Ironically, Fame Records is more famous now than it ever was in its heyday, due largely to the recent "Muscle Shoals" documentary film. For those who have seen this film about the Fame recording studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, the only song heard in it that you will encounter in this two-disc set is Jimmy Hughes's phenomenal R&B/pop crossover hit "Steal Away" [#2 R&B / #12 pop]. It was issued on Fame 6401: "64" for the year (1964) and "01" signifying it was the very first release on founder/owner/producer/ recording engineer Rick Hall's Fame record label. This would remain the biggest hit in the label's first incarnation (1964 to early 1967). A total of nine of the 26 records (52 sides) on this double-disc collection saw some national chart action, including seven by the label's undisputed star Hughes who cracked the R&B top five two more times, but never the pop top 60 again. By 1967, when Fame studio releases were switched to the Atlantic/Atco imprints, two other Fame artists were emerging: Clarence Carter, who had two minor national chart hits on Fame, and Arthur Conley, whose first two fine singles on Fame we get to hear. (Carter's début, "Tell Daddy," got a mention in "Muscle Shoals" because in late '67 the great Chess recording artist Etta James was sent down from Chicago to wax her distaff version, "Tell Mama," a future Rock & Roll Hall of Fame [no pun intended] recording.)
The question about this collection becomes: Besides the Jimmy Hughes and Clarence Carter records, as well as Arthur Conley's pair of strong singles preceding his monster hit "Sweet Soul Music" (on Atco), are all the recordings by non-hitmakers and the B-sides worth it? The B-sides are a tricky proposition. As often occurs, some B-sides are as good, if not better, than some A-sides. Others are more typical true B-sides, and one is so awful it qualifies as a "C"-side, not to be played more than once under any circumstances. (Its title is "Lolly Pops, Lace and Lipstick," as they apparently really tried to make sure no deejay would want to cut into "Steal Away"'s action by flipping it over.) As far as the other artists are concerned, they all have at least one worthwhile side, and several are must-haves. These include the two singles (both sides) by Dan Penn (who wrote or co-wrote three of the songs) and his frequent writing partner, Fame keyboardist Spooner Oldham's "Wish You Didn't Have to Go," the future James & Bobby Purify follow-up record to "I'm Your Puppet" on the Bell label. (Oldham's record was credited to "Spooner & the Spoons.") Also, one-off recording artist on Fame, James Barnett, whom I would situate vocally somewhere between Jimmy Hughes and Arthur Conley, delivers the goods on the prototypical Oldham-Penn Deep Southern soul ballad "Take a Good Look," featuring a fantastic horn chart and stellar guitar work. But taking the cake in her sole Fame appearance is June Conquest's reading of the Donnie Fritts-Dan Penn composition "Almost Persuaded" (1964). In a surprise move, they composed this and it was produced and arranged in letter-perfect Brill Building girl-group style. June Conquest was one sweet-and-soulful-sounding pop/R&B chanteuse, and this record deserved top ten status in both realms. Startlingly, though, this is the only Fame record in these early years by a female lead artist. (Incidentally, this "Almost Persuaded" is not the same song as the number one country hit two years later by David Houston, although I suspect the title was "borrowed.")
A couple of acts here are white pop-rockers whose output is in tune with the mid-'60s sounds (one is a cover of the Beatles' "You're Gonna Lose That Girl"), but none of it is particularly distinctive.
This being an Ace Records [UK] compilation, the sound mastering from the original tapes is superb (all in glorious mono -- and Fame's Rick Hall is a sound freak to begin with!), and the accompanying booklet (24 pages!) contains photos of a half-dozen of the acts, as well as color repros of every A and B side label. The liner notes are informative and comprehensive, covering every track in order of appearance.
Volume 2 will pick up from where the Fame story resumes in 1969. The big star will be the still very active Candi Staton (finally, another woman on the label!).