Barry Beckett: Musician who helped form the Muscles Shoals Rhythm Section
Wednesday 19 August 2009
The record producer and keyboard player Barry Beckett was involved in many classic singles and albums from the 1960s to the 1990s in a variety of genres but especially rhythm'n'blues, Southern soul, rock and country music. Starting out as a session musician at Rick Hall's FAME studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama in 1967, he teamed up with drummer David Hawkins, bassist David Hood and rhythm guitarist Jimmy Johnson to form the Muscles Shoals Rhythm Section and recorded with Aretha Franklin, Clarence Carter, Candi Staton, Percy Sledge, Otis Rush and Arthur Conley.
Born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1943, Beckett had first met Johnson and Hawkins when they appeared at the University of Alabama with their band the Del Rays. Beckett played piano in a dancing school and worked in Pensacola, Florida with the producer "Papa Don" Schroeder, and accompanied James and Bobby Purify with him to FAME. When the keyboard-player Spooner Oldham left in 1967, Beckett proved the ideal replacement.
"When we first brought Barry into the rhythm section, he had some pretty big shoes to fill," Hood said. "We gave him a tough time at first, but soon he was kicking our butts and inspiring us to a greater level of musicianship."
Incensed when Hall only offered a guarantee of $10,000 a year each, in April 1969, Beckett, Hawkins, Hood and Johnson broke away and became the first session men to establish their own studio as well as production and publishing companies. Atlantic Records, their main client at the time, advanced them the funds to install an eight-track and then a 16-track console in an old casket factory and Muscle Shoals Sound Studios thrived at 3614 Jackson Highway, Sheffield, Alabama. Cher was the first artist to record there and named her 3614 Jackson Highway album after the studio.
Beckett and Co had their first hit with "Take A Letter Maria" by R.B. Greaves in October 1969. When Atlantic moved many of their sessions to Miami, Stax picked up the slack and sent the Staple Singers, who had previously recorded in Memphis with Booker T. & The MGs. The sessions resulted in such early '70s hits as "Respect Yourself", "I'll Take You There" and "If You're Ready (Come Go With Me)".
In a similarly soulful vein was their work with Wilson Pickett, Bobby Womack, Mel and Tim, Luther Ingram, Johnnie Taylor, Don Covay, Millie Jackson and Dorothy Moore. Crucially, the Rhythm Section and studios built such a reputation that they began attracting rock acts like the Rolling Stones, who cut material there later issued on the Sticky Fingers album, Paul Simon, who made the US No 2 "Kodachrome", featuring Beckett's distinctive piano, there in 1972, and Bob Seger, who became a regular customer for best-selling albums like Stranger In Town and Against The Wind. In 1972 Stax offered the four a royalty on every subsequent Stax session held at their studios.
Beckett, Hawkins, Hood and Johnson also lent their instrumental and production talent to the likes of Boz Scaggs, Lulu, Joe Cocker, J.J. Cale, Tony Joe White, Willie Nelson, Rod Stewart, Dr. Hook and Jim Capaldi as well as Traffic, augmenting the British group on a world tour in 1972. Because of their funky, soulful, Southern, "swamp" sound, the foursome were dubbed the "Swampers", either by Leon Russell or his producer Denny Cordell, depending on whose account you believe; Lynyrd Skynyrd immortalised the "Swampers" in the lyrics of "Sweet Home Alabama". Muscle Shoals was the place to get that "swampy" sound and singers came from as afield as France or Japan and were amazed to find four Caucasians. Simon and Art Garfunkel recorded there together – "My Little Town" in 1975 – and Rod Stewart cut tracks for the albums Atlantic Crossing and A Night On The Town, including the 1975 chart-topper "Sailing". In 1984 they moved the studios to an old Naval Reserve building overlooking the Tennessee River – the inspiration for Julian Lennon's "Valotte".
Though he contributed an array of keyboards to the albums he worked on, from the late '70s Beckett concentrated on production, sometimes in tandem with Wexler, a man he called his mentor, most notably on Communiqué by Dire Straits (1979), the brace of born-again Bob Dylan albums Slow Train Coming (1979) and Saved (1980), and Santana's Havana Moon (1983).
In the mid-'80s the four partners sold the studios to Malaco Records and Beckett relocated to Nashville, first as an A&R executive for Warner Bros. and then as a freelance producer, helming sessions for country acts Hank Williams Jnr, Alabama, Asleep At The Wheel, Confederate Railroad, Vince Gill, Tammy Wynette; he also discovered Kenny Chesney. But he remained as versatile as ever and produced several albums by Etta James, as well as The Waterboys' Room To Roam (1990) and Feargal Sharkey's Songs From The Mardi Gras (1991), two of his personal favourites. Moving seamlessly between genres he saw as "fun," he said. "It wakes me up."
Beckett didn't read music and played everything by ear but his distinctive piano and organ flourishes were an integral part of timeless records like Jim Capaldi's "Eve" or Stewart's "Tonight's The Night". He saw the keyboards as "a very transparent instrument. It's very easy to come up with a mood on a track."
When told he had produced over 100 albums, Beckett replied in typically modest fashion in his soft Southern drawl: "Well, I guess according to my age it's possible, but I sure don't remember each and every one. I love starting new artists out because usually they've had a hard time. It's just more exciting to break a new act."
Nicknamed "The Bear", Beckett was diagnosed with prostate cancer and later with thyroid cancer, and suffered several strokes, including one in February. Beckett and his fellow Swampers were inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in 1995, and into the Musicians' Hall Of Fame in Nashville in 2008, though Beckett was in a wheelchair and didn't perform at the ceremony.
The Waterboys' Mike Scott remembers Barry Beckett "as a lovely man, an old-school gentleman, with a courtesy and quiet consideration about his manners. And hidden inside the genial exterior was a brilliant keyboard player. When he produced our Room To Roam album, he would join in band jams on piano. I can still see him sitting at a scruffy old baby grand, light streaming in on his face from a window, as he tickled out deep rolling blues riffs, hardly moving a muscle. Fortunately for us, he played on the record too – a couple of lovely guest piano performances. It was a privilege to have known and worked with him."
Barry Beckett, keyboard-player, record producer, studio owner: born Birmingham, Alabama 4 February 1943; married (two sons); died Hendersonville, Tennessee 10 June 2009.
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