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Documentary explores connection between geographical places and musical genres

A new film explores the idea of music as a part of the physical and spiritual fabric of a place, such as Muscle Shoals, Alabama, famous for gospel-infused soul, Dave Stelfox reports

Etta James, seated, rehearses as bandmates and the owner of Fame Studios, Rick Hall, right, look on during a recording session circa 1967 in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. House Of Fame LLC / Michael Ochs Archive / Getty Images
Etta James, seated, rehearses as bandmates and the owner of Fame Studios, Rick Hall, right, look on during a recording session circa 1967 in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. House Of Fame LLC / Michael Ochs Archive / Getty Images

"My grandmother's people called what we call the Tennessee River today the Nunnuhsae; the river that sings," explains Tom Hendrix, a descendant of the Yuchi Native American tribe, of the waterway that courses through the southern state of Alabama. "The great dams have softened the woman in the river's songs, but if you go to a very quiet place and listen carefully, you can hear them now. I know - I still hear them almost every day."

The idea of music as a tangible part of the physical and spiritual fabric of a place sits at the heart of Muscle Shoals, a new documentary named for a small town that in the late 1960s became a byword for the rawest, most infectious gospel-infused soul. Directed by Greg Camalier, this beautifully shot and impeccably researched feature focuses on the personal reminiscences of figures such as the producer and legendary studio owner Rick Hall and members of the celebrated backing band the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section.

In addition to chronicling the massive contribution to popular music made by these figures, Muscle Shoals also offers a subtle and nuanced reading of a particular period of American social history. It is difficult to overstate the role of soul - particularly the music being made in industrialised northern US cities such as Detroit - as a driving force behind the struggle for African-American civil rights in the 1960s and 1970s. However, the story told here provides a complementary narrative of black and white musicians working together naturally, pragmatically and with little discernible political motivation.

In many ways, the story of Muscle Shoals is one of triumph over insurmountable odds. Hall grew up the son of an impoverished sharecropper. Describing his early life, he says: "We grew up like animals. That made me somewhat bitter, somewhat driven. I wanted to be special. I wanted to be somebody." After military service, the death of his father and young wife, a period supporting himself by playing in travelling bands and an abortive involvement with a publishing company by the name of Florence Alabama Music Enterprises (Fame), he returned to his hometown undaunted and set about realising those dreams.

Hall wanted to be a producer. The first record he cut was the single You Better Move, sung by a local bellhop called Arthur Alexander. The process proved to Hall that he had what it took to make it in the music business. It was resulted in a profitable hit. On the back of this success, Hall quickly established his own studio. He retained the rights to use the Fame name and assembled a regular group of session musicians to provide instrumental backing for local singers. When, after a few months, his first band suddenly decided to strike out on their own, he simply recruited more personnel. This new group would eventually become known as The Swampers - the group that pioneered the signature Muscle Shoals sound.

The players Hall hired came from similar backgrounds to himself, at least in so far as they were all white. However, as the singer Clarence Carter explains: "When I was young and met a white boy, he was always Mr Robert, Mr Jimmy. In the studio we got away from all that. It was Jimmy, Robert, Clarence - you just worked together. You never thought about who was white and who was black. You just thought about the common thing and that was the music."

This sense of easy pluralism and musical dedication rapidly established Hall as a producer who truly understood soul and The Swampers as a band that could play it as well as - possibly even better than - anyone else. Hall was a perfectionist who worked his artists hard, calling for multiple takes of tracks and picking up on the smallest of errors or deficiencies. The band were, on the other hand, skilled players who created music in a spontaneous, exploratory style - jamming, then hitting on a groove and running with it. This combination was to prove a huge hit with everyone from Otis Redding and The Staple Singers to Etta James and Arthur Conley.

In 1966, Hall struck big by playing a part in the licensing of Percy Sledge's When a Man Loves a Woman to Atlantic Records. That same year the renowned Stax studio in Memphis, Tennessee closed its doors to Jerry Wexler, a partner at Atlantic. Desperate to keep that southern sound, Wexler set up a trip to Muscle Shoals for one of soul music's biggest stars. Arriving in town, Wilson Pickett was less than impressed, commenting disparagingly that he could see the cotton fields from the doors of Fame Studios. Fortunately, the gutsy approach of the musicians inside led to a change of heart. Pickett gelled perfectly with the band and his sessions at Fame yielded a number of his best-known songs, including Land of 1,000 Dances, Funky Broadway and Mustang Sally.

Of her first visit to the Fame Studios, also arranged by Wexler, Aretha Franklin remembers her surprise that a group of white guys could chop out such "funky", "greasy" rhythms. Franklin's working relationship with those same musicians would continue for many years, the late Wexler observing: "It's been one of the anomalies of the era that Aretha's greatest work came from a studio full of Caucasian musicians. How do you figure that? This is the queen of soul … and here you have Roger Hawkins, David Hood, Jimmy Johnson, Barry Beckett, Spooner Oldham coming out with probably the deepest and most intense R&B of the era."

The cosmopolitan attitudes that prevailed inside the Fame Studios were not always acceptable to the outside world, though. For example, Hall and several musicians recall disapproving comments being made by white customers at a local diner while they were buying lunch for their black colleagues. However, one regular session player proved an even greater source of controversy.

Duane Allman, a guitarist originally born in Nashville, Tennessee, had spent the previous few years playing with bands in Los Angeles. It was from there that he moved to Muscle Shoals in 1968, keen to work with Hall and his hitmaking team. Bearded, with flowing blonde hair and a penchant for fringed waistcoats and flamboyant shirts, his appearance caused consternation among the people of Alabama - to the degree that during one recording session with Pickett, his fellow band members judged that while local residents might just about tolerate a racially mixed group of musicians grabbing a takeout meal together, adding what appeared to be a West Coast hippie to the mix was simply asking for trouble. Accordingly, they left both Allman and Pickett behind at the studio.

Upon their return, both men were in full swing with an off-the-cuff cover of The Beatles' hit Hey Jude. While impressed by the interpretation, most of the band thought that recording the song would be pointless, especially as the original version had only recently been in the charts. Pickett, however, was adamant that it should be committed to tape. It remains to this day an astonishing piece of music - one that went on to become the title track for his 1969 album. Pickett's phrasing lends a wonderful sense of depth to the lyrics, the horn section punches the choruses skyward and Allman works his way up to what is now widely considered to be one of the finest guitar solos ever recorded.

By 1969, Hall had fallen out with Wexler, largely thanks to his becoming involved in a fistfight with Franklin's husband. Wexler had then secured the services of The Swampers for himself and set them up with a rival studio across town. Sensing an imminent change in the music industry, Hall shifted his attention away from soul, going on to produce music for the likes of The Osmonds, Paul Anka and Tom Jones.

The Swampers, meanwhile, played host to a number of international artists, including The Rolling Stones, who arrived immediately after the final date of a North American tour to record tracks for the 1971 album Sticky Fingers. Although the studio was not yet completed and the band was exhausted, Muscle Shoals still managed to work its magic. The Stones cut three songs in as many days: a cover of Mississippi Fred McDowell's Delta blues standard You Gotta Move; Brown Sugar; and Wild Horses.

By blending blues, country and contemporary rock'n'roll during his time at the Fame Studios, Allman had already begun to lay the foundations for a whole new style of southern rock. Pioneered by his band, The Allman Brothers, and contemporaries such as Florida's Lynyrd Skynyrd, this sound would soon become synonymous with Alabama - thanks, in no small part, to a certain song by the latter. It also provided a steady stream of bands eager to work in one of American music's most storied locations.

However, for all their subsequent successes, Muscle Shoals will always be remembered for the scorching take on soul that Hall and The Swampers created together.


Dave Stelfox is a photographer and journalist. He lives in London.