Muscle Shoals – The legendary studio where soul was born

Fifty years ago, in the poverty-struck deep South, Rick Hall created a sound that defined Aretha, Etta, the Stones and more.

John Clarke/05/27/11

Soul singer Wilson Pickett was at the height of his fame in the mid-1960s when Jerry Wexler, a partner of the New York-based Atlantic Records, sent him to record at a studio he’d recently discovered. The studio wasn’t in New York or Chicago or Philadelphia, or indeed in any major conurbation. It was 780 miles away in the middle of nowhere in Alabama, a state where, up to 1955, black people couldn’t even use the same bus as white folks, on land that didn’t exist until a dam in the 1920s turned the then dangerous Muscle Shoals into dry land.

Pickett told reporter Mark Jacobson: “I looked out the plane window and there’s these people picking cotton… This big Southern guy was at the airport. I said, ‘I don’t want to get off here, they still got black people picking cotton’. The man looked at me and said: ‘Fuck that. Come on, Pickett, let’s go make some hit records.'”

And they did. Within days Pickett had recorded “Land Of a Thousand Dances”, one of his biggest hits, in the studio created, controlled and inspired by Rick Hall the “big Southern guy” who remains one of America’s undiscovered musical heroes. “A po’ boy from the bottom of the agrarian ladder”, as Wexler described him, he managed to found a recording centre that was to cater for everybody from Aretha Franklin to The Osmonds, from Bob Dylan to Paul Simon and from Etta James to the Rolling Stones.

Hall was born in 1932, in rural poverty in Freedom Hills, 40 miles away from Muscle Shoals, to a father who worked in a sawmill and a mother who left home when he was five. He dabbled in country music and lost his first wife in 1957 when she died in a car crash 18 months after they married. Two weeks later, his father died when his tractor overturned. He found solace in music.

“He has a titanic love of music,” says Dean Rudland, of London-based Ace Records, which is planning a massive reissue programme of material recorded by Hall. “When you look at this place, there was one road going in and one road coming out. That it became a major recording centre was all down to him.”

Hall’s record production dreams began with a tiny studio at the back of a bus station in Florence, Alabama, in the late 1950s. Hall set up his Fame (Florence Alabama Musical Enterprises) studio in an old warehouse in Muscle Shoals and recorded his first hit with a hotel bellhop called Arthur Alexander exactly 50 years ago in 1961. His recording of “You Better Move On” heralded a new style of rhythm and blues with gospel overtones that people would later christen “soul”. The record made the US Top 30 and also caught the ear of a young Mick Jagger, who covered it on the Rolling Stones’ first EP.

With the money he made, Hall moved into the custom-made studio where Fame would record its greatest work. Jimmy Hughes entered it as a local gospel singer and emerged as one of the first true Southern soul singers, with hits such as “Steal Away” and “Neighbor Neighbor”. But it was his cousin, a shy hospital orderly called Percy Sledge, who would put Muscle Shoals on the map. Sledge’s “When A Man Loves A Woman” reached the top of the Billboard charts in 1966 and Muscle Shoals suddenly had its entrance into the world of big stars and big bucks.

Wexler, who distributed the Sledge record, had fallen out with the Stax studio boss in Memphis where he’d mentored Otis Redding and Sam and Dave and recorded Pickett. So he set his sights on Muscle Shoals. Pickett was followed by Aretha Franklin, who cut one of the defining records of the soul era at Muscle Shoals.

Franklin, a preacher’s daughter, had just been signed by Wexler for Atlantic after a steady if unspectacular stint at Columbia Records. Aretha had brought along her husband Ted White, a man who Time magazine described as a “Detroit wheeler-dealer”. The Fame studio was actually in a “dry” county but alcohol had been brought in. As the drinking increased, White began to complain that the musicians were made up of “nothing but white boys”. A trumpet player traded insults with White and Franklin and, one report suggests, “pinched her butt”. Then, in the words of Wexler: “The evening euphoria turned to horror. It was Walpurgisnacht, a Wagnerian shitstorm, things flying to pieces, everyone going nuts.” Franklin and White stormed out and Hall, who had also been drinking heavily throughout the evening, followed them to their hotel room where calm discussion progressed to what Hall recalled as “a real slugfest”.

It ended as a drunken Hall, ejected from Franklin’s room, reeled through the lobby of the hotel in the middle of a wedding reception, picked up a phone and told White: “You better get your ass out of this town.” Franklin and White left, never to return.

The Muscle Shoals rhythm section moved to New York to finish the session. The music, born out of distrust, discord and disaster, was sublime. “I Never Loved A Man” gave Franklin the first big hit of her career and “Do Right Woman – Do Right Man”, started in Alabama, finished in New York, was almost as good.

At Muscle Shoals things became slightly complicated. The session men went off to form their own Muscle Shoals Studios, leaving Hall to soldier on with a new breed of black writers and musicians, including the blind Clarence Carter; the former wife of a Pentecostal minister, called Candi Staton; and aspiring songwriter George Jackson. Carter and Staton both prospered in the soul charts and in the UK, where “Patches” gave the former a No 2 hit. The mighty Chess label in Chicago sent artists including Etta James and Laura Lee down, but it was a bunch of white boys who gave Muscle Shoals its rock credibility in 1969, when the Rolling Stones stopped there to record “Wild Horses” and “Brown Sugar”. The latter was “a very instant thing, a definite high point”, Jagger recalled.

At the Fame studios it was a very different bunch of white kids who would provide Hall with his next his success and provide a pointer to the studio’s future. Written by George Jackson and given a Jackson 5-style makeover, “One Bad Apple” gave the Mormon family group The Osmonds a huge hit and set them on the road to pop superstardom.

Other acts followed to the five or six other studios that now dotted this otherwise rural area. They included Tom Jones, Rod Stewart and Bob Dylan. How far Muscle Shoals was getting away from the rhythm and blues and soul that had defined it was shown in Paul Anka’s “You’re Having My Baby”, cut there in 1974 and voted the worst song of all time in a poll conducted by CNN in 2006.

But the heritage remains, as Dean Rudland of Ace Records discovered as he went through the Fame tape vaults. All have been amazed at the quality of material that hasn’t been heard for 40 years. “Often these were just demo recordings, but the quality and musicianship is amazing,” says Rudland. “They could all be finished masters.”



2 Responses to “Muscle Shoals – The legendary studio where soul was born”

  1. Hip Hop Reviews Says:

    Wilson Pickett was awesome. They he had a “one in a million” type voices. I have listened to many of his songs. He overcame race and became a hit with both blacks and whites.

    Hip Hop Website

  2. Alabama, not Kentucky? | Make Mine Potato Says:

    […] Alabama was the site of some of soul music’s greatest recordings, and according to another website whose validity is unknown to me, drinking (maybe beer?) led to Aretha Franklin and her husband Ted […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: