Singer Willie Hightower and veteran producer Quinton Claunch conjure up a timeless album of southern soul magic in Muscle Shoals. Available in CD and vinyl LP formats.
How’s this for soul heaven? 95 year-old Memphis producer Quinton Claunch records Willie Hightower, 77, in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, the home of southern soul – and it’s like turning back the hands of time to soul music’s heydays in the 1960s. Not only is this a completely new recording but there are real musicians playing real instruments with real songs.
After a lifetime of soul testifying, Willie Hightower has lost none of the vocal elegance that still evokes the gentle gospel-inspired influence of the mighty Sam Cooke in a line through to Johnnie Taylor. Added to the pot are the outstanding songs, full of country soul pedigree, which come across as fresh – and not rehashed old hits. The mix is completed by Quinton’s 60-plus years experience, co-producer Billy Lawson and the current crop of Muscle Shoals musicians, led by those studio veterans, keyboardist Clayton Ivey and guitarists Travis Wammack and Will McFarlane.
For too long Willie remained out of the limelight until intrepid researcher Seamus McGarvey stumbled across him in 2002 thanks to the ex-wife of 50s R&B star Billy Ward. “She lived in Gadsden and she mentioned a couple of singers who lived locally, Willie being one,” McGarvey said. “I was able to contact him and in 2007 went down to see him in a show. He was working with a band called Class Act playing gigs around Birmingham, Alabama and Georgia.”
In 2014, Red “Soul Detective” Kelly and I made the road trip from Long Island to pay homage to the Memphis Boys and their producer, Chips Moman, at the farewell show at the annual Elvis Week in Graceland. During our stay in Memphis, we visited the home of Quinton Claunch, whose track record stretches back to the glory days of the Meteor, Sun and Hi labels in the 1950s through to his all-time classic recordings with James Carr and others for Goldwax in the 1960s. Imagine our surprise when Quinton, with an air of quiet satisfaction, calmly told us that he had recorded a new artist, blues guitarist Alonzo Pennington, in Muscle Shoals for his Soultrax label. We had no idea Quinton was still producing – and it didn’t end there.
Meanwhile, events for Willie Hightower had started to take an upward turn in 2015 when he was contracted for an appearance at the Ponderosa Stomp festival in New Orleans. The Stomp’s Dr. Ike shrewdly arranged for Willie to be backed by Scott Bomar and the Bo-Keys, from Memphis, with Hi Rhythm Section drummer Howard Grimes. In his review for Blues & Rhythm, Richard Tapp described Willie as “looking every inch the real soul man” and that he “oozed charisma”. At the Stomp’s Conference, Willie’s wide-ranging career was examined in detail in an interview session by Red Kelly, including a video clip of Willie at FAME studios in 1970.
Word quickly got out about Willie’s fine showing at the Stomp, resulting in an appearance in 2017 at Graziano Uliani’s annual Porretta Soul Festival inItaly, where he was backed by the stellar Anthony Paule Soul Orchestra from the San Francisco Bay Area. Among the songs performed at both venues were his two long-time chart hits and the crowd-pleasing tour-de-force ‘If I Had A Hammer’. Willie could easily have retired home to Alabama there and then with applause ringing in his ears, but his reverie continued to be disturbed by the new Claunch deal.
At the time of his Porretta appearance Willie had completed just four of the songs that would eventually make it onto this release. Ace’s Tony Rounce introduced himself to Willie during a post-festival performance in nearby Vergato, and told him that Ace was the likely destination for his new album when he and Quinton finished it. Willie pronounced himself “really pleased” with what he and Quinton had recorded and was anxious to get on with the project. “I’m not getting any younger, and neither is Quinton!” he quipped. Willie indicated to Tony that the sessions thus far had been relaxed and easygoing and that he was enjoying being back in the studio after a long time away: “When you get a good bunch [of musicians] together and a couple of guys at the controls who know what they are doing, it’s hard to see anything really going wrong.”
These recordings came about when producer Billy Lawson asked Quinton if he could find “any old school artists”. In turn Quinton consulted with Red Kelly, who sent him a DVD of Willie’s FAME video and Ponderosa Stomp performance, which convinced him the singer was still in fine voice. Quinton said he was first aware of Willie when Rick Hall dropped by in 1970 to tell him about his new signing for FAME Records. Some 12 years later, Quinton recorded Willie with his long-time partner Bill Cantrell at Willie Mitchell’s Royal studios in Memphis “but nothing happened”, although P-Vine Records of Japan finally released the tracks in 2007.
After the first Muscle Shoals sessions in 2016, Quinton was having problems finding an outlet for the new productions. Once again he enlisted the help of Kelly by sending him an MP3 of ‘I Found You’, which he promptly shared with me. Red and I couldn’t believe just how good the recording was, so I emailed the MP3 to Roger Armstrong at Ace Records. His reaction was immediate: “Wow, that is amazing for anyone, never mind a man of 94 and counting. I just put it on here in the office and ears pricked up. Dean [Rudland] came in from the listening room and Ady [Croasdell] loved it. So I’ll get back to Quinton as we would certainly be interested with quality like this.”
Armstrong “started to talk to Quinton about doing an album” and bearing in mind the ages of the artist and producer “I just thought we had to get on with it.” So an agreement was made for Quinton to record further tracks to make up an Ace release. Quinton enlisted the production support of Billy Lawson. “He’s hardworking, has a good ear, and I enjoyed working with him,” Quinton said. A noted country songwriter, Billy contributes five songs to this album as well as taking up guitar duties.
“Out Of The Blue” is a credit to Willie Hightower, Quinton Claunch, Billy Lawson and all concerned. As Roger Armstrong said, “This is the best new soul record that I have heard in years. Often I find these forced and overcooked but this one sits in the southern groove with ease and is packed full of really good songs, beautifully played.” As for Quinton, he was astonished “Willie sounded that good at his age” and liked the way the record came out. “The sessions took me back to my Goldwax days – it was a good therapy,” he said, adding with laughter, “I hope to go out in a blaze of glory.” He and Willie may be in their twilight years but southern soul hasn’t sounded this good in a long time.