ONE STEP AHEAD OF THE BLUES | Muscle Shoals: A Curious Place in Rock ‘n’ Roll History

06/05/14 | By | More

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In the late 1960s and early 70s, there were multiple epicenters of rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm and blues in the United States. There was New York, whose gritty sound was epitomized by the Velvet Underground; Los Angeles and the “Laurel Canyon sound” featured groups like Buffalo Springfield, the Byrds and the Doors; San Francisco was home to psychedelic rock by the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane; in Oklahoma, there was the “Tulsa Sound,” that included Leon Russell and JJ Cale; Sun Studios and Stax Records in Memphis were in their heydays (and so was Motown Records in Detroit); in Nashville, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson were pioneering “Outlaw Country,” and in New Orleans Dr. John and the Meters were laying it on thick.

But there was one place that produced more hits per capita than any of those major cities – Muscle Shoals, Ala.  It was in this town of 8,000 people that Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour” and Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman” were recorded. And the backing band for some of the top black R&B and soul artists of the era were a group of white local musicians, who were barely out of high school when they started recording.

The story of the Muscle Shoals Sound is the subject of a 2013 documentary Muscle Shoals (which is available on Netflix). The film tells the fascinating story of producer Rick Hall, the founder of Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, and the house band at Fame Studios, the Swampers (who would eventually leave Fame and start their own studio).  The Swampers were Barry Beckett (keyboards), Roger Hawkins (drums), Jimmy Johnson (guitar) and David Hood on bass (Hood is the father of Patterson Hood, lead singer and guitarist of The Drive-By Truckers.)

So what made Muscle Shoals such a hotbed of music? An all-star cast of musicians chimes in on this question throughout the film. Muscle Shoals is located close to the Tennessee and Mississippi borders, on a tributary of the Tennessee River. Bono points out that every great music city has a river running through it, and suggests some of the swamp from the river found its way into the groove. Jimmy Cliff added his own theory as to why Muscle Shoals was such a magnet for music. “At different points in time there are certain places where there is a field of energy,” Cliff said. “At this certain point in time, there was Muscle Shoals.”

The land is former Cherokee territory and a native descendant tells the story about his grandmother who called the river “the river of songs.” When she was displaced and sent to Oklahoma, she claimed that the rivers there had no songs, so she walked back to Muscle Shoals. The trip took her six years.

The Civil Rights Movement was in full force and when asked the question “which side are you on?” Alabama was definitely on the wrong side. Yet in Muscle Shoals, white and black musicians were transcending race and working together to make history.

The movie is beautifully shot and it sounds even better.  Keith Richards appears often, explaining what drew the Rolling Stones to Muscle Shoals.  The Stones recorded “Brown Sugar” and “Wild Horses” there in 1969. If it weren’t for problems with their Visas, Richards said, they would have recorded Exile on Main Street in Muscle Shoals.

One of my favorite segments of the film involves Duane Allman. Duane only lived to be 25, so there are very few chapters in his all-too-young life, but Muscle Shoals is one of them.  In 1968, Duane and Greg were living in Los Angeles as part of the band The Hourglass. The label was not allowing the band to tour. Frustrated, Duane left Los Angeles and headed to Muscle Shoals, where he parked himself outside Fame Studios and refused to leave until Hall hired him. It was Duane who convinced Wilson Pickett to record “Hey Jude.” Wilson balked at first, but eventually relented, and his version of “Hey Jude” is incendiary.

Greg Allman told a story about how, before leaving California, he took Duane on a horseback ride.  Duane fell off the horse and hurt his elbow, leaving him unable to play the guitar.  Greg brought him a copy of Taj Mahal’s eponymous debut.  Being a Taj fanatic, I loved this story.  On that record, Taj does a version of “Statesboro Blues,” which became a staple of the Allman Brothers’ repertoire.

The list of amazing songs recorded in Muscle Shoals is long – “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You” by Aretha Franklin, “Sweet Home Alabama” and ”Freebird” by Lynrd Skynrd, “I’ll Take You There” by the Staples Singers, “Old-time Rock ‘n’ Roll” and “Main Street” by Bob Seger, “Sitting in Limbo” by Jimmy Cliff, “Kodachrome” by Paul Simon, “Gotta Serve Somebody” by Bob Dylan, “(Sometimes I Feel So) Uninspired” by Traffic, and many more.

Muscle Shoals is not earth-shattering or groundbreaking, but it sheds some light on a curious piece of rock ‘n’ roll history. The film is like musical candy. It’s easy on the eyes and easy on the ears.

I put together a play list of music both in and inspired by the film. Enjoy the tunes and stay one step ahead of the blues.

01 Hey Jude –Wilson Pickett w- Duane Allman

02 I’d Rather Go Blind –- Etta James

03 When a Man Loves a Woman — Percy Sledge

04 Respect — Aretha Franklin

05 Steal Away — Jimmy Hughes

06 You better move on — Arthur Alexander

07 Games People Play –- King Kurtis W/ Duane Allman

08 Tell Mama – Etta James

09 Brown sugar — Rolling Stones

10 Kodachrome — Paul Simon

11 Statesboro Blues. –- Taj Mahal with Gregg Allman

12 Wild Horses — Rolling Stones

13 Been gone too long — The Hourglass

14 The Weight — Aretha Franklin

15 Pressing On — Alicia Keys

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Category: One Step Ahead of the Blues

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