Music has always been an integral part of The Shoals. We are placed along the banks of what the native people have long called, “the river that sings.” W.C. Handy, The Father of the Blues, was born here; legendary producer and founder of Sun Records, Sam Phillips, is also from The Shoals. So, perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that the influential style of music known as the Muscle Shoals Sound emerged from this same musically rich place.
Growing up in the 1960s and 70s, we had an abstract idea of the big sounds being produced all around us—but no one ever made a fuss about it. Sure, our neighbors made music for a living, but those neighbors certainly weren’t famous, were they? (Were they?) And so it wasn’t until years later that many in our community began to understand exactly what was happening around us while we were growing up.
Freddie Camalier’s 2013 documentary, Muscle Shoals, shines a light on our region’s musical accomplishments—for our community and the world to see. Because, while my community takes great pride in what our friends and neighbors have accomplished, I don’t think we always understood the magnitude of what happened (and still happens) here. Not everybody’s hometown manages to produce Wilson Pickett’s “Mustang Sally,” the Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There,” Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman,” Aretha Franklin’s “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You,” and the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar”.
Camalier’s Muscle Shoals tells the story of Rick Hall, producer and founder of FAME Studios, and the studio musicians—David Hood, Barry Beckett, Roger Hawkins, and Jimmy Johnson—who created the definitive Muscle Shoals sound. Early on, Hall, who was producing records with local musicians like Arthur Alexander and Percy Sledge, gathered a talented group of backing musicians; together this team at FAME began to earn attention and respect from people like Atlantic Records executive Jerry Wexler, who started sending artists to Muscle Shoals to record.
Many of Muscle Shoals’ early recording artists were surprised to discover that the backing musicians were white. “We just didn’t expect them to be as funky and greasy as they were,” Franklin says in the documentary. These studio musicians created a signature sound—swampy and soulful, with emphasis on drums and bass—that most fans and musicians assumed came from black R&B musicians. At the time, Alabama was still largely segregated, George Wallace was in power, and The Shoals was just one of many Southern regions where old and backward ways met with the emerging Civil Rights movement. Somehow in Muscle Shoals, a sense of purpose and musical bonds produced friendships—and classic American music.
Hall’s studio band—Beckett, Hawkins, Hood, and Johnson (and later Spooner Oldham and Pete Carr)—became known as the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section or, occasionally, “The Swampers”. The band initially didn’t consider themselves to be great musicians, playing sessions without written charts. In the film, Roger Hawkins remembers Jerry Wexler telling him he was a great drummer, “so I became one.” Together, they played on songs for Wilson Pickett, Etta James, Aretha Franklin, Clarence Carter, The Staple Singers, and many more. In 1969, the key members of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section split off from FAME to create a new studio: Muscle Shoals Sound Studio.
As FAME continued to record a host of artists with a new rhythm section, Muscle Shoals Sound Studio (technically located in Sheffield, Alabama) produced tracks for the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Cher, Rod Stewart, and Paul Simon. When the Muscle Shoals Sound was in full demand, our area was home to around 8 recording studios. And all of those famous artists probably stayed in our tiny Holiday Inn, and there are legends galore of interactions in local restaurants and cafeterias.
Today, FAME Studios still has a sign above the studio doorway that reads, “Through these doors walk the finest musicians, songwriters, artists and producers in the world.” That was and is still true. But, as these talented musicians finally receive well-earned recognition, they remain incredibly humble. Swamper and friend of Alabama Chanin, David Hood explained, “Some of the biggest records I played on, I might have made 70 bucks on, but at that time in the late-60s, early-70s that was really good money to do that. But now 40 years later, I think, “Gosh that record is played every day all over the world and I made 70 bucks.” But, he still gets a kick out of hearing a long-forgotten song he once played on. “My wife has heard this a hundred, a thousand times – ‘Hey, that’s me!’” David and the rest of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section are some of our favorite storytellers and greatest treasures.
FAME Studios remains an active and prolific center of music publishing and production. Last year, it was announced that the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio is being leased by Beats Electronics, the audio brand founded by rapper/producer Dr. Dre and Interscope Records co-founder, Jimmy Iovine, with the intention of restoring the 3614 studio to its original look and feel—with modernized features (more on that here). “Magic is a word that’s too often misused in the record industry. Muscle Shoals is different, it’s one of the rare places where it really exists,” Iovine said. “Anytime you can capture such a distinct and authentic sound over and over again, that’s something worth protecting.”
The next time you find yourself in Northwest Alabama, make your own detour to The Shoals and explore the musical heritage.
603 East Avalon Avenue
Muscle Shoals, AL 35661
Monday – Friday, 9:00am – 4:00pm
Saturday, 10:00am – 2:00pm
For reservations and/or questions, call: +1.256.381.0801
Muscle Shoals Sound Studios:
3614 N. Jackson Highway
Sheffield, AL 35660
Every day from 10:00am – 4:00pm
Buy tickets here.
For reservations and/or questions, call: +1.256.394.3562
Alabama Music Hall of Fame
617 Highway 72 West
Tuscumbia, AL 35674
Tuesday – Saturday, 9:00am – 5:00pm
For reservations and/or questions, call: +1.800.239.2643
$8 Students and Seniors
$6 Children (under 12)
Group rates and private tours are available.
P.S. Purchase a copy of the Muscle Shoals documentary here, or watch it on Netflix (it is currently streaming on Instant).
P.P.S: American Songwriter Magazine is hosting “Live and In Person” later this month in The Shoals. Join the tour here.