Liner Note Author: Tony Rounce.
Chess Records called Chicago home but the label often looked elsewhere for singers and singles. Usually, this amounted to some variation on direct licensing -- independent record producers or studio owners would send sides to Chess, hoping for release -- but between 1967 and 1969, Chess sent a number of its artists down to FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals in Alabama. This wasn't a burst of inspiration on the label's part. Chess was following the path of Atlantic, who had considerable success recording Wilson Pickett and Percy Sledge at FAME, but once Atlantic's Jerry Wexler fell out with FAME's Rick Hall, the Alabama studio had space for Chess artists and the Chicago label was willing. Irma Thomas and Maurice & Mac came first, later followed by Etta James and Laura Lee, along with a handful of acts not so well known. Ace's 2015 compilation Reaching Out: Chess Records at Fame Studios collects 24 tracks from this time -- most were released at the time, but there are three cuts seeing their first-ever release here -- and they're all unified by that exceptional, tight Muscle Shoals groove. Merely by placing their artists down south, Chess managed to give their acts a grittier appeal. This doesn't feel as sleek as the soul cut up north and, happily, it's a sound that suits all the singers, whether it's the powerhouses of James and Thomas or Maurice & Mac's sly Sam & Dave moves. Most of the surprises arrive in the obscurities, such as Lee Webber's funky rendition of the Beatles' "Good Day Sunshine" or Bobby Moore's moody and impassioned "I Wanna Be Your Man," but the fact that Reaching Out more than satisfies is pleasure enough. The fact that it sheds light onto this often-unexplored connection between Chess and FAME makes it historically important in addition to being sheer entertainment. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine