The Amazing Rhythm Aces - Biography
By Nick Castro
The Amazing Rhythm Aces were a successful country rock group from the 70's. Their nucleus was formed by session players, Russell Smith, Jeff Davis, Barry Burton, Billy Earhart and James Hooker in the early 70's, and by 1974 they were scoring hits with songs like, "Third Rate Romance", and, "Amazing Grace (Used to be Her Favorite Song)", the latter of which scored a top ten hit on the country charts. Their success continued for the remainder of the decade until their demise in 1981. They also received further recognition upon their reunion in the 90's.
The roots of The Amazing Rhythm Aces began in Knoxville, Tennessee in the late 60's, when musicians, Butch McDade and Jeff Davis left their hometown to go to Memphis for a job backing up singer Jesse Winchester, another Memphis musician who has since become synonymous as the voice of the Vietnam draft dodgers. McDade and Davis were present in Winchester's band when The Band's, Robbie Robertson helped to launch their careers. Soon, Davis and McDade were ready to create their own group, and they had a sound in mind. They called this sound, American music, and it was a mixture of pop, country, rock, blues, latin, and reggae. They enlisted the help of fellow Memphis musicians, Russell Smith, to sing and play guitar, Barry Burton, to cover several instruments, Billy Earhart, to play organ and James Hooker to play piano. Through their connections in the Memphis music scene, they quickly were signed to a record deal and recorded their first album.
Stacked Deck (1975 - Valley) was The Amazing Rhythm Aces' debut effort. The album is mostly remembered for its hit songs, "Third Rate Romance", and, "Amazing Grace (Used to be Her Favorite Song)". The latter song brought them into the limelight of the country music market, though the music on the record transcended labels, as it often strayed into soul and rock territories almost as often as country ones. Though the album often appealed to fans of the west coast folk rock scene, which itself often incorporated elements of country, it had a much more authentic southern feel to it, which could not be readily imitated by the west coast groups, like the Eagles, who The Amazing Rhythm Aces are often compared to. Smith handles many of the writing duties on the album, including both hit songs, as well as the song, "The Ella B", which shows the band's soulful side, utilizing funk rhythms with country sensibilities to create a unique mixture. Smith also shines on the Charlie Rich song, "Who Will the Next Fool Be?". Burton handles many of the auxiliary instrumentation, such as dobro, mandolin, steel guitar and slide guitar.
The Amazing Rhythm Aces' second album, Too Stuffed to Jump (1976 - Valley), which contained their next hit song, and Grammy award winner, "The End is Not in Sight (The Cowboy Tune)". It was during this time that one of their initial releases, "Third Rate Romance", got a second wind when it went to the top ten in Canada. This second album still maintains the feel of their initial release, but is often cited as having lost some of the charm of their first album. Regardless, it is a strong statement and a solid country rock effort. The band's sense of humor, heard previously on songs like, "Amazing Grace (Used to be Her Favorite Song)", which began exactly like the famous song, "Amazing Grace", before breaking into a play on the melody, is further evident on Too Stuffed to Jump, with songs like "A Little Italy Rag".
By the time of The Amazing Rhythm Aces's third album, Toucan Do It Too (1977 - ABC), they were trying to modify their sound in search of their next big hit. Some of the songs are straight ahead rock tunes, such as, "Who's Crying Now", and, "Living in a World Unknown", with only the slightest leanings towards their country and Memphis roots. The band even incorporates many Caribbean influences on the song, "Never Been to the Islands (Howard and Hugh's Blues)", as was common for the time. Smith was still writing much of the band's strongest material at this time, such as the songs, "Geneva's Lullaby", and, "Two Can Do It Too", the latter of which showcases the songwriter's funkier side.
In 1978, The Amazing Rhythm Aces released their fourth album, Burning Down the Ballroom (1978 - ABC), which was the last to feature the band's classic line up. This is one of the groups most blatantly acoustic albums, which was a bit of a departure from their previous effort, which began to stray into the rock realm, though Burning Down the Ballroom does contain the song, "A JAckass Gets his Oats", which is a hard southern rock tune. Smith contributes the beautiful song, "Red to Blue (When Dreams Come True)", but the band is unable to capture the chart topping success of any of their previous songs. They did, however, continue to build a reputation for themselves among other musicians. Soon after the release of this album, Burton, who had produced the album, left the group. The group forged ahead with the help of Duncan Cameron.
The Amazing Rhythm Aces released their final two studio albums of the era, The Amazing Rhythm Aces (1978 - Columbia), and, How the Hell Do You Spell Rhythum? (1980 - Warner Bros.). Their self titled album is often cited as a favorite among fans, who claim the songs like Smith's, "Rodrigo, Rita and Elaine", is as good as anything from their early works. Their last album finds them once again getting great reviews and accolades from fellow musicians, but poor album sales. Ultimately, the band broke up in 1981, until their reunion tours and album of the 90's.