Soul Serenade: Jimmy Hughes, “Steal Away”

Written by Ken Shane's Soul Serenade, Music

“Steal Away” made the world aware of a small Alabama town

Jimmy Hughes

Last weekend the Newport Folk Festival took place across the bay. My coverage will be appearing on Popdose soon. It was a three day festival this year, and to do it properly you have to move around between four stages (five if you have kids). So by Sunday I was ready to give my aching feet a rest. The festival had other ideas however, and added an ancillary event on Sunday night that I didn’t think I could miss.

Beck headlined the festival this year, and as his final notes echoed in the Rhode Island evening I headed into town to catch a screening of the new documentary “Muscle Shoals”. The film tells the story of of Rick Hall, who overcame crushing tragedy to create the legendary FAME Recording Studio in a small Alabama town on the banks of the Tennessee River. If you are a fan of soul music, or music in general for that matter, you won’t want to miss this film. It’s well put together and even if you think you know the whole story already, there is much to learn. “Muscle Shoals” will be coming to theaters across the country soon, so try to get out and see it.

There were so many great records that came out of FAME, and its offshoot Muscle Shoals Sound Studios that it was difficult to choose just one for this week’s column. But the documentary grabbed me immediately with the opening song, which was recorded by Jimmy Hughes at FAME in early 1964.

Hughes was from nearby Leighton, AL, and was a cousin of Percy Sledge, who made his own magic at FAME. Like so many of our favorite soul artists, he got his start in a gospel group. In 1962 he auditioned for Rick Hall at FAME, and Hall liked what he heard. Hughes had co-written a song called “I’m Qualified,” and Hall decided to record it. The record was released by Guyden Records out of Philadelphia, but failed to gain any traction. Hughes went back to his day job in a factory, but he kept singing in local clubs at night.

Jimmy Hughes - Steal AwayLess than two years later Hughes was back at FAME with another song that he had written. It was partially based on the gospel song “Steal Away To Jesus.” Hughes turned it into a powerful ballad simply called “Steal Away”. The song was recorded in one take, with Hughes backed by such Muscle Shoals stalwarts as Norbert Putnam, David Briggs, Jerry Carrigan, and Terry Thompson.

Hall did a lot of promotion for the record, taking it to radio stations throughout the south. Eventually “Steal Away” made it all the way to #17 on the Billboard Hot 100. As important as the sales were, what was even more important was that the record become something of a template for what would become known as the “Muscle Shoals sound.”

The success of “Steal Away” also allowed Hall to sign a deal for Vee-Jay Records to release his FAME label records nationally. Hughes followed up with “Try Me,” which made it to #65. The subsequent Steal Away album was released on Vee-Jay and featured the first collaborations between the legendary songwriters Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham.

When Hughes’ next few singles failed to make a dent, Vee-Jay turned their attention to a new British band called the Beatles, and a hit-making American quartet known as the Four Seasons. Despite the presence of these two giant acts, the label folded and FAME was temporarily without national distribution.

“When a Man Loves a Woman” by Percy Sledge set the charts on fire in 1966, allowing Hall to sign a new distribution deal, this time with Atlantic Records. Hughes had more hits for FAME, including “Neighbor, Neighbor,” “I Worship the Ground You Walk On,” and “Why Not Tonight.” Then he began to record for Atlantic directly and had an R&B hit with “It Ain’t What You Got” in 1968.

In that same year Hughes moved on to Stax Records, who placed him on their Volt imprint. He had an R&B hit right out of the box with “I Like Everything About You,” but his success began to wane after that. At that time Stax was going through a major reorganization, with Al Bell coming in to take over the label. There were new artists too, and Hughes was quoted later as saying that he felt like “the low man on the totem pole” at Stax.

By 1970 Jimmy Hughes was tired. He gave up recording and touring, and got a job with the government, making parts for nuclear power plants in the Tennessee River Valley. The only singing that he did in later years was with his church choir in Leighton.

“Steal Away” was one of the most important records in the history of popular music. It was the prototype for a brand of southern soul that remains hugely popular to this day, and influenced artists like Al Green and Johnnie Taylor. By allowing FAME to achieve a national distribution deal the record began the process of spreading the word about the great music that was coming out of a small town in northern Alabama.