july 2009 news

'The Bear' With The Tender Heart

Barry Beckett, February 4, 1943—June 10, 2009

By David McGee

The unbeatable Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, from left: Barry Beckett, Roger Hawkins, David Hood, Jimmy Johnson

Barry Beckett, an original member of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, who as a keyboardist, producer and songwriter had a hand in more hit records in more genres without ever becoming a household name himself than almost anyone in history, died at his Hendersonville, TN, home on June 10, at the age of 66. He had been suffering from several ailments, including prostate and thyroid cancer, and in February had suffered a series of strokes, one of which was permanently debilitating.

Like his cohorts in the MSRS (dubbed "The Swampers" for their funky, southern soul sound, and immortalized as such on Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama" in a reference to the group's first recordings, which took place at the Muscle Shoals studio), Beckett, born February 4, 1943 in Birmingham, AL, began his career as part of the hitmaking house band at Rick Hall's FAME (an acronym for Florence Alabama Music Enterprises) Recording Studios. Along with drummer Roger Hawkins, bass player David Hood and guitarist Jimmy Johson, Beckett's early resume includes sessions on hits by Clarence Carter, Arthur Conley, Etta James, Aretha Franklin, and Wilson Pickett; he also engineered Muscle Shoals's first chart-topping smash hit, Percy Sledge's "When A Man Loves a Woman," recorded at Quin Ivy's Norala Studios in Sheffield, AL.

On April 1, 1969, Johnson and Hawkins enlisted Beckett and Hood as partners in a venture that would become Muscle Shoals Sound Studios at 3614 Jackson Highway (the address itself became the title of a Cher album that was one of the first projects to come out of the new facility) in Sheffield, converting a former casket making facility into one of the world's legendary recording destinations. In addition to joint ownership of the studio, the four musicians also shared stakes in a publishing company. The first hit to come out of their new partnership was R.B. Greave's 1969 #2 single, "Take a Letter, Maria." Then the floodgates opened: the Rolling Stones came to town and cut sessions for their 1971 Sticky Fingers album, and were followed by Paul Simon, Bob Seger, the Staple Singers, Willie Nelson, Luther Ingram, Traffic, Leon Russell (whose producer, Denny Cordell, had given the Rhythm Section the nickname "The Swampers" during Russell's sessions), Joe Cocker, Jimmy Cliff (who, while in the country without a visa, cut "Sitting In Limbo" for the soundtrack for The Harder They Come), Tony Joe White, Mary MacGregor, Rod Stewart—even the Osmond Brothers came down to cut their career-launching 1971 chart-topper, "One Bad Apple." The songs these artists crafted in the Muscle Shoals studio comprise some of the enduring work of the late '60s and '70s, including Simon's "Kodrachrome" and "Loves Me Like a Rock," Seger's "Main Street," "Old Time Rock 'n' Roll," and "We've Got Tonight," Stewart's "Sailing," Ingram's "If Loving You Is Wrong, I Don't Want To Be Right," and the Staple Singers' "Respect Yourself." Beckett and Hawkins branched out into producing in 1972 on Mel and Tim's "Starting All Over Again," a followup to the R&B duo's 1969 Top 10 hit, "Backfield in Motion."

In 1978, the Rhythm Section left its original home and moved into more spacious quarters in an old Naval Reserve building overlooking the Tennessee River near downtown Sheffield. Beckett added to his growing stature and demand as a producer by teaming with Jerry Wexler on Bob Dylan's born-again Christian album, Slow Train Coming and its Grammy winning single, "Gotta Serve Somebody" (and later produced Dylan's Saved album as well). A distribution deal with Capitol Records allowed the Rhythm Section to help kick-start the career of a struggling Delbert McClinton on the Top 10 single, "Givin' It Up For Your Love." Carlos Santana, John Prine, Dire Straits, James Brown, the Amazing Rhythm Aces, the Oak Ridge Boys—they all made the pilgrimage to Muscle Shoals and all came away with some of the best music they ever cut in a studio. In all, the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section appeared on more than 500 recordings, more than 75 of those being gold and platinum hits.

In 1985, the principals sold Muscle Shoals Sound Studios to Malaco Records, a Jackson, Mississippi, blues, gospel and R&B label (home to Bobby "Blue" Bland and the Rev. James Cleveland, among others), and Beckett relocated to Nashville to take a job as a talent scout for Warner Brothers Records. He quickly found himself courted as a producer following his work on Hank Williams Jr.'s "Mind Your Own Business" and "Born to Boogie," and won a Country Music Association award for the technologically facilitated "duet" between Hank Jr. and his legendary father on "There's A Tear In My Beer."

(front, seated) David Hood (left), producer Jerry Wexler; (back, standing, from left): Steve Melton, Jimmy Johnson, Roger Hawkins, Wayne Jackson, Spooner Oldham, Barry Beckett.

Beckett's connection to the Muscle Shoals scene began while he was still in Birmingham, when he befriended the Del-Rays, a band that included University of Alabama students Johnson and Hawkins. He then took a job in Pensacola, FL, with blues producer "Papa Don" Schroeder, who brought him to Muscle Shoals to introduce him to Rick Hall, owner of the FAME operation, thus reuniting him with Johnson and Hawkins, who had joined the FAME house band. With towering keyboardist Spooner Oldham having left to pursue other interests, Beckett was the right man at the right time in the right place to fill the substantial void created by Oldham's departure.

As Johnson told reporter Russ Corey of the Florence TimesDaily.com, "(Barry) joined us in 1967 when we were still at FAME. Within two weeks, he moved his whole family here without a promise of anything. When Barry came into the section, it topped off what we needed at the time."

Hawkins told Corey he and Johnson had extensive discussions with Beckett about taking Oldham's place before Beckett agreed to do so, but it was worth it. "He was a wonderful contributor to our rhythm section," Hawkins said. "We all played well together and had ideas together. He was definitely one of us. He will be missed because now one of us is gone."

Typical of the MSRS sense of humor, after all that recruiting the others made sure Beckett knew he was filling in for a legend in Oldham. But he gave as good as he got, Hood told Corey. "He got us back later on by pushing the heck out of us," Hood said. "He pushed me and made me do things I never knew I could do. He was one of the most talented musicians, the most talented producers I've ever worked with. He was a perfectionist. I'm a much better musician for having worked with Barry."

A partial list of Beckett's extensive production credits includes, in addition to the above mentioned artists, Phoebe Snow, T. Graham Brown, Lorrie Morgan, Eddy Raven, Frankie Miller, Jerry Jeff Walker, Confederate Railroad, Phish, Tammy Graham, Sonia Dada, Dutch singer Ilse DeLange, and mainstream country superstar Kenny Chesney, whose first two albums Beckett steered and with whom he remained close.

Upon hearing of Beckett's passing Chesney's emotional reaction summarized how many who had crossed Beckett's path felt about the man whose gruff exterior always gave way to a tender-hearted interior, rendering his nickname "The Bear" truly ironic. Said Chesney: "Somewhere tonight, someone listens to their favorite song. Maybe on the radio, maybe on satellite, maybe on CD or vinyl. Odds are, Barry Beckett is playing piano. He produced my first two albums. He taught me, inspired me, made me reach for more. He was one of the first to ever believe in a kid from Knoxville, Tennessee, who used to sit out in the backyard in the middle of the night and stare at an open sky, knowing that there was something more. I loved him. I will take Barry everywhere! I always have and I always will. He taught me to put a smile in everything. That's important in life and especially to those of us who have music in our lives, who are consumed by it. My life is consumed by it and Barry Beckett is to blame and I am forever grateful."

'In Memory of Barry Beckett'
The master practicing his craft with Dutch singer Ilse DeLange, whose Beckett-produced albums, World of Hurt and Livin' On Love, have gone platinum. Note the look on DeLisle's face when she finds Beckett has sneaked into one of her rehearsals.

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