musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

Posts tagged ‘southern rock’

Wet Willie

Wet Willie was a popular 1970s southern band, best known for their hit single “Keep on Smilin’,” a great feel-good slice of sunshine soul if there ever was one. They released several solid studio albums during their career, but they were definitely not a Top 40 “hits” act, nor were they a typical southern rock band.

 

Rather than adopting the country-based twin-guitar assault of Southern Rock groups like Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Outlaws or Molly Hatchet, Wet Willie worked their musical magic within a more funky and soulful framework. Their musical roots were firmly imbedded in blues and southern soul, as evidenced by inspired original material and steaming covers of songs like Little Milton’s “Grits Ain’t Groceries,” Otis Redding’s “Shout Bamalama,” and Jimmy Reed’s “Shame, Shame, Shame.”

 

Lead singer Jimmy Hall had great stage presence and could belt a tune with the best of them. He also played a mean harmonica and saxophone. I could never understand why he and the band never achieved greater fame. Once again, I think being pigeonholed as a “southern rock” act thwarted their progress. Certainly, you can’t fault the quality of their excellent albums or their live performances. I was lucky enough to see Wet Willie play a couple of club concerts back in the late 1970s. Their sweaty and energetic performances were mightily impressive.

 

Not surprisingly, their best recordings can be found on two live albums, Left Coast Live and Drippin’ Wet. Left Coast Live, released in 1977, was long a favorite of mine, but when the CD version finally came out in 1999, it sported an additional five tracks, which added over thirty extra minutes, making it even more of a gem; definitely one of the best live albums ever. And Drippin’ Wet was pretty damn good too; another single disc packed with butt-shaking songs. Although I love those live Wet Willie albums, yet more great music can be found on studio albums such as Dixie Rock, The Wetter the Better, and Wet Willie II. Get these while you can. Some titles are already out of print and going for outrageous prices online.

 

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Atlanta Rhythm Section

 

In the much neglected genre often dubbed “Southern Rock,” there were many fine bands that came to prominence in the 1970s. Some had a definite country edge or exuded a bit of soul, while others were folk influenced or had definite blues roots. Just because they came from the South didn’t mean these bands were all tobacco-spitting cowboys or hayseed rednecks. Thus, the term “southern rock” was not always a desirable label to be stuck with, and it certainly unfairly pigeonholed many an artist.

Artists such as the Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Poco enjoyed their fair share of commercial success and critical acclaim, but many other good bands like the Marshall Tucker Band, the Outlaws, Blackfoot, Henry Paul Band, and Heartsfield never experienced much more than regional popularity despite consistently producing memorable music.

A few other excellent bands from the South were lucky enough to have hit singles: “Keep on Smiling” by Wet Willie, “Jackie Blue” by the Ozark Mountain Daredevils, “Amie” by Pure Prairie League, “Third Rate Romance” by the Amazing Rhythm Aces, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” by the Charlie Daniels Band, and “Fooled Around and Fell in Love” by the Elvin Bishop Band, but these songs were not necessarily representative of the band’s overall sound. And having a bit hit, as many have noted, can be both a blessing and a curse. Such sudden fame only ended up burdening the band with expectations of producing bigger hits, caused their old fans to accuse them of “selling out,” or saddled them with the dreaded tag of “one-hit wonder” when they never charted again. Sometimes you just can’t win.

One of the more underrated Southern bands was the Atlanta Rhythm Section. Although they also enjoyed moderate success with hit singles such as “Doraville,” “So Into You,” “Imaginary Lover,” and “Spooky,” they never really gained the critical acclaim that they deserved, or were dismissed as “lightweight” by critics. But for the better part of a decade ARS had a run of consistently excellent albums: Third Annual Pipe Dream, Dog Days, Red Tape, Champagne Jam, and Rock and Roll Alternative. I own all those albums on CD and when I saw that the band’s first two albums —- Atlanta Rhythm Section and Back Up Against the Wall — had finally been re-released as a single disc, I eagerly ordered a copy.

Like many Southern acts, ARS were tough to categorize. Their musical palette consisted of southern boogie, more jazz influenced numbers (a cover of Grant Green’s “Blues in Maude’s Flat”), some blustery blues (“Outside Woman Blues”), soothing pop (“All Night Rain”), and even a western swing country piece (“Jukin’/San Antonio Rose”) or two. They were indeed a top-notch rhythm section, and Ronnie Hammond’s whiskey-smooth vocals only helped to make them sound that much better.  

Those first two albums had been extremely hard to find, even on vinyl, so I was delighted to find this reissue. The first album, released in 1971, featured Rodney Justo as lead vocalist. By the time the second album came out in 1973, he had been replaced by Ronnie Hammond, who handled vocals for the rest of the band’s run. Listening to these songs four decades after they were recorded, I was surprised at how strong the material still sounds. They could perform long guitar jams or short pop masterpieces with equal dexterity. Most of the band’s classic albums have been reissued by BGO as two-for-one packages, similar to this album. All are worthy purchases.

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