Tuesday, November 5, 2013

There must be something in the water: the magic of "Muscle Shoals"

In the early 19th Century, a tribe of Euchee Indians lived contentedly along the Tennessee River, near Muscle Shoals, Alabama. The Euchees considered the Tennessee sacred; they believed that a goddess dwelled there who protected the tribe from harm and sang to them in the whispering tones of the river. 

Forced off their land in the 1830s by the white man, the indigenous Euchees moved to Muskogee, Oklahoma. The new landscape was fallow; with no spiritual connection to the land, the Euchees were unable to perform their rituals. 

Hungering for the singing river, a young Euchee woman (Tehlanay) began a journey back to the Tennessee River which took five years. Tehlanay's spirit lives on in the woods surrounding Muscle Shoals in an arresting stone memorial erected by her great-great grandson, Tom Hendrix, whose masterwork made its way into the Library of Congress.   

This is one of the many stories which feed the mystery at the heart of "Muscle Shoals," a
wondrous new music documentary from first-time director Greg "Freddy" Camalier.  

What is it about certain locations and eras that produces timeless music? 

One expects to find musical history in cosmopolitan hubs like New York, London, or Los Angeles, but how is it that a remote Alabama town of five thousand people contributed a panoply of the most soulful '60s and '70s tracks pressed onto wax?

The mystique of Muscle Shoals is implied with nature documentary-like camera work which is seamlessly woven into a lively mix of interviews and archival footage. At various points the slow-moving camera eye lingers on deep swamp, a purling stream, a bright field of daisies, water washing over riverbed rock. 

The actualization of the Muscle Shoals sound is conveyed through the anecdotes of rock 'n' soul royalty (Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Steve Winwood, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Bono) and the largely unknown studio musicians who backed the stars. 

And then there's Rick Hall - engineer, producer, entrepreneur, protagonist. The son of a mill worker, Hall grew up poor in a
Rick Hall with Otis Redding
shack with a dirt floor and no bathroom; he slept on a bed of straw. Beset by grim personal tragedies that could have come from a Faulkner novel, the resilient 
Hall dedicated his life to music, the one thing that gave him solace.  

Hall's father taught him that "good isn't good enough." Rick had to be the best at whatever he pursued. 

After being fired from his first studio engineering job  (because he was considered too driven and too serious about his work), Hall opened Fame Recording Studios in a converted tobacco warehouse, in 1959. Hall knew he had to produce hits to keep the studio in business; he first struck it big in 1961 with "You Better Move On" by Arthur Alexander, a local bellhop.

With the money from "You Better Move On," Hall opened a new-and-improved studio which operates to this day. To support the vocalists who recorded at Fame, Hall recruited a group of Muscle Shoals area teenagers--later nicknamed "The Swampers"--as his house band. Hall christened the new studio with "Steal Away," a ballad by local resident Jimmy Hughes which reached #17 on the Billboard charts.  

The notoriety from this hit brought business to Muscle Shoals. In time, Hall became so busy that an overflow studio, Norala Sound Studio, was opened in nearby Sheffield. In 1966, Percy Sledge, an orderly at the Sheffield hospital, recorded "When a Man Loves a Woman" with The Swampers at Norala. After the single was cut, Hall contacted Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records, who helped with distribution and marketing, making it a monster hit.

The connection to Wexler and Atlantic brought soul star Wilson Pickett to Muscle Shoals. Upon his arrival at the studio, Pickett was aghast at the sight of cotton fields, a symbol of the contrast between the world outside Fame Sound Studios and the world inside. 

Outside was the Deep South of George Wallace, which was largely hostile to civil rights.
Black and white members of the Fame collective were liable to draw dirty looks when they dined together in public, and aClarence Carter recounted, African-Americans were expected to address whites as "Mr." or "Ms." 

Inside the studio, where everyone was on a first-name basis, a rhythm section of white country boys supported by a biracial horn accompaniment backed black soul singers. The Muscle Shoals sound was so integrated that Paul Simon called Al Bell and asked to record with the black musicians who'd played on the Bell-penned "I'll Take You There," not knowing that The Swampers had been the backing band. According to the lore, Bell said, "That can happen, but these guys are mighty pale." 

Pickett and The Swampers recorded three big hits ("Land of a 1000 Dances," "Mustang Sally," and "Funky Broadway"). The success of these sessions helped Rick Hall score his next big coup.

At the time, Aretha Franklin had been under contract with Columbia Records, which had wasted her interpretive talents on ill-fitting arrangements and then dropped her from the label. 

Jerry Wexler signed Aretha to Atlantic Records and sent her down to Fame, despite some misgivings about the Muscle Shoals method. At Atlantic's New York studios, arrangements were fully composed in advance and trained studio musicians played off of charts, but in Muscle Shoals the recording process was more of an organic, collaborative effort. Aretha and the backup band had "head sessions." She threw out ideas and the band constructed a song piece by piece, together. As Wilson Pickett said, "They'd find the groove." 

One result of this process was "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Loved You)," a number one hit which launched the Queen of Soul. 

Also recorded with the Swampers were the big hits "Chain of Fools," "Think," "(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman," "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man," and "Respect." 


In 1969, just as Rick Hall was signing a lucrative contract with Capitol Records, the Swampers went into business for themselves, opening the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio across town. This studio went on to incredible success, hosting Bob Dylan, Traffic, Rod Stewart, Bob Seger, Boz Scaggs, and the Rolling Stones, who cut three classic tracks there ("Wild Horses," "Brown Sugar," and the nitty gritty "You Gotta Move") in just two days. 

Unbowed, Rick Hall replaced The Swampers with a new group of studio musicians (The Fame Gang) and continued on without a hitch, eventually becoming the Billboard Producer of the Year in 1971.

Among Hall's big finds was Duane Allman. In the beginning, Hall didn't let Allman into the Fame rotation, because he wasn't yet a known quantity. According to Gregg Allman, since they had "all the time in the world," he convinced his brother to go horseback riding. Duane wasn't hot on the idea, but he went along with it, only to fall off the horse and injure his elbow.
Wilson Pickett and Duane Allman
Unable to play guitar, Duane holed up in his apartment and refused to talk to Gregg.

Eager to get back in his older brother's good graces, Gregg left a gift-wrapped copy of the then-new Taj Mahal album (which included crafty slide guitar work from Jesse "Ed" Davis) and a bottle of Coricidin pills on Duane's porch. He rang the bell and fled.

Two hours later, Duane called Gregg up and asked him to come over. When Gregg arrived, he found that Duane had dumped the pills out and begun playing slide guitar with the Coricidin bottle. Within the next couple years Duane would become one of the most renowned rock 'n' blues slide players ever.

Such tales of happenstance inspiration make "Muscle Shoals" a rich and uplifting way to spend 111 minutes. The movie is a big, juicy slice of Americana which reflects the unique power of music to bind us together through our common humanity. Coming soon to a theater near you.

                                                 Other "Truth and Beauty" film reviews:

                                                                         "Inequality for All"

                                                                   "A spoiler-free review of 'Mud'"        


"Honest Abe Makes Sausage" (about "Lincoln")

"Errol Morris Strikes Again" (about "Tabloid")


  1. Fascinating piece about invincible Rick Hall, who didn't see why a Poor White background should keep him down or keep him from heading up one of the best, most Soul-nurturing studios ever to exist....and essential information , complete with great links, to great musicians of the era. Thank you for a fine job, Dan.

  2. The South has always produced the best music. Most of the Motown stars were Southern born or from Southern families. T
    hat is just the facts.