Producer and songwriter Buddy Buie in 1970 decided he wanted to pull together some of the best musicians in the South to perform in the studio he, Rodney Mills, Bill Lowery and J.R. Cobb were putting together in Doraville.
For the recording workspace called Studio One, Buie recruited three musicians he had worked with in the Candymen, Roy Orbison’s back-up group. Among them was singer Rodney Justo. “Originally we were the house band at Studio One,” Justo explained.
For several years, Justo and fellow musicians played on other musicians’ albums three or four days a week as they worked on their own material on other days. “We were in our 20s then and worked 20, 25, 30 hours at a stretch. We were so excited about what we were doing it didn’t seem like work at all. It was just what we did,” he recalled.
The rest, as the adage goes, is musical history. The group that achieved national and international fame with such hits as “Spooky,” “So Into You,” “Imaginary Lover” and “Champagne Jam” is still performing in venues across the country. “We started in the ‘70s; we never thought we’d be in our 70s,” said Justo, who left the group during its early years and was replaced by lead singer Ronnie Hammond.
Justo later returned to Atlanta Rhythm Section. “They had the nerve to have hit songs without me,” he joked. The current band consists of Justo, keyboardist Dean Daughtry, another founding member and the only original member who never left the band, guitarists David Anderson and Steve Stone, bassist Justin Senker and drummer Rodger Stephan.
After the group had an opportunity to perform its own music—not as backup for other performers—members started to explore the possibility of a new name. “Nobody liked the name Atlanta Rhythm Section,” Justo remembered. “To musicians, a rhythm section is guitar, bass, drums and keyboard. That didn’t define us. We threw out all sorts of suggestions for a new name, but Buddy Buie liked Atlanta Rhythm Section—I think he really liked that fact that it tied us to Atlanta and encouraged the city to support us—so that’s the name we kept.”
Atlanta Rhythm Section reached the peak of its popularity in the late 1970s, when it released albums that went gold and platinum. The group performed at the White House at the invitation of fellow Georgian President Jimmy Carter, who introduced them as “my friends” and quipped, “Critics and commentators said they didn’t have a chance—they said the same thing about me.”
Justo describes Buie as the group’s Svengali—referencing a fictional character who guided another’s musical career by force of personality. “It was his dream that made Atlanta Rhythm Section possible,” he said.
“There are many bands from the ‘70s that got back together to do a tour, but we’re not a reunited group. We never stopped playing together,” Justo said. He noted that the group’s sound is often described as Southern rock, but said it covers a spectrum too broad for narrow categorization.
Justo said although band members now live in different cities—which he said is usual for bands these days—they remain close. “We keep up with what’s going on in one another’s families and when we get together it’s always, ‘What’s going on, man. It’s great to see you again.’”
Performances these days include a good deal of new material, but the group always performs the songs that first brought them national attention. “People expect it. We would never want to disappoint an audience,” said Justo, who added that he plans to keep playing “as long as I’m relevant. As long as people want to hear me and I’m able to perform, I will. After that, I’ll just go home and play with the grandkids.”
Justo said he has no regrets about anything in his career. “If I could wish for one thing to be different, I would wish better health for my friends. I would wish some of the people we have lost would still be with us.”
Over the years, four musicians who have performed with the group have died. In 1999, R. J. Vealey succumbed to heart attack at age 37. Hammond died of heart failure at age 60 in 2011. Robert Nix, who suffered from diabetes and multiple myeloma, died at age 67 in 2012 and Paul Goddard died of cancer at age 68 in 2014.
The group is performing Dec. 9 at Eddie’s Attic in Decatur, which Justo said is one of his favorite venues. “The people there are great and the audiences are great,” he said. “Returning to the Atlanta area is a bittersweet experience for me. I have a lot of memories—some awesome, some sad—from our years in Atlanta.”
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