When I was growing up I tended towards the tough-guy crowd. We drank too much for kids our age. We smoked way too many cigarettes. And we were quite disrespectful to our elders. (I've since quit smoking and I'm getting paid back, big time, for the elders deal. However, I still enjoy drinking too much. Funny which bad habits have the stamina to last a lifetime.) Regardless of this tough guy image we were all trying to project, there was still a soft spot in our hearts and on the radio dial for the sappy songs. Some were just over the top, like Bobby Goldsboro's Honey or that fucking Tie a Yellow Ribbon song which I never want to hear again, but some were just good sappy songs. Several of them were by this big-haired guy named Dennis Yost and his group he called the Classics IV.

The first one was called Spooky. This had been an instrumental by a saxophone player named Mike Sharpe, but J.R. Cobb and Buddy Buie, who were in Yost's band, added some halloweenesque lyrics to it and it became a mega-hit. Then they wrote Stormy, thinking (I suppose) that one-word titles beginning with "s" was their forte. Next came Traces of Love which crossed a line and made us guys with the Marlboro packs rolled up in our white t-shirt sleeves say, "Fuck that noise." The "s" songs remained viable, however.

This is why, when I heard a band called the Atlanta Rhythm Section cover the Spooky song in a way that made my spine tingle, around 1976, I dug in and discovered that it wasn't really a cover after all. It was those same two guys, Cobb and Buie, who had a new band that was kick-ass hot. I know they were kick-ass hot because I saw them play live at least three times during that era. We went to see a lot of live music during that period. We saw the regional acts like the Allman Brothers as well as the national acts like Joni Mitchell and her band during the Court and Spark period. We went to all the pop festivals where Hendrix and Joplin and the Dead and the English groups like Procol Harum and Led Zeppelin and (earlier) The Yardbirds played. I was a budding musician and I liked to think that I could tell the real players from the wannabees. In my opinion, I didn't see any band during that time which reproduced a studio sound as completely on stage as did the Atlanta Rhythm Section. Not even the Moody Blues.

It was a guitar driven sound, but not the loud screechy feedback guitar so many folks were experimenting with. It was the pure Les Paul (in name and namesake instrument) clarity of angelic guitar behind songs which might have been a bit too sappy but which could be transformed by extended breaks on those weighty Gibsons. Barry Bailey is the guy in the band who was most fluent on that back-breaker of a guitar.

Buie had formed the Atlanta Rhythm Section (affectionately know as just "ARS" at the time) as primarily a studio group who made their money doing work on other folks' records at their Studio One in Atlanta. They put out their first album in 1972 and there wasn't much on it to recommend it. Then they found Ronnie Hammond to replace their mediocre lead singer. Their second album, Back up against the Wall in 1973 (complete with a Confederate flag on the cover as well as the "Up against the wall, redneck mother" reference -- it doesn't get much more trite than that, eh?) sounded better but still didn't have anything on it resembling a money making hit.

They started touring more and beefing up their live sound while putting out two more albums the following two years. They did manage to find some success with a song called "Doraville," which was ironically the name of the little town near Atlanta where the mainstays of the band had first met. You could tell by this time that the band was getting pretty darn tight, but nothing was happening so far to push them over the edge to any sort of national spotlight. Of course, by this time Duane Allman had died and the Southern Rock thing had pretty much peaked. I guess the thing about ARS was that they were never really a Southern redneck band at all. They might have tried to cash in on that image while the pickings were good, but it was actually more of the English polish of a Fleetwood Mac or the sophisticated country sound of a Poco that they were really after.

It was on their self-titled album in 1976 (which included the "Doraville" song) when they went back to the file drawers and pulled out one of the "s" songs again. This version of Spooky is required listening for anyone who loves guitar music. They also got a minor hit out of "I'm Not Gonna Let It Bother Me" and Do it or Die (a real tear-jerker which still gets to me after all these years). Also, you could not overlook the success they had with "Imaginary Lover," a song about wanking. It's sad when good folks write a song about wanking which becomes popular. It could almost overshadow any love you might have had for the guys. It's not as bad a song as Centerfold by the J. Geils Band, but it is close enough for country.

As with so many acts of that era, some of the original members still milk it for all it's worth to them on the oldies circuit. But I will never forget a sunny afternoon in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in the late 1970s when they played for three solid hours on a stage set up on a lovely green lawn between the two art buildings on our campus, including an extended break during the middle of "Spooky" which lasted three joints and a change in girlfriends.

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