Oct 25, 2018

(Polydor Records PD-1-6060 2391 223, 1976)

The story of the Atlanta Rhythm Section began in Doraville, Georgia, a small town northeast of Atlanta, in 1970. Local Atlanta engineer Rodney Mills built a new studio in Doraville with the support of music publisher Bill Lowery, producer/songwriter/manager Buddy Buie, and songwriter/guitarist J.R. Cobb. The studio was dubbed Studio One and would become one of the preeminent studios in the Atlanta area. Over the years, artists who recorded there included Al Kooper, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Joe South, Bonnie Bramlett, Dickey Betts, B.J. Thomas and Billy Joe Royal. The Atlanta Rhythm Section originally came together as the house band at Studio One. Buie and Cobb had been part of the group the Classics IV - remembered for hits including "Spooky," "Stormy" and "Traces." Buie recruited three musicians he had worked with previously in the Candymen, a group that backed Roy Orbison-singer Rodney Justo, keyboardist Dean Daughtry and drummer Robert Nix. Two talented local session players also joined in-guitarist Barry Bailey and bassist Paul Goddard. These musicians played on a number of other artist's records and the decision was made to make an album on their own. Buie wanted the best players doing his songs as a guitar based band, and he wrote, produced and managed ARS from the start. Buie, Daughtry and Nix did a lot of the songwriting together. The Rhythm Section would play on other's albums 3-4 days a week and then work on their own material. They recorded a demo featuring instrumentals and over a couple of years pulled together material for an album. The demo got them a two record deal with MCA/Decca, and so ARS officially began.

The ten songs that make up Atlanta Rhythm Section's self-titled debut album were recorded at Studio One in Doraville in November 1971. Producer/songwriter Buddy Buie wrote nine of the songs in partnership with others in the band. While the sound of the album may have become a little dated over time, what still comes through today are two traits that ARS was starting to refine and would prove to be their strong points over the years-great songwriting and excellent musicianship. The album was released in 1972 and generated some critical interest for the quality of the songs and musicianship. But there was also some questioning of the idea of a rock band made up of a group of studio musicians who hadn't paid their dues on the road. The album didn't produce any hit songs, so the group continued to play on other artist's records at Studio One. It was during the recording of the first album that Ronnie Hammond came to Studio One as an assistant engineer for Rodney Mills. He was skilled on multiple instruments and most importantly had a great singing voice. When singer Rodney Justo decided to leave the group to pursue a solo career, Hammond became the new lead singer. This group of musicians would go on to make the next six ARS albums together. In 1972, the group tried to broaden their approach as they worked on their second album for MCA/Decca.

The group went to work on "Back Up Against The Wall", their second album for MCA/Decca. They kept working hard, spending a lot of time in the studio. For a time, Hammond and Daughtry lived upstairs above Studio One. It was here that ARS first crossed paths with Lynyrd Skynyrd, who rolled in one night raising a ruckus. Producer Al Kooper worked at Studio One during the day, and then ARS would come in and work at night. The second album was released in 1973. With a number of quality songs, the album got the group more notice but did not produce a breakthrough single. At this time, the group got out of the studio to do their first live shows and went on tour to support the album and to expand upon their studio skills in concert. The 11 songs on "Back Up Against The Wall" offer a mix of up-tempo tunes and ballads-an approach that would become a cornerstone of the group's future success. The pace overall is slower and more restrained than where the group would go with future albums. But it is a beautiful timepiece of a group of talented musicians playing quality songs and working together to establish their collective sound. There's a mix of tempos, both between songs and within individual tunes, which the band would refine on future records. After this album, the band decided to leave MCA/Decca for Polydor. They also started to establish a reputation in the Atlanta area for doing great live shows by the time they went back into Studio One to work on their next album.

"Third Annual Pipe Dream", ARS's third album, presented a more accessible ARS-a punched up but smoother sound, a variety of types of songs and a unique sound that could have both pop and rock appeal. It climbed to number 74 on the U.S. charts and gave the group their first regional hit, Doraville, which reached the top 40. Angel was also released as a single and reached number 75 as another regional hit-but overall the quality collection of songs didn't generate the level of recognition it deserved. The 10 songs on "Third Annual Pipe Dream," including 8 written by Buddy Buie in conjunction with other band members, show ARS to have become both tighter in their playing and more polished in their song presentation. The band's pop oriented songwriting and diverse musical stylings and characteristics that would distinguish them from other Southern Rock bands-are displayed to great effect and show a band coming into their own. ARS's unique brand of music was developing a regional following, but they had yet to reach a national audience. They continued to play live shows, working to solidify their identity and carve out their niche. At the time, the Allman Brothers had fallen on hard times and Lynyrd Skynyrd was leading the charge of guitar based Southern Rock. While ARS shared some musical approaches with these contemporaries, their background as musicians-not performers-and more pop oriented songwriting put them in a unique position along with but not truly a part of the Southern Rock scene.

They rocked, but they also dabbled with country and blues-all with more of a pop feel than some of their contemporaries. Their songwriting continued to improve. Their musicianship was tighter than ever. ARS tried to be true to themselves and fit into the musical landscape, a challenge they described in the song Boogie Smoogie: "We like reggae, we dig country, classical music's a gas, we play the blues in three quarter time but they don't want to hear that jazz-they want to boogie.". ARS returned to Studio One in 1974 to work on their next album. They built on the polished production of the previous album while working out a set of songs that were tighter and better than what they'd done before. As always, new songs were written on acoustic guitar or piano, and brought into the studio before being done in concert. In the studio, the band would approach their own material just like it was someone else's-taking chord charts and doing multiple takes to try different approaches. It was a style that stressed discipline over spontaneity, and over 4-5 years helped ARS to develop their unique sound, which was now coming together. "Dog Days" was ARS's fourth album and their first true masterpiece - an album that still stands as one of their best. It showcases a band that has found its groove and is taking its music to a new level. Featuring another fine collection of songs about themselves and the South, the band displays a growing array of musical styles and approaches that are very different from where the rest of Southern Rock was headed. Overall, it's a faster paced album that what had come before, featuring six up-tempo songs and two beautiful ballads-all originals. Despite the great material, there were no breakout singles or large increases in national attention. The band continued touring to refined their live sound, and fairly quickly went back into the studio to record their next album-one that would capture their evolution in a new way.

Another early classic that is among their best work, "Red Tape" is quite different from the previous album or anything that had come before. As the band had played more live shows, they had developed an ensemble sound, and there was an effort to capture that sound on record. The result was like an ARS gig from the mid-70's-with a strong emphasis on their appreciation for the blues. The band had previously been combining pop and rock stylings. For this album they went with predominantly shorter, pop length songs-with one notable exception. The performances featured a harder rock approach than they had recorded before, with a sharp edged guitar sound prominently featured. "Red Tape" was released in April 1976. The first single from the album, "Jukin", was a regional hit and was followed by a second single, "Free Spirit". While these songs got airplay in the South, the album didn't produce the sales Polydor was looking. They continued to expand their live performances, including a memorable show in the spring of 1976 with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in Atlanta's Chastain Park. ARS faced increasing pressure for sales and chart success, and this came to a head in 1976. They had been taking 3 months to record each album, but now got an ultimatum from their record company-deliver the next album in 45 days or else. While road weary from touring non-stop for most of the year, they went back to Studio One and wrote, recorded, and produced the next album in 30 days. Whether it was the deadline pressure or the natural evolution of the group, they created a rock and roll alternative that would carry them to new heights.

The band attained a new level of critical acclaim and popular appeal with this album released in December 1976. It is another eight song set, including seven originals and a cover of a blues classic previously recorded by the Yardbirds. While a few songs feature shorter arrangements similar to the last album, most of the songs go back to the longer format of previous albums. And while several of the songs rock hard, overall the production returns to the smoother, pop feel the band had used to record in the past. This is another great record-one that seems to be a culmination of all that ARS had done up to this time. The twin signatures of the ARS sound - Ronnie Hammond's voice and Barry Bailey's guitar - have never sounded better, but the record's great strength is the breadth and scope of the songs themselves. With "A Rock And Roll Alternative", ARS needed a hit record to keep going-and they got it. The first single, "Neon Nites", got close to the top 40. It was the next single, "So Into You", that proved to be the breakthrough. It rose to number seven on the charts and was a staple of rock radio during the summer of 1977. The album made it to the top 10 on the charts and went gold. Popularity carried them out of the clubs and into stadiums. On Sept. 4, 1977 ARS played their biggest show yet, the Dog Day Rockfest at Atlanta's Grant Field on the campus of Georgia Tech University. Heart and Foreigner were the opening acts and Bob Seger co-headlined. For a period of several years, ARS was on the road for over 250 shows a year. When they came off the road, they were right back in the studio working 5 days a week. For the first time, the band had popular success to build on-but this also meant increased expectations to top themselves. They worked to produce a focused, concept album that would show they were up to the challenge-and had their greatest commercial success.

"Champagne Jam", released in 1978, was the breakthrough album that marked the zenith of music-making, critical support and popular acclaim for ARS. Eight great songs-all originals-are showcased with the top notch, smooth pop production the group had been refining for years. The songwriting and musicianship maintain the superior standards the band had established through its previous albums. The songs continue the pattern of blending beautiful melodies with shifting tempos, with each of the songs clocking in at a moderate three to five minutes. The album proved to be very popular, hitting the top 10 and going gold and then platinum. The song "Champagne Jam" was released as a single, and the single of "I'm Not Gonna Let it Bother Me" made it to the top 20. But it was "Imaginary Lover" that proved to be the band's biggest hit-reaching number seven on the charts. The story has been told of a New York DJ who accidentally played the 45 of "Imaginary Lover" at 78 rpm and was inundated with calls asking about the new Fleetwood Mac song. Whatever, it worked. The album hit the top 10 and went platinum. But the musical climate was changing as new wave took over and what was labeled Southern Rock became less popular. The group continued to hit the road, now performing to much bigger audiences who knew their hits. In August of 1978 ARS hosted another big festival at Grant Field in Atlanta - the Champagne Jam - a celebration of the local boys who had made it big. It was also around this time that ARS played one of their more prestigious venues-the White House. They had become acquainted with Jimmy Carter in his days as Governor of Georgia, and as President he invited them to come play for his son's birthday on the South Lawn in Washington. "My friends," Carter described ARS as he introduced them, "Not only are we both from the same part of the country, but I remember when they first started that all the critics and commentators said they didn't have a chance-and they said the same thing about me." This performance was noted in Time magazine among other places. The studio session men from Doraville had come a long way. The distance traveled also had a down side, as the non-stop pressure of the road and the studio started to get to everyone in different ways. It was around this time that original drummer and songwriter Robert Nix left the band and was replaced by Roy Yeager, who joined them in the studio for work on their next album.

Released in 1979, "Underdog" was another excellent album that continued ARS' popular success and documents the band continuing to make quality music-even though the critical and popular tide that had swelled through the late 1970s had reached its peak. The album features eight original songs, one of them incorporating a well known Ashford & Simpson song. The tone of this collection is softer, as only a couple of songs truly rock out, but the songwriting and musicianship continues at the superior levels the group had established previously. While two songs would break out as singles, overall it's another superior set of tunes. "Do It or Die" and "Spooky" were both released as singles and hit the top 20. The album went gold. With the group's popularity still high, the decision was made to put out a double live album that showcased the bands' musical prowess in concert. Both a tribute to ARS's popular success and a testimony to their musical abilities, the live album "Are You Ready!" was released in 1979. The cover images show how far the group had come-from the house band at a small studio outside Atlanta to playing to stadiums full of people. The album also documents the power that ARS could bring to a live performance. While their musical talents had been well documented with their studio recordings, their ability to give songs a different but equally enjoyable arrangement in concert comes through clearly. Overall, this is another classic work-a compilation of many great songs from their albums up through "Champagne Jam" played with great energy and skill. The live album was the last for the Polydor label. Following up to the successful festival show of the previous year, ARS hosted the Champagne Jam II in August 1979 in Atlanta. The band moved to the CBS label as they went back into the studio to record again.

"The Boys From Doraville", released in 1980, didn't reach the number of listeners the last few albums had - the music scene was shifting and what had been labeled Southern Rock wasn't getting the attention it had previously. It was too bad the audience didn't stick around, because they missed out on another fine collection of songs. The group continued the softer, pop approach of Underdog while injecting a swinging country/western feel into these nine original songs. The majority are uptempo, with a couple classic slower selections-and they are all generally shorter, with only two over five minutes. "The Boys From Doraville" didn't reach the audience that previous albums had-while it was a solid set there were no breakout singles. While the band's sound continued to evolve on its own path, the music business had gone down other roads marked disco and new wave. ARS continued to do their own thing as the Southern Rock scene faded. When they went to record their next album there was again pressure to come up with a success. While the next album also didn't match previous sales, musically it stood along with any of their top albums. "Quinella", ARS' next recording, was one of their best. Some of the audience that helped the group achieve the height of their popularity had moved on, and they missed out - the group was continuing to make great music. Released in 1981, this album starts out rocking harder than the last couple had and then transitions into the great pop, with an occasional country and western influence, that the group had been refining over the last couple albums. It's another classic. The song "Alien" was a top 30 single in the U.S. The band continued to play live. In fact, a show recorded in New York City in Oct. 1981 and featuring three songs from "Quinella" would eventually be released on CD in 2000. The group continues to make concert appearances showcasing their hit songs and their still outstanding musical abilities.

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