As co-owner of Northside’s Shake It Records and its namesake record label, Darren Blase would seem to have all the work he can handle this year.
In addition to running the busy and popular shop and coordinating its in-store events, he’s had to manage the growing interest in the label’s Wussy, whose breakthrough third album this year has earned four-star reviews in Rolling Stone and Uncut and spawned a National Public Radio Song of the Day in “Happiness Bleeds.”
But that hasn’t stopped him from launching his latest project, a series of limited-edition 45-rpm vinyl singles by the likes of Greg Dulli, Drive-By Truckers, Heartless Bastards and Wussy in tribute to the late Eddie Hinton. The first two 45s, covers of Hinton songs by Dulli and the Truckers, come out locally on Tuesday and nationally on Nov. 24.
Blase is pressing just 2,000 copies of each record. He figures half of that run will be sold through Shake It and its mail-order operation and half through other independent record stores. Ultimately he plans a set of 10 discs.
After the Wussy and Bastards singles early next year, there will be 45s from Cincinnati’s Buffalo Killers and Southern Soul singer/songwriter Donnie Fritts. Blase is working with other national and international acts, too.
Who, you might ask, is Hinton?
“He was a great songwriter, a phenomenal guitar player and a great singer,” Blase says. “Not many guys have all three of those things going. But he doesn’t put out new stuff, doesn’t come up in conversation and doesn’t have a publicist working his name.”
Hinton, who died of a heart attack at age 51 in 1995, was a member of the fabled Muscle Shoals (Ala.) rhythm section in the late 1960s. He was there during an era when many of the great R&B and Pop stars came to the city’s FAME Studio to get the kind of gritty, authentic mixture of Soul, Country and Blues that Muscle Shoals musicians knew how to play. Hinton’s guitar is featured on records by Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Percy Sledge, The Box Tops, The Staple Singers and many more top artists.
But he was also a gifted songwriter. Whether on his own or working with partners like Marlin Greene and Donnie Fritts, he wrote such songs as Percy Sledge’s “Cover Me,” Dusty Springfield’s “Breakfast in Bed” and The Box Tops’ “Choo Choo Train.” As a singer who idolized Otis Redding, he had a rough-hewn but intensely impassioned, pleading voice that's the epitome of blue-eyed Soul. It's what Lucinda Williams probably was dreaming about when she titled an album Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.
Yet, to borrow the title of one of his albums, Hinton was a Hard Luck Guy. His first album, Very Extremely Dangerous, came out in 1978 just as his label, Capricorn Records, collapsed. It quickly disappeared from view with little publicity, although it now has classic status. He also battled addictions and mental illness later in life, which saddled his career and limited his recorded output and touring abilities.
“My introduction to Eddie Hinton was in the backroom of Mole’s Records in Clifton in about 1987 or 1988, when I found a copy of Very Extremely Dangerous for about 99 cents and thought that it looked cool,” Blase says. “So I took it home and thought it was great.”
Dulli’s 45 pairs his moody, cathartic version of “Cover Me” with a take on the fateful “Hard Luck Guy.” One side of the Drive-By Truckers’ release features Patterson Hood singing “Everybody Needs Love” to a soulfully bluesy Country Rock arrangement. On the other, bassist Shonna Tucker wails her forlorn heart out on a slowly building, thrillingly melodramatic arrangement of a ballad called “Where’s Eddie?” (The Truckers wrote an original tribute to Hinton, “Sandwiches for the Road,” which appeared on the group’s debut album.)
You really have to know Hinton to know that last one — he co-wrote it with Fritts for an album that Scottish pop star Lulu recorded in Muscle Shoals back in 1969. And the Truckers do indeed know him — they’re all from the Muscle Shoals area of Alabama and Hood’s father, David Hood, is a bassist who played with Hinton in the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section.
“Patterson’s daddy played bass on that song, so that’s how it came into my life,” Tucker says in a phone interview before a Texas gig. “It’s a cool track and not that many people have heard it. I happen to be good friends with Donnie Fritts, who co-wrote the song, and he’s told me vivid details of the night they wrote it. I’m not sure I can tell you all the details, but I’ll just say they ended up finishing it in a tree. It’s always been a special song to me. It’s incredibly beautiful and it’s funny that Eddie wrote this song about himself for a woman to sing.”
Essentially, Blase is offering musicians $1,000 to cut Hinton covers when they can — it's not a moneymaker for anyone involved but rather a labor of love, he says.
“The reason for doing it as a series of 45s is he’s a great singles songwriter and never had hits on his own,” Blase says. “And it’s my favorite format. If you can’t do it in three minutes, do not do it. I like the aesthetic of it.”