Land of 1000 sessions: Muscle Shoals ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 5, 2013)

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Things That Make You Feel Like An Old Hippie, #342: It’s possible that there’s a whole generation of musicians now who have never heard the words “Tape’s rolling.” Oh, they may have dabbled in ACID…but any bedroom studio hipster will tell you that’s just a gateway drug to Pro Tools 9. At any rate, if you’re old enough to remember how to thread a TEAC A-3340S, you may find yourself getting a little misty-eyed watching an engaging new documentary from first-time director Greg “Freddy” Camalier.

His aptly entitled Muscle Shoals examines the origins and legacy of what has become known as the Muscle Shoals “sound”. It’s a sound borne of heart, soul, sweat…and close miking the bass drums. According to mystically-inclined interviewees, it’s about Native-American spirits, harmonic convergence, and location, location, location. Muscle Shoals, Alabama lies in the deep American South…as in banks of the Tennessee, goin’ down to the crossroads, cotton fields back home, South, y’all. Aretha Franklin describes it as a greasy kind of sound. At its heart, however, Camalier’s film is a tale of two studios.

The story begins in the late 1950s, when songwriter/musician Rick Hall founded FAME Studios (an acronym for Florence Alabama Music Enterprises) with two partners. Hall went solo on the venture a few years later, moving the studio down the road a piece to Muscle Shoals. Hall hit one out of the park on the very first session he did in the new digs, Arthur Alexander’s “You Better Move On”. That song became one of the first hits for the Rolling Stones, when they covered it soon after. The yet-to-be-defined Muscle Shoals “sound” also caught the fancy of the Beatles, who covered “Anna” on their debut UK album Please Please Me (a song Alexander cut during those same sessions). Hall then used the profits to move his studio to its now iconic address on Avalon Avenue.

There was a secret to Hall’s subsequent success, which wasn’t solely due to his (obvious) prowess as a producer. That would be the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, aka “The Swampers” (who are name-checked in Lynyrd Skynrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama”). The Swampers were to FAME Studios what the “Funk Brothers” were to Motown; a crack group of players who brought an indefinable mojo to songs like Wilson Pickett’s “Mustang Sally”, Aretha Franklin’s “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” and Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman”. The Swampers formed a tight bond with Hall; which made for a little awkwardness in 1969 when they had to inform their soon to be ex-boss that Atlantic Records’ Jerry Wexler (who had originally brought Franklin and Pickett to work with Hall) was luring them away by building them their own local studio. As Hall recalls in the film, that meant “war” with Wexler and his friends-turned-rivals.

This turned out to be a one-sided kind of war; the good kind…as in “A-side”. In their eagerness to one-up each other, Hall at FAME and the traitors at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio churned out a mess of classic sides, leaving music fans to enjoy the spoils. Hall went on to produce choice cuts by the likes of Candi Staton, Etta James, Clarence Carter, Bobby Gentry, George Jackson, Lou Rawls and Wilson Pickett (in the film, Hall proudly cites Duane Allman’s fiery fretwork on Pickett’s “Hey Jude” as the genesis of “southern rock”). As FAME drifted into the country arena, Muscle Shoals attracted rockers like Traffic, Canned Heat, Lynyrd Skynrd, Rod Stewart, Bob Seger and The Rolling Stones (the 1970 documentary Gimme Shelter captures footage of the Stones at Muscle Shoals working on “Wild Horses”).

One interesting aspect regarding this unique confluence of talent is the “colorblind” factor; especially when you consider when and where it all took place. The Swampers were the original “average white band”; there are some amusing anecdotes in the film about some African-American artists’ initial shock when they found out that the soulful players who they had hitherto heard but not seen were so “pale” by comparison. While the civil rights movement was making significant headway throughout Muscle Shoals’ most prolific and influential period, they were stuck in a part of America where (there’s no polite way to put this) such news flashes weren’t getting through.

Mssrs Jagger and Richards are among the music luminaries on board to reminisce and/or offer insights (although I wish they had subtitled Keith’s typically unintelligible musings). Key members of The Swampers pitch in, as well as Jimmy Cliff, Percy Sledge, Candi Staton, Steve Winwood, Gregg Allman and, erm, Bono (did U2 ever record there?). If you get a kick out of vintage performance footage, there’s a good amount of it on hand. I would have preferred more screen time devoted to the producer’s studio techniques, but that’s a personal problem. While the film gets a bit repetitive in the second half (how many ways can one describe the “magic” of a “special place”?) it’s an enjoyable couple of hours for any music fan with a pulse.

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