In the 1960s, the civil rights movement that demanded equality and justice for Black Americans produced a backlash amongst segregationists. In the American South, where Jim Crow laws had been in effect for generations, this commitment to massive resistance and white supremacy was often violent. These were turbulent, tumultuous years. Certainly, no one would have expected a small town in northwest Alabama to become a hub for the production of soul and rhythm and blues music during these years. But that is what happened.
The FAME and Muscle Shoals Sound recording studios, with their soulful, bluesy sound, attracted artists like Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, and the Staple Singers. These artists performed alongside studio musicians who, as they discovered upon arriving, were primarily white. They didn’t play like it though. The studio musicians of FAME, like Barry Beckett, Roger Hawkins, David Hood, and Jimmy Johnson, largely came of age in the 1950s, when R&B and rock and roll music – inspired by Black artists – was becoming the sound. These Black artists and the white studio musicians created a collaborative recording environment, a safe interracial space in the middle of a hostile region. For them, it was all about the music—the Muscle Shoals sound.
“Rick Hall, Wilson Pickett, and Jimmy Johnson” via Roots of American Music Trail
Producers like Rick Hall and the team at Muscle Shoals Sound Studios knew the obstacles they were facing in convincing Black artists to record in Alabama. They intentionally created safe spaces and flouted racial customs. Singer Clarence Carter recalled that in most places, he had to refer to white people by “Mr.” or “Mrs.,” where in Muscle Shoals studios, everyone was on a first-name basis. Not that some weren’t hesitant. Wilson Pickett told journalist Mark Jacobson that, upon arriving in Muscle Shoals, “I looked out the plane window, and there’s these people picking cotton. I said to myself, ‘I ain’t getting off this plane, take me back north.’… [Rick Hall] looked at me and said, “F__K that. Come on, Pickett, let’s go make some hit records.” Soon, Pickett’s hesitance turned to excitement.
And yet, despite the magic of the studio, local musicians and visiting artists sometimes admitted to feeling unsafe when they took breaks from the studio or went outside their comfort zones for meals. Filmmaker Greg Camalier, in his 2013 documentary, Muscle Shoals, says, “I found out that the Klan was actually near there during that time period. Some of the guys talked about being afraid when they were traveling together with the artists around town, but as far as I know, nothing ever happened in the studio.” At one point, too, Wilson Pickett and Duane Allman both hung back from a studio break (one feeling uneasy because of his Blackness and the other fearful of being abused because of his “hippie” looks) – and that sense of being isolated together resulted in a fruitful collaboration and one of Pickett’s most iconic songs: a cover of the Beatles’ “Hey Jude”. (Listen here.)
“Welcome to City of Muscle Shoals, Hit Recording Capital of the World”, via Muscle Shoals Sound Foundation
Somehow, despite the realities of racial and political conflict, this little town in Northwest Alabama produced some of the great music of the 1960s. As producer Jerry Wexler wrote in his autobiography, “I could see that Southern whites liked their music uncompromisingly black. Despite the ugly legacy of Jim Crow, their white hearts and minds were gripped, it would seem, forevermore.”
If you would like to learn more about the Muscle Shoals music scene, we recommend Camalier’s documentary—or pick up Peter Guralnick’s Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom for an overview of the artists and music of the time.
Lead image: Etta James, Bow Legs Miller, Billy Foster, and Rick Hall during the legendary 1968 “Tell Mama” session at FAME Recording Studios in Muscle Shoals, AL. Photograph courtesy of FAME Recording Studios.
Editor’s Note: After this post published, Rodney Hall, Rick Hall’s son and the President of FAME Studios, shared with us an inaccuracy in our post that we have since removed: “Aretha Franklin famously fled Muscle Shoals after a reported racial incident, but still credits the musicians and producers for helping to foster her iconic sound.”
Rodney kindly let us know that “Aretha Franklin did not leave town over any racial strife. She left because her then-husband Ted White got drunk in the session leading him to be jealous of one of the musicians who he thought was flirting with Aretha. White demanded the horn player be fired. So Rick Hall fired him. After the session was called off due to the tension, Hall decided to go to the hotel and try to make amends with White and Aretha. At this point, he had hit the bottle as well. White answered the door screaming at Hall which led to a fight. In the 53 years since I have not heard one person involved in the session ever portrayed the incident as racial including Aretha.”