Amazing Rhythm Aces Interview: Third-rate Romance, First-rate Rock

Amazing Rhythm Aces--Stacked Deck

Recording “Third-Rate Romance (Low-Rent Rendezvous)” early last year, the then-obscure Amazing Rhythm Aces hoped that, at best, the musical vignette might attract some regional attention. But the song broke nationally on both pop and country charts, propelling the group into the spotlight. Given the chance to prove their worth, moreover, the Aces have since built a loyal, broad-based following and amassed a string of new successes.

A second single, “Amazing Grace (Used to Be Her Favorite Song),” reached the Top 10 on country charts, for example. Stacked Deck, the sextet’s attractive, deftly titled debut LP, drew rave reviews and racked up strong pop sales. And the recently released Too Stuffed to Jump, a more sophisticated outing than its predecessor, has already begun to further enhance the Aces’ popularity.

As for concert appearances, group writer/vocalist/guitarist Russell Smith reports “a terrific reaction. I mean, we’ve been billed with acts ranging from Tom Waits to Rick Wakeman, and the response has been good every time.”

While seemingly taken unawares by the size of the Aces’ audience, Smith doesn’t appear to be surprised by its diversity. “Our fans cover a lot of territory,” he comments, “because so do we. You know, we’re schizo in that we can dig people as far apart as Ella Fitzgerald and Hank Williams. And most of what we like comes out in our music.”

Indeed it does. Smith, whose compositions reflect rock, country, gospel, and jazz influences, has developed a vocal style that variously recalls Sam Cooke, Robbie Robertson, and Doug Sahm. The group’s sound, which at times evokes the Band, has been called everything from “cosmic country” to “rockabilly sleazoid.”

That sound germinated about four years ago when Smith, a veteran of umpteen bands in his native Lafayette, Tennessee, met long-time percussion enthusiast “Butch” McDade. McDade introduced Smith to bass-playing R&B aficionado Jeff “Stick” Davis and the three began gigging together around Tennessee.

“Our fans cover a lot of territory,” says the group’s Russell Smith, “because so do we. We can dig people as far apart as Ella Fitzgerald and Hank Williams.”

Despite its members’ musical affinity, the trio failed to catch on and soon disbanded. Calling themselves the “Rhythm Aces,” Davis and McDade spent subsequent months backing expatriated American Jesse Winchester on a Canadian tour. Smith, meanwhile, played Tennessee clubs, wrote new songs, and, with keyboardist Billy Earhart III, made a demo tape that included “Third-Rate Romance.”

Vividly describing a couple who pick each other up, engage in a cheap one-night affair, and try to call it “romance,” the song still stands as Smith’s finest effort. “I got the idea for it from watching a couple in a restaurant,” he recalls, “but I made up a lot of the story. At first, it was like a goddamn book report, about eight minutes long. But once I’d edited it down, I was pretty happy with it.”

Jesse Winchester, who heard the demo tape, apparently concurred. His Learn to Love It album, which features backup by Davis and McDade, includes “Romance” and another Smith number.

After playing on that record, the bassist and the drummer returned to Tennessee. With Smith, Earhart, and guitarist Jim Kershaw, they launched a fresh incarnation of the Rhythm Aces. To foster positive thinking, the outfit added “Amazing” to its monicker.

Not much later, amazingly enough, the band found itself on the road to its debut album. Barry “Byrd” Burton, an Aces cohort who engineered at Sam Phillips’s Memphis recording studio, audited the Winchester LP and Smith demo and offered production assistance. Grabbing the opportunity, the group moved to the city and began to lay down tracks.

Over the next year, while Earl Scruggs and R&B’s Ace Spectrum waxed “Romance” and the band polished material in the studio, its present lineup came together. Producer Byrd, a multi-instrumentalist, replaced Kershaw. And James Brown (aka J.B. Hooker) a Memphis session regular, signed up to play keyboards and share writing chores.

Garnering a contract from ABC early in 1975, the group has since achieved more than its members would recently have believed possible. “Not long ago,” Smith remembers, “we all had day jobs. Jeff [Davis] worked in a mortuary. I did construction and so on. At night, we played in little clubs where the audiences got drunk and the managers told us to do Top 40. Now we’re doing national tours and putting records on the charts. And it happened so quickly that, sometimes, it’s a little hard to believe.”

Maybe we ought to call them the “Amazed Rhythm Aces.”

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