Atlanta Rhythm Section: Back to the Classics

BOSTON — THREE months ago the Atlanta Rhythm Section had reached the nadir of their career. After making five good albums that sold only sporadically and touring with frustrating results for as many years, they were ready to pack it in.

“If this new record doesn’t put us over the top, I’m gonna go home and forget about the whole thing,” vowed songwriter/guitarist J.R. Cobb upon the release of their sixth album, A Rock and Roll Alternative. “You know how all the rest of them went — a little noise and then they just died. I’m not gonna go through that again.”

As it turns out, he didn’t have to. Alternative did make a little noise after it was released, but instead of quietly disappearing, the record skyrocketed into the Top 20 and became the group’s first certified gold record. “I should’ve said I was gonna quit a lot sooner,” Cobb joked when he heard the good news. “I could have saved myself a lot of trouble.”

The album’s success is largely due to the impact of its Top Ten single, ‘So In to You’. Though they’ve had regional hits before, the Atlanta Rhythm Section hasn’t had as good a single since they were the Classics IV.

Even the sound of ‘So In to You’ is more like Classics IV’s than anything the ARS had previously recorded: “I noticed when I was playing the song in the studio that the chord patterns are almost exactly the same as ‘Stormy’,” Cobb says. “It wasn’t a conscious thing, but it did come out that way.”

Cobb, relaxing with a cold beer in the tiny dressing room of Boston’s Orpheum Theatre, remembers that the Classics IV went a route similar to that of ARS before songs like ‘Spooky’ and ‘Stormy’ hit. “We had recorded a bunch of tracks and never heard anything else about them,” he laughs. “By the time ‘Spooky’ finally became a hit the group had already been broken up almost six months. We had to go out and find new guys to play in the band.”

Cobb and producer Buddy Buie were the mainstays of the Classics IV, and when that band dissolved, they decided to form their own production company with some other Atlanta-based session musicians they’d worked with. Drummer Robert Nix and keyboardist Dean Daughtry had left their group, the Candymen, and were ready to join Buie’s project. Two hotshot young players from Atlanta’s top underground rock band, Joint Effort — lead guitarist Barry Bailey and bassist Paul Goddard completed the instrumentation.

After some bread-and-butter TV commercial sessions, ARS released their first LP, featuring lead singer Rodney Justo. Ronnie Hammond soon replaced him, and the lineup has been set ever since. The early records were notable for some good songwriting in a style uncharacteristic of most Southern bands who followed in the wake of the Allman Brothers. But Buie’s attempts to achieve a perfect sound often held the group back in the studio. Only Red Tape, their next-to-last album, began to capture the fluidity and drive of their live sound, particularly Bailey’s and Goddard’s exceptional playing.

Buie used to keep them in the studio virtually all the time, taking as long as six months to make a record, but the band’s grueling tour schedule over the past two years forced them to record Alternative more quickly.

The history of ‘Outside Woman Blues’ on Alternative is revealing. It used to be a staple of their club sets when the band started playing live. Their version resembles Cream’s Disraeli Gears version, suggesting that the band’s roots are as much in British rock as in traditional Southern rhythm & blues. The harmony lead on the main riff is very effective, and Cobb and Bailey trade off two blistering solos. Bailey’s mercurial solo on the opening track, ‘Sky High’, breaks to a lyrical piano/guitar coda reminiscent of Procol Harum’s ‘A Salty Dog’. Cobb and Bailey blend their guitar sound on the rest of the album to a beautifully layered effect.

But art hasn’t, until now, filled the Atlanta Rhythm Section’s coffers. “This is the first time we’ve sold enough albums to make a profit on any of our records,” Paul Goddard beams. “Up until now we’ve always been in debt to the record company, wondering when our cars were gonna be repossessed.”

© John SwensonRolling Stone, 2 June 1977

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