Muscle Shoals: Musical Ground Zero

Muscle Shoals Alabama

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Muscle Shoals: Musical Ground Zero
| published July 9, 2014 |

By Earl Perkins
Thursday Review Features Editor

Hard by the Tennessee River, just across from Florence, sits a small town called Muscle Shoals, where some of the world’s finest music was produced, according to the website Reel Life With Jane and Rolling Stone magazine.

Hit tunes usually come from places like New York, Los Angeles, Detroit, Nashville and Memphis, but during the 1960s and '70s the world beat a path to recording studios in this small Alabama town, creating incredible sounds rarely heard before or since. Many folks say it was a combination of a certain time, special people, the environment, hard work and plenty of heart. A few say it was the water—the Tennessee River—which American Indians called the Singing River.

I used to love watching documentaries when I was younger, but over time they seemed to get worse and worse. I decided my time was too valuable to squander chasing rainbows, but Muscle Shoals by director Greg "Freddy" Camalier has changed my mind. I am rarely fascinated by a movie, let alone prone to becoming engrossed, impressed and having the urge to cry all at one time.

The life of musician and music engineer/producer Rick Hall is interspersed throughout the film, a subject which could easily produce another movie or fascinating biography. He would eventually build and own one of the most iconic recording studios in music history, turning the area into an industry hotbed. The area housed a dozen studios at its high-water mark, in a town of just 10,000.

Hall, now 82, grew up in a dirt-floor shack, living through several unspeakable tragedies which had a profound effect on him. His brother died in a tragic accident at a young age, he was shunned at school because his family was dirt poor, and his father died prematurely. Also, after making it big, a powerful producer set out to run him out of business, including building a studio across town and taking all his key employees.

Somewhere along the way, he became depressed, bouncing from pillar to post, before finally going into a downward spiral that left him homeless. After bottoming out and living in his car for an extended period of time, he returned to Muscle Shoals with a determined attitude that he was going to make it no matter what.

Feeling he had an uncanny ear and gut feeling for smelling a hit song, Hall opened his studio—FAME. It became famous for launching numerous important black artists of the 1960′s, including Aretha Franklin, Percy Sledge, Wilson Pickett and Clarence Carter. Hall would have to beg Carter to record Patches, because Carter thought it would be interpreted as reflecting poorly on blacks. The blockbuster hit was written by Hall—his life story in a song.

Hall would go on to produce thousands of hits, with the majority backed by his session players. Superstars who passed through Muscle Shoals included the Rolling Stones, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Allman Brothers, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and Alabama.

Muscle Shoals has also laid claim to the title Birthplace of Southern Rock. The film tells a great story about Skynyrd getting into fights at the truck stop, because truckers didn't like long-haired musicians back then. The boys were staying there because they couldn't afford motel rooms.

In January 2014, at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, Hall received a special Grammy Trustees Award for his lifetime contribution to the music business. You might remember The Beatles being recipients of a Lifetime Achievement Award that year.

At one time, the great Etta James said Hall was the only white man with the soul necessary for rhythm and blues, according to Reel Life.

"She’s quite a lady, and she said some beautiful things about me in the film. And I loved her…. Etta and I had a good time and had a lot of hit records," he said. "But the sad part of it is, I have never received a dime from producing those records. Never. So, I’m letting the cat out of the bag.

"What Etta meant by that (having soul) was I knew about hard times and knew about living without food and sleeping on the ground and living in poverty and being made fun of by all your peers."

Hall's background and how people treated him gave him a relentless drive matched by few others in the industry. Considering his numerous setbacks, nobody thought he'd make it big, but Hall fooled everyone.

"...It brings the pain up and a little bit of hatred, a little bit of ego, a lot of 'want to,' and a lot of hard work," he said. "I’ve always believed that if you and I have the same God-given musical talent, and you work 40 hours a week, and I work 80 hours a week, in a matter of time, I’m going to eat your lunch. I’m going to put you away.

"So, I just believe the work ethic is what we had here in Muscle Shoals. We didn’t know any hours. I’d work three days and nights in the studio without coming home."

Hall had a great ear for talent, worked relentlessly and was demanding of artists and his studio musicians, but prided himself on never giving up on a song.

"That happened with Hey Jude with Wilson Pickett. That happened with I Ain’t Never Loved a Man with Aretha Franklin," he said. "And I can think of a lot of tunes that I never got right. We spent hours and hours and hours and session after session after session and never thought it was a hit record, so we never released it….

"But most of the time when I had a gut feeling about a song that was a hit song, my attitude was, 'It’s a hit song; we just don’t have a hit record on it. So, let’s just keep cutting until we have a hit record!' So, I would wear musicians out."

Producer Jerry Wexler told Hall that if you're cutting records, everybody loves you, but if you’re not cutting hit records, everybody thinks you’re a dirty dog. Those in the business understood that if hits weren't produced, people would lose their jobs and contracts wouldn't be renewed. The movie discussed improvisational "head sessions," including Aretha's first hit, and Reel queried whether that is still practiced in the business.

"Well, we all do it in Muscle Shoals! We’ve never done anything else," Hall said. "We don’t record records with an arrangement going in and deciding 'this is what I’m going to put here' and 'this is what I’m going to put here.

"Now, the producer has the final say about what’s going to be done. And, of course, we all believe that if you record with five great musicians who happen to be songwriters and are record people, producers in fact, you’ve got a better shot at cutting a hit record than you would have if you had some arranger that never met the artist and never met the producer and didn’t know what the song was about and he was born and raised in Los Angeles, California, and we’re trying to cut records that are suitable for Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and the Deep South."

Hall didn't have any problem with doing head sessions, likening them to a basketball team--a great center with no supporting cast was going nowhere.

"You’ve got to understand something about Muscle Shoals. We weren’t in it for the money. We wanted number one records," Hall said. "We wanted to be competitive throughout the world, and we wanted to be competitive with New York, Los Angeles, London, England, wherever. So, money was never the obstacle with us….[Before FAME in Muscle Shoals], most of my producing was done out of New York because I was doing black acts, and people had a thing in the 60′s about black acts and didn’t want to produce them because there was a lot of strife and a lot of trouble going on in the South over segregation."

Some of the documentary's best parts included Hall and others telling amazing vignettes concerning the artists they worked with. New York producers had Wilson Pickett flown down to Muscle Shoals, and the two didn't know each other. Pickett had a reputation for being difficult to work with, but Hall greeted him like an old friend when they met at the airport.

"We were one of the first people to record black people in Alabama and The Deep South in the '60s, when all the hullaballoo was going on," Hall said at a 2013 Florence screening for the movie. "In fact, we were recording Wilson Pickett the night Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed--we closed down shop, of course. I've always been crazy about black music.

"...Oh, Wilson Pickett and I were bosom buddies…. I loved Wilson Pickett," he said. "I’d go to New York, and we’d get in his car and go down Broadway at 3:00 in the morning making 100 miles an hour. So, we were crazy. We were wild people…."

Hall seemed to just bond on a personal level with certain musicians. The great Otis Redding was one of those Hall was grateful for having known.

"Otis was my dear friend. I was at his funeral," he said. "I knew his wife and his family and the whole thing. He had a little ranch. I’m into cattle; I’m a rancher, too. So, he’s a very special guy. A very dear man, dear man. It was the time!"

The Allman Brothers were probably the one group Hall didn't see as the next superstars. He was told they were something special, and he didn't take advantage of the opportunity. And he also isn't a big fan of today's contemporary music.

"Well, I don’t listen to a lot of the garbage that’s out there now because I consider it garbage," he said. "…I believe that the common people buy it because they don’t have anything else to buy, and the kids buy it because they ram it down their throat…

"I’m going to make a big statement here: If something isn’t done about the music business now or soon, there won’t be any music ten years from now. We’ll be listening to all the oldies but goodies from now on."

The documentary sheds light on the people, environment and area, including a combination of several types of music—rock, pop, rhythm and blues and fun, with a Southern flavor.

Even how the movie came to be made is a fascinating story. Camalier was helping a friend move from the East Coast to New Mexico by car, and they were taking the Southern route. Their choices for stopping that night were narrowed to Tupelo, Mississippi, (Elvis' birthplace) and Muscle Shoals.

"We both said Muscle Shoals because we knew just a little bit of the music there, but it was music we loved," Camalier told Rolling Stone. "We had no idea of the totality of the story. And we spent the next 24 hours there, which was a profound experience. In the next days, we had the idea that we should make a movie about this story because it's incredible, and I can't believe it's never been told."

Camalier was instantly captivated by the stories, the rural atmosphere, the water, the people, the music--just about everything.

"You cannot ignore the fact that you had music coming out of this very rural place," he said. "Most everywhere else – New Orleans, St. Louis or Detroit – these are all urban places, heavily populated places. So when you have something competing on that level but is coming from a place of 10,000 people, that's pretty fascinating in itself. I thought the place was part of the story."

Hall could hardly believe it when Camalier approached him about producing the documentary, noting that he'd waited 40 years for somebody to show interest in the subject.

"Detroit's had it (with Motown)," Hall said. "Chicago had it with Chess Records, Memphis had it with Stax. And we never had anybody be concerned enough to come out here and say, 'Look, we want to do a story.' So I had hoped and prayed that someone would come along eventually. This was a dream come true for me."

The movie is pretty much Hall's life story, charting his personal tragedies and career obstacles, but people always ask him why Muscle Shoals?

"I started in Muscle Shoals because I had no choice," he said. "I was rejected in Memphis, I was rejected in Nashville, I was rejected in New York City. I was bound and determined. I really wanted to prove the world was wrong and I was right. I just wanted the opportunity to show my true colors. I felt that once I got it, I've got to do everything to make it come true."

Although they eventually went out on their own in direct competition to Hall, the session players he hired were primarily responsible for FAME's success. Most notable were the Swampers—keyboardist Barry Beckett, bassist David Hood, guitarist Jimmy Johnson, drummer Roger Hawkins and organist Spooner Oldham.

"The way I found musicians . . . was to go out and find a band that had a good guitar player and take that guitar player away from that band, and then find another band that had a great drummer and take the drummer away from them," he said. "So I'm thinking if you put the best of both worlds together and then you start putting them in the studio . . . then in time, they'll become a team. I always believed that you need the full band in the studio at one time to record great records because they play off of each other, like a basketball team."

Aretha's career was on the skids at Columbia Records, where she spent five forgettable years forced to sound like a black Patsy Cline. Then she came to FAME, and in 1967 I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You came out on a hit Atlantic album.

"She never had a smell (of success) before that from CBS and all the guys in New York were writing arrangements on light jazz and that stuff, and it wasn't her," he said. "So we took her down South and started approaching it like we would a job. We worked hard, day and night. All this buildup--Wilson Pickett, Etta James, Percy Sledge, Jimmy Hughes, Clarence Carter and so forth--gave us the knowledge and expertise to go in and cut hit records."

And then there was the late Duane Allman, formerly of the Allman Joys who played high school parties in Jacksonville, Florida, and who later formed the Allman Brothers. Allman became a session player at FAME, adding some electrifying rock guitar on Pickett's cover of the Beatles' Hey Jude.

"I loved Duane Allman," Hall said. "He came in and signed with me as a guitar player and set up his pup tent out on the parking lot and said 'I'm gonna stay until I get a gig. I can convince you that I can do it.' And so he did. That was the start of Southern Rock."

Hall had butterflies and trepidation concerning the film, but he was all smiles and compliments after the premiere.

"Gregg is the heart of the film," he said. "He convinced everybody around me that he knew what he was doing. But not me, until I saw it in its full completion at Sundance (Film Festival), and then I was wiped out.

"I couldn't believe this—that is really great."  This writer found himself shedding a tear once in a while.

Related Thursday Review:

Keeping Those Lighters Aloft: Lynyrd Skynyrd; Earl Perkins; Thursday Review; September 9, 2013