After distinguished careers as session-men at Atlantic's Muscle Shoals studios, Roger Hawkins and Barry Beckett have become producers in the tradition of Jerry Wexler, Tom Dowd and Ahmet Eregun. Buzzy Linhart's new album is one of a number of recent Atlantic releases they've supervised. It seems a proper place to talk some about them and about bassist David Hood, another member of the younger generation at Muscle Shoals whose praises have gone so long unsung.
Wexler began recording Ray Charles in the early '50s. Hawkins, Hood, and Beckett recently joined up with Ray's most genuine disciple, Stevie Winwood, as if to complete a design that embraces the progress of 20-plus years of pop music. The mediate factor of Muscle Shoals includes, of course, Aretha Franklin and some of the world's finest rhythm and blues instrumentalists. Hawkins and Beckett's production venture will succeed in turn, one hopes, in civilizing rock's rather blind return to rhythm and blues. Perhaps they'll also certify Winwood's own eminence once again for those who've grown "bored" by Traffic.
Hawkins, Hood and Beckett, along with guitarists Pete Carr and Jimmy Johnson, comprise the core band of Linhart's first Atlantic date. Hawkins's drumming has already become legendary, though a casual listener is no doubt inclined to dismiss it as commonplace. More than any other rhythm and blues drummer, Hawkins creates the depth, the dimension, fundamental to the sound we've learned to call "soul" (jazz-men, in their infinite wisdom, used to call the feeling "funky" - that's what it means musically: a bugaloo beat, a rock and roll beat). Hawkins hollows out space as much as time, drawing grand distances under the music with deceptively simple strokes of snare and bass drum so that eight-note fills, for example, approach from a horizon forward. If you froze a moment when Hawkins wasn't actually playing (often close to half of every measure), you'd still feel the drums by the design of their silence.
Though hardly as definitive a musician as Hawkins, Beckett is the essential keyboardist; hardly noticeable in a full arrangement, though it would limp without him. David Hood, too, like rhythm guitarist Jimmy Johnson, plays perhaps only half the measured time (unlike the colossi Jerry Jemott and Chuck Rainey). Yet it's precisely this restraint, this seeming transparency, that suggests why these musicians produce so clean and relaxed a sound, tight but loose, devastating but delicate (the Allman Brothers, for example, fail to swing in direct proportion to the efforts of their rhythm section; compare bassist Lamar Williams's unnecessary verbosity with Hood's remarkable understatement).
Hawkins and Beckett's production for Linhart carries on the sound forged by Wexler and Dowd in New York and Muscle Shoals: a seemingly square, lolling band whose colors look blurred but rich, like a Southern glade after a shower (even Willie Mitchell's Memphis version seems a slight caricature in its accentuated square truck). The "lolling," like the "square," is of course an illusion, for the music's unprecedentedly crisp and swinging.
Buzzy himself is more tolerable than ever before, though his singing often makes you wonder why your struggling friends aren't playing Max's this weekend. The tunes are melodically pleasant, often satisfying (Buzzy's redone his biggest hit, "Friends," on the album); satisfying, that is, if you can forget English long enough to let the lyrics pass you by (David Crosby looks like a cynic in comparison). But Buzzy's solos on vibes, few as they are here, display his one admirable skill as a performer. Though inclined to repetition, the solos are lyrically terse and dramatic (whether on a stomper like "The Greatest Person I Know" or the quasi-bossa nova groove of the title tune). Buzzy's singing is similarly lucid in its intentions (his sense of phrasing is solid, at times almost inspired), but the bridge to execution rattles over a mean abyss.
The explicit musical moods vary impressively. The pumping Muscle Shoals sound most memorable behind Aretha frames "Shoo That Fly," "You Don't Have to Tell Me Goodbye" and "Tell Me I've Been Trying"; complete with belching baritone and stabbing but discreet brass. Pete Carr's relaxed guitar moves a slow blues ("A Tear Outweighs a Smile") and Buzzy's vibes lay a cool middle on the ballads, folk-rock ("If You Can't Join 'em, Beat 'em") and jazz ("See You Again").
Originally published in Crawdaddy, August, 1974