black. Drummer Freeman Brown had the fatback beat down; in-the-pocket bassist Jesse Boyce could equally deliver precision counterpoint. Clayton Ivey brought a seasoned yet open-minded approach to the keyboards; Junior Lowe kept it soulful on guitar. Last but not least, there was producer Mickey Buckins, sprinkling ear candy on the results of the combo’s inspired instrumental improvisations, mostly started during warm-ups or at the tail-ends of sessions when the featured vocalist had split.
These jams frequently punch all the right buttons: JBs-style horn charts or Meters-like syncopation, delivered with the catchiness of the MGs and the fluidity of the American Studios crew or the Dixie Flyers. But given how much funkier they were than their forerunners, Hall preferred to utilise their talents on white pop acts. The grooves on a pair of Fame singles, ‘Grits And Gravy’ and ‘Turn My Chicken Loose’, are red hot, but an album of tepid covers issued at the time belied the simpatico this special unit had. The fantastic outtakes left in the can, as heard for the first time on this carefully curated collection, gives us the opportunity to revel in the true sound of the Fame Gang.