It’s been way too long since we talked about the stories behind songs in our repertoire! So, to make up for lost time we’re going to explore a number of songs all at once. There is one theme that ties the following songs together: they come from iconic recording studios. Each one represents a studio that is meaningful to us musically. And, perhaps more importantly, each studio represented is also seriously important to the broader arc of popular music in general. We also want to note that we’ve had the good fortune of visiting most of these studios in person…it’s a gas and extremely informative, we highly recommend it!
Money (That’s What I Want)
Let’s start close to home, with an early Motown tune. The original Motown recording studio has modest roots in a house in a residential neighborhood of Detroit. Owner and founder Berry Gordy even lived upstairs for a while. Dubbed ‘Hitsville‘ early on, the space eventually grew to include a whole row of houses and is now the Motown Museum. Touring it is a treat…I mean, you get to see the snake pit where the Funk Brothers created the groove for so many songs (there’s even a documentary about them you may want to check out)!
The first hit for the fledgling record label was “Money (That’s What I Want)“. It was penned by Berry Gordy himself in 1959 and released as a single featuring Barrett Strong. The Beatles recorded it in 1963 and many listeners may be more familiar with that version.
Our version, recorded at a local watering hole by a fan, follows the syncopation of the original, with that familiar bass riff and drum driving the sound. There’s also a kind of call and response feel to the vocals like the Beatles. Matt likes to point out that these two attributes gives him a chance to share one vocal mic, like John, while playing the bass like Paul.
Heading west from Detroit brings us to Chicago, home of Chess Records. A long who’s who list of blues artists recorded there, with Willie Dixon often filling the role of writer/arranger/producer. The Rolling Stones even honored the place in song on “2120 South Michigan Avenue“. The studio is now a museum maintained by the Blues Heaven Foundation. There is a long, well-worn stairwell that takes you up to the studio. Our guide said be sure to use the handrail because it’s the same one that was grabbed by Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, The Stones and others…brushing fingertips with the greats!
The Willie Dixon penned “My Babe” was a big hit for harmonica virtuoso Little Walter in 1955. It is an upbeat blues tune that has become a classic. Inspired by that, our version sticks pretty close to the original arrangement. It features Mary on harmonica, the most recent addition to her list of instruments, and is backed up by a unique ascending bass line.
That’s Alright, Mama
Following the Mississippi south takes us to Memphis, home of a couple extraordinary studios. The first is Sun Records, where owner Sam Phillips worked with a stunning array of artists. One was a young Elvis Presley. In 1954, Elvis and his band were reportedly messing around with tunes when they started playing ‘That’s Alright, Mama’ a bit faster than the 1946 original by Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup. Sam Phillips had the good sense to record the session and it became Elvis’s first release.
Besides being a bit slower, Crudup’s version seems to have a sound that is reminiscent of older blues tunes. In the blues tradition it also contains lyrics borrowed from some of those older tunes, but at the same time it definitely has newer attributes that could be considered early rock ‘n roll. However, his original was released to less fanfare than Elvis’s later version, helping spark the larger ongoing discussion regarding race and the roots of rock ‘n roll.
Our version more resembles Elvis’s Sun Studio version. The studio is now a museum, and if you take the tour you can stand in front of the same mic in the same room where Elvis sang, which is kinda cool. Matt sings this one like he’s at that mic, and Mary lays down a steady backbeat underneath a rockabilly guitar riff. Definitely a blast to play!
Hold On, I’m Coming
Stax Studio is also in Memphis. It was founded by siblings Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton, both in the banking business by day but music lovers by night. Their first hit was ‘Cause I Love You, a 1960 duet by Rufus Thomas and his daughter Carla. The recording caught the ear of mega-producer Jerry Wexler from Atlantic Records, and the resulting distribution deal gave Stax music national recognition…and then the hits started rolling out! Soon artists such as Otis Redding and Booker T and the MG’s were household names.
Stax helped originate and sustain R&B and soul, which have roots in both gospel and the blues. And like Motown and Muscle Shoals, Stax also had a house band that lent a signature sound to the label’s music. And like Chess, there were in-house songwriters crafting hits. For Stax, there was the team of David Porter and Isaac Hayes (of Shaft music fame…can ya dig it?). The origin story of the song Hold On, I’m Coming starts with a bathroom visit. Yes, a bathroom visit. The story says Hayes was eager to get writing and called out to Porter, who was in the can at the time. They both thought his reply of “hold on, I’m coming” sounded like a good title for a song. They were right, and it became a huge hit for the fledgling duo of Sam and Dave. Is this all true? Well, the story is part of the tour!
Our version tries to recreate the classic horn lines on bass and guitar, while Mary holds a steady beat with a variety of tambourine rhythms. Perhaps it’s a tall order to capture classic soul music with just 10 strings and a tambourine, but it’s definitely a gas trying!
Heading a bit south and further east brings us to Muscle Shoals, AL. Like Memphis, it is also a river town and sits on the banks of the Tennessee. Muscle Shoals is small, a mere fraction the size of the other cities listed. Nonetheless, it has created some big sounds and is home to two very influential studios: Fame Studios and Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. Their stories are intertwined, involves a bit of drama, a long list of famous musicians, and a legacy of southern music ranging from R&B to country to pop to rock. It’s not a short story, and was actually the topic of an award winning documentary, but here’s the condensed version.
Rick Hall founded Fame in the late 50’s, but it wasn’t till the early to mid 60’s that he produced some R&B hits. By the late 60’s he had recorded stars such as Wilson Pickett, Etta James, and even Aretha Franklin! During this time he hired a revolving door of session musicians as the house band, and they eventually became known as The Swampers (mentioned, of course, in the song Sweet Home Alabama). By 1969 the house band and Hall were not on good terms, so the Swampers left and opened Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. The list of artists who recorded there in the early 70’s includes mega-stars like the Rolling Stones, Paul Simon and Lynyrd Skynyrd! There’s lots more to tell about the studios and music from this small town, but we’ll leave it at that.
One song we chose to cover is ‘Slip Away’, by Clarence Carter, recorded in 1968. To us, the song represents many aspects of the Muscle Shoals sound: it was recorded at Fame Studios, but features most of the Swampers that went on to open their own studio the following year. It also includes a young Duane Allman on slide guitar in one of his first session jobs! Before forming the Allman Brothers, Duane was enamored with what was going on in Muscle Shoals and camped out there. It didn’t take long for his musical prowess to become apparent and he was hired. Perhaps as a nod to that history, the Allman Brothers also do a great version of Slip Away. We have taken some liberties with the song’s lyrics, but tried to stay true to both the Carter and Allman versions by incorporating the recognizable guitar riffs and the funky bass line. Big chops to fill, we know, but certainly fun to try!
Cripple Creek Ferry
Sound City Studio is unlike the other studios listed above because it is way out in LA California, rather than somewhere close to the Mississippi River valley. It also arrived a little later on the scene than the others, not producing music until 1970. However, it did have one thing the other studios had: a sound musicians loved…artists such as Neil Young, Tom Petty, Fleetwood Mac! A lot of folks attributed the studio’s sound to its unique sound board. It was a cutting edge analog device and with it the studio survived into the digital age, but unfortunately ended up shutting down eventually. However, the board was rescued from obscurity by Dave Grohl and became a centerpiece of his 2013 documentary about the studio.
One of the first albums recorded at Sound City was Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush”. The last song on the album is Cripple Creek Ferry, a song that evokes images of a bygone era. Since the bygone era is right up our alley, we decided to cover the tune. And though not in Neil’s version, we thought banjo was a good fit, so we include it along with guitar and bass. And since the banjo is out anyway, we sneak a snippet of the old-timey tune Cripple Creek into the mix, just for fun.
In fact, all the songs listed above are fun! Hope we cross paths with you sometime when we’re playing them!