Few songs and performances express longing as well as the smoldering ballad "Steal Away" by Jimmy Hughes. An early example of the transition that '50s R&B made into '60s Southern soul, this 1962 Top 20 hit is almost ground zero of the Muscle Shoals/Memphis scene, which pumped out vital, chart-topping music for more than a decade.
Producer Rick Hall had just scored a huge hit with Arthur Alexander's "You Better Move On," recorded the year before, when Hughes, who had been singing in gospel groups, walked into the newly built, second and definitive version of Fame studio in Muscle Shoals, AL. Hughes, a worker at a tire and rubber shop down the street, came in with the song he had written, "Steal Away." Hall liked it, called in Dan Penn's Pallbearers -- who had backed Alexander -- and tracked the song. (Penn later became a famous songwriter and producer in his own right.) With some personal legwork (after resistance from established labels), Hall printed up copies of the record himself and hit the road, personally delivering copies -- "and a bottle of booze," he notes in Randy Poe's liner notes to The Muscle Shoals Sound (1993) -- to every disc jockey he could find in the South. Soon the demand exceeded the supply and Vee Jay Records came in to distribute the single. Hall had quickly put himself and his studio on the map, along with these two soul auteurs. "The first record I produced was 'You Better Move On,'" recalled Hall. "The second record I produced was 'Steal Away.' I was batting 1,000, and nobody could tell me anything."
The first thing you notice about Hughes' recording is the sultry groove; it is striking, entering with a fat bass and guitar line -- played by Norbert Putnam and Terry Thompson, respectively -- leaving space for David Briggs' upright piano riffs. Jerry Carrigan lays down a solid, simple drumbeat with an easygoing feel, locked in tightly with the bass and guitar. Hughes gives a career-making vocal performance. He begins the lyric patiently, though insistently: "I've got to see you/Somehow/Not tomorrow/Right now/I know it's late/Woah, I just can't wait/So come on and steal away." Allowing room for the arrangement to build, he slowly starts to steam up, the sense of urgency increasing, with a truly funny line beginning the second verse: "Now don't start thinking/Trying to make up your mind." And the arrangement does indeed build, adding an organ pad -- also provided by Briggs -- and echo-drenched, three-person backing vocals, the song growing more tense with each subsequent section. Hughes' sinewy melody dips octaves and turns rhythmically during the bridge, stylistically reminiscent of jazz singer Joe Williams. By the final verse, Hughes is vamping in a high register tenor that approaches a falsetto, carried away by the spirit of his own performance.
Peter Guralnick notes in his Sweet Soul Music (1986) that "Steal Away" was influential from a subject-matter point of view: "It started a string of increasingly explicit 'sneaking around' songs." The song is not a strict blues, but neither is it polished in the manner of the urban R&B of the time. It is a quintessential example of early-'60s Southern soul. Etta James and Johnny Taylor, though, did treat the song as more of a blues standard. James keeps some of Hughes' sweeping melody and churchy soulfulness, but Taylor reads the song as a funky blues, ironing out a lot of the song's character in the process.