In the revolving door-lineups of classic-rock bands over the years, the lead singer is usually the most difficult to replace. His or her look and sound are often the most distinctive, and locked in the collective audience memory. For the Atlanta Rhythm Section, it was Ronnie Hammond’s voice on classic-rock staples like “Imaginary Lover,” “So Into You,” “I’m Not Gonna Let It Bother Me Tonight,” and “Spooky.”
But by the time he passed away in 2011, the singer — who had mental and substance abuse issues — had already been out of the band for a decade, with Andy Anderson taking on those duties. When it came time for the next switch at the mike there was one logical – and obvious – choice: the guy who Hammond himself replaced, original ARS singer Rodney Justo.
The Atlanta Rhythm Section formed in 1970 as an ad-hoc grouping of crack session musicians who had become the house band for Studio One in Doraville, Georgia. Also in the lineup were Dean Daughtry (keyboards), Barry Bailey and Paul Goddard (bass), and Robert Nix (drums). James. “J.R.” Cobb also joined on second guitar. Overseeing it all and guiding the fledgling group was producer/songwriter Perry “Buddy” Buie.
Some of the players were former members of the Classics IV (“Spooky,” “Stormy,” “Traces”) and the Candymen, Roy Orbison’s backing band who went on to release records of their own. Justo was part of the latter, and learned a valuable lesson from the Man Behind the Shades.
“I learned how to treat people," Justo says from the Atlanta airport during a layover between flights. "Roy was a very decent guy, a nice guy. He’d be tired after a show, but of someone wanted to talk to him, he’d talk all night long. That made an impression on me. Even [Four Seasons singer] Frankie Valli once told me that Roy was the nicest guy in rock and roll!”
Atlanta Rhythm Section's self-titled debut was released in 1972, but didn’t garner much in the way of commercial or critical attention. Dissatisfied with a possible future in a small town as part of a session band backing others – and one who had just gotten a job soundtracking a cartoon – Justo left the group.
“I moved to New York. It’s complicated…” he trails off. “But I figured if I was going to be a singer, let me do it in a city that has the most record sessions.”
He was replaced by Hammond, who saw the group hit with a string of successful singles, albums and concert dates through much of the ‘70s. Of course, given their place of origin, ARS (as they were known to many a shorthand user) were quickly put into the then-smoking hot-category of “Southern Rock.” It’s a label that Justo doesn't particularly care for.
“Everybody wants to put you somewhere. And if you want to put us on the Southern Rock grouping, we really don’t belong,” he offers. “To me, Southern Rock is Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Outlaws, Molly Hatchet. And The Allman Brothers are a blues band. But if you listen to [our] hits, they are classic-rock hits, not just Southern Rock hits.”
Justo says he was asked back into the fold full-time because the group had become more of a tribute band with just Daughtry still active from the glory days. And who better to make a firmer claim on the band’s legacy than he?
“I don’t claim to be Ronnie, but I know and accept the fact that I’m part of a legacy,” he says. “And I didn’t want it to die.”
Something (or someone) he also didn't want to die was Buie, who passed away in July of this year. He became the latest in a string of ARS deaths that included Goddard in 2014 and Nix in 2012.
“I wanted Buddy to come out to a show and see some of the [lesser-known] cuts we’d been working up like ‘Boogie Smoogie’ and ‘Jukin’,” and he said he was so happy to hear that and would come to see us,” Justo says. “But he died a week later. I had been gone from the band for a long time, but I was still trying to get his approval!”
Justo — along with Daughtry on keyboards — leads the 2015 edition of the Atlanta Rhythm Section, which also includes guitarists Steve Stone and David Anderson, bassist Justin Senker, and drummer Jim Keeling.
Their set list of course includes the hits, but also now some deep cuts and a new material. And the singer is happy to be back in place, coming onboard permanently nearly 40 years after first leaving the group.
Justo has some Houston musical connections via singer/songwriter B.J. Thomas, for whom he was a bandleader for a stint in the ‘70s, as well as Thomas’ producer Steve Tyrell, who went on to a successful solo singing career of his own.
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He recalls first meeting Thomas in “1965 or 1966” during a gig at the Sam Houston Coliseum on a bill that he remembers included Roy Orbison & the Candymen, the Four Tops, Billy Joe Royal, Roy Head and Thomas with his band at the time, the Triumphs.
“I am very close friends with B.J. today," Justo says. "He evolved into this really sweet, generous and giving guy. But believe me, he had his days in the barrel where he wasn’t good to be around. And he would tell you that. He wasn’t a bastion of good behavior and fought a lot of demons. But he’s much, much different now.”
Justo also has high praise for the Dosey Doe Café’s “Big Barn” in The Woodlands, where ARS recently played. “Our gig before that was at a [festival] for 40,000, and then we did that intimate venue for 300. And I loved it,” he says. “That’s a great little place and the people who run it are great. And the food is great!”
Atlanta Rhythm Section will perform at the annual Coastal Conservation Association concert this Saturday at Sam Houston Race Park, 7575 N. Sam Houston Pkwy. W; also on the bill are Lynyrd Skynyrd, Grand Funk Railroad, Eddie Money and Folk Family Revival. Tickets start at $40.