The sleepy town of Muscle Shoals, Alabama, would become the unlikely destination for America’s greatest recording artists, churning out classic hits like Percy Sledge’s “When A Man Loves a Woman”; “I Never Loved A Man” by Aretha Franklin; “Brown Sugar” by The Rolling Stones; and “I’ll Take You There” by The Staple Singers.
On the bank of the Tennessee River, about halfway between Memphis and Atlanta, lies the town of Muscle Shoals. To the casual observer, Muscle Shoals is just a quiet Alabama town, surrounded by verdant countryside and bordered by the vast Tennessee River. Men and birds alike fish in the river, as the sun beats down on the swampland where alligators wait. The Yuchi Indians called the Tennessee “the river that sings.” Legend told of a woman who lived in the river and sang songs that protected her people.
Home to some of the greatest records in history
In 1924, Wilson Dam was completed, destroying the hazardous shoals that gave the new town and its neighborhood its name. Life in Muscle Shoals is slow – it can feel as though time has stood still there. It’s not a big town – population some 13,000 – and yet it’s home to some of the greatest records in the history of popular music.
Blues pioneer WC Handy and Sam Phillips, who would famously discover Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash, came from close by. Muscle Shoals was in many ways the home of the blues, the home of rock’n’roll, and the home of soul music, even if the Alabama pioneers had to journey to the relatively more pluralistic city of Memphis, Tennessee, in order to bring the music they loved to a wider audience.
Helen Keller was another local. As the blind singer Clarence Carter commented, “Helen Keller was from Muscle Shoals and it was always amazing to me the things she was able to accomplish being blind and deaf.” Famously, the first word that Keller learned was “water” – the well where she learned the word is a famous landmark. Everything from Muscle Shoals comes back to the water that sang.
Rick Hall and the beginning of FAME Music
Rick Hall grew up in a house with a dirt floor in the nearby Freedom Hills. “We just kind of grew up like animals,” he recalled. When he was still a boy, his three-year-old brother died in a tragic accident after falling into a tub of scalding water as their mother was doing the washing in the backyard. His parents’ marriage collapsed in the aftermath, each blaming the other. Before long, his mother left the family, taking up work in a house of ill repute. She never saw her son again. Unsurprisingly, this chain of events had a profound impact on Hall, who became determined to make something great of his life.
The death of his first wife in a car accident hit Hall hard, and he turned to the bottle. He lost himself in drink and in music, joining a local band and writing songs in the car he now called home.
Hall struck up a songwriting partnership with another local musician named Billy Sherrill when the pair played together in a band, and they began selling their songs to the likes of Brenda Lee and Roy Orbison. Together with a local hunchbacked young businessman, they formed a publishing company. The three young men set up an improvised recording facility above a drugstore in nearby Florence, Alabama, in order to demo their songs. This was the beginning of FAME Music (FAME standing for Florence Alabama Music Enterprises).
After less than a year, however, Hall had fallen out with his partners, and he was let go. According to Hall, the problem sprung from him being too much of a workaholic, when his partners wanted to have fun: “I was so very aggressive and fired up,” he told Peter Guralnick, author of the definitive account of soul music in the south: Sweet Soul Music.
The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section
When Hall returned to Muscle Shoals, it was with a determination to immerse himself in the business of making records. Backed by his new father-in-law, Hall built a studio in an old warehouse. A chance encounter with a young singer-songwriter called Arthur Alexander led to Hall’s first hit, “You Better Move On,” which made it to No.24 on Billboard’s Hot 100 in early 1962.
Soon FAME studios began to attract musicians and songwriters looking to make a name for themselves, Dan Penn, Donnie Fritts, and Percy Sledge among them. But as Hall began to establish a reputation and scored more hits, the regular musicians he had been using grew tired of their poor wages and left. Hall’s second house band would, however, prove to be worth their weight in gold. With Jimmy Johnson on guitar, David Hood playing bass, Roger Hawkins on the drums, and Spooner Oldham playing keyboards, the group came to be known as the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, or The Swampers.
Percy Sledge: When A Man Loves A Woman
Percy Sledge recorded “When A Man Loves A Woman” in nearby Sheffield, Alabama, in a studio owned by Hall’s friend, local DJ Quin Ivy, backed by a number of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. When he heard it, Rick Hall recognized that it sounded like a No.1 hit. Hall called Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records in New York and struck a deal (taking a share of the royalties as a finder’s fee).
Percy Sledge worked in the local hospital, singing to his patients to help them sleep. “When I came into the studio I was shaking like a leaf, I was scared,” he later said of recording “When A Man Loves A Woman.” He was unskilled in the art of making records, “All I had was a voice, I didn’t know about no singing.” But Hall had been right, and the song went to the top of Billboard’s Hot 100 in 1966. It took Southern soul to the mainstream, and blew the game wide open, putting the Muscle Shoals sound very firmly on the map.
“When A Man Loves A Woman” forged a partnership between Hall and Wexler, with the might of the latter’s Atlantic Records label put behind Hall’s productions. Having fallen out with Jim Stewart at Wexler’s southern recording spot of choice, Stax Records, he turned to Hall to cut his records in the south.
The Muscle Shoals sound
The Muscle Shoals style fused hillbilly, blues, rock’n’roll, soul, country, and gospel, to create a sound that cherry-picked the best features of each to forge something new. They close-mic’d the kick drum, and the FAME recordings pumped with heavy bass and drums. But the playing was light and loose, the songs melodic and full of stories. And, through it all, was deep passion and grit.
One of the first acts Wexler sent to Muscle Shoals was Wilson Pickett. “I couldn’t believe it,” Pickett told journalist Mark Jacobson. “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.’ This big southern guy was at the airport [Rick Hall]… I said, ‘I don’t want to get off here, they still got black people picking cotton.’ The man looked at me and said, ‘F__k that. Come on Pickett, let’s go make some f__king hit records.’ I didn’t know Rick Hall was white.”
When Wexler came to FAME, he was shocked by the laidback nature of the sessions. He was used to working with the country’s finest session players, who would sight-read from charts, knocking out hits in a highly professional manner. But things were different in Muscle Shoals. Here the musicians were local guys who looked like they worked in a warehouse or supermarket. And yet, as he quickly realized, these were smooth and funky players, musicians who cut a groove to rival any in the land. Pickett and Wexler were bowled over and sold on the sound they had going on.
It’s worth remembering that this all took place against a backdrop of the civil-rights struggle, and blatant racial aggression. In 1963, the Governor of Alabama, George Wallace, had stood in front of the Foster Auditorium at the University Of Alabama in a vain attempt to block the enrollment of black students. In the recording studio, however, blacks and whites worked together blind to the color of each other’s skin. But when they took a break and stepped out of the studio, racism hung on every corner.
Sessions with Aretha Franklin
Aretha Franklin had failed to make an impact in five years recording for CBS, so after the label dropped her, Wexler snapped her up and took her to Muscle Shoals in 1967. She and the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section struggled at first to find a mutual groove, but once they hit it, everything changed. The first song they recorded at FAME together was “I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You),” and it would become Franklin’s first hit record.
Musician and songwriter Dan Penn recalled, “Less than two hours and it was in the can and it was a killer, no doubt about it. That morning, we knew that a star had been born.” Keyboardist Spooner Oldham, whose keyboard introduction set the scene for the song, backs this up: “Of the hundreds of sessions I have participated in, I can honestly say those first few sessions with Aretha Franklin were simply and magically unforgettable.”
But just as the magic was working, so did tempers flare. Ted White, Franklin’s husband and manager, got into a drunken exchange with a trumpet player, and then fought with Hall, before leaving town. Wexler blamed Hall for the session breaking up, and swore to never set foot in Muscle Shoals again.
However, Wexler had the Muscle Shoals musicians flown to New York, where the album I Never Loved A Man the Way I Love You was completed. It was a partnership that created a phenomenal run of hits. The album they created remains one of the greatest in soul music history.
Hall, in the meantime, hooked up with the Chess brothers in Chicago, with Leonard Chess arranging to bring Etta James to FAME. Hall produced her hit 1968 album Tell Mama at Fame. James was struck by Hall’s feel for the music: “Rick Hall was actually the first white man that I had seen that had that kind of soul, that was an engineer and was soulful, you know?”
Enter the Allman Brothers
A combination of loyalty to Hall and superstitious belief in his studio brought Pickett back to Muscle Shoals in late 1968, despite Wexler’s refusal to work with Hall again. And the sessions would introduce the talents of a young guitar player called Duane Allman. After injuring his elbow in a horse-riding accident, Allman had turned to bottle-neck guitar playing in his reduced mobility. He took to the style instantly (Hall later remarked that he’d never heard anybody play slide guitar like Duane). But while the rest of the white musicians were clean-cut, Allman had hair past his shoulders, huge sideburns, and a Mexican-style moustache, and was dressed in tie-dye, flower patterns, and scruffy denims.
Jimmy Johnson recalled, “There was always a slight problem when we would go out, all of us white boys with a black artist, that we’d get looks. But there was nothing as bad as going out with a long-haired hippy with us white boys. They couldn’t stand that! And so both of them [Allman and Picket] stayed back.”
It was while the others were out to lunch that Allman suggested to Pickett that he cut a cover of “Hey Jude.” Both Pickett and Hall thought Allman was crazy to want to cover The Beatles, but the finished record would be one of the greatest covers of any Beatles song, as well as one of Wilson Picket’s most powerful recordings (not to mention a huge hit). On hearing Allman’s playing on the record, Eric Clapton was knocked out: “I remember hearing Wilson Pickett’s ‘Hey Jude’ and just being astounded by the lead break at the end. I had to know who that was immediately – right now.”
Various musicians that hung around at FAME began to jam together with Allman, and that was the genesis of The Allman Brothers Band. But Hall couldn’t see a future in the sound they had developed, which would be the bedrock of all Southern rock, and decided against recording them. As he told writer Peter Guralnick: “I didn’t know what to do with him and finally Phil [Walden, booking agent] said, ‘Look, you’re not doing anything with him. Why don’t you sell him to Wexler, maybe get your bucks back?’ Wexler says, ‘What will you take for the masters and the contract? I’ll only give you $10,000.’ I said, ‘Write me the check.’ I still laugh about it with Phil. Of course, I lost five to ten million on that venture.”
Building Muscle Shoals Sound Studio
The times were very much a-changing by now, however, and the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section decided that this was the right moment to tell Hall that they were going into business in direct competition with FAME. Hall had called them into his office to sign them up to an exclusive contract on the terms of his new deal with Capitol Records. He remembered, “One of the guys stopped me and said, ‘We’ve already made a deal with Jerry Wexler and he is going to build us a studio across town. We’ll be leaving here, going with him.’ I felt like the whole bottom of my life had fell out… it was war. Total war.”
From their point of view, the musicians had reached the end of their patience with the way Hall operated. The new Capitol deal was worth a reported $1 million, but Johnson claimed that Hall was offering the musicians just $10,000 each per year – despite each having earned almost double that amount the year before. Hall himself admitted that he may have shot himself in the foot: “I should have gone partners with them or cut them in for a piece of the action, but I think I had really come to believe that I could take any group of musicians and cut hit records. I just wasn’t smart enough, or I was too engrossed in what I was doing, to realize differently.”
And so it was that the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio was founded at 3614 Jackson Highway, Sheffield, Alabama, in 1969, by Barry Beckett (who had replaced Spooner Oldham on keyboards in 1967), Roger Hawkins, Jimmy Johnson, and David Hood. The musicians had taken a gamble, as Hood recalled: “When we bought the studio we were very nervous about whether or not we’d have any hits. And you have to have hits to keep recording.” But Wexler saw to it that their new venture had a steady flow of talent through the door. As Johnson explained to Guralnick, “We just built the business from clients Rick threw out the door. Atlantic loaned us $19,000 to make the transition to eight-track, modify the console, and we owed $40,000 on the loans that Fred [Bevis, landlord] had gotten on the buildings and the improvements. That was $60,000, and we were scared to death, but for some reason we just went forward.”
Jerry Wexler’s Atlantic guaranteed them work for 18 months, but when he decided he wanted to move his soul music operation to Miami, and the Muscle Shoals players weren’t prepared to follow, that was the end of their relationship with Wexler. “That was a scary time,” Johnson recalled with not a little understatement. The studio remained afloat, thanks in part to session work for Stax Records.
The Rolling Stones: Sticky Fingers
It took the best part of year for things to take off, but in early December 1969, The Rolling Stones booked into the studio to kick off what would become their Sticky Fingers album. Keith Richards explained that it was match made in heaven: “The sound was in my head before I even got there. And then, of course, when it actually lives up to it and beyond, then you’re in rock’n’roll heaven, man.”
The band took advantage of being in blues territory to cut Fred McDowell’s “You Gotta Move,” before tackling their own “Wild Horses.” Richards testified to how effortlessly well the sessions went: “I thought it was one of the easiest and rockin’-est sessions that we’d ever done. I don’t think we’ve been quite so prolific ever. I mean, we cut three or four tracks in two days, and that for the Stones is going some.” “Brown Sugar” rounded off their stay at Jackson Highway, and Richards says that had it not been for legal issues preventing him from re-entering the country, they would have recorded Exile On Main St there as well.
The boon the studio got from the Stones’ sessions can’t be underestimated. Muscle Shoals became the 70’ Funk Factory, while at the same time attracting the biggest names in pop and rock, from Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel to Rod Stewart to Elton John.
Feuds, Freebird, and The Fame Gang
The feud between Hall and Wexler meant that both studios had to up their game. Over at FAME, Hall put together a new band, dubbed The Fame Gang, and recorded hit records with Joe Tex, Tom Jones, The Osmonds, Candi Staton, Bobbie Gentry, King Curtis, Little Richard, Paul Anka, Bobby Womack, and Clarence Carter. In 1973, Rick Hall was named producer of the year after records he’d made topped the Billboard pop charts for an extraordinary 17 weeks.
At the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, they picked up Lynyrd Skynyrd, whose epic “Freebird” would become known as a modern-day Southern Rock anthem. But they were unable to secure a label for the record, and it would be the source of great regret for the studio that they had to let the band go, shortly before they become huge. However, following the tragic plane crash that killed three of the band, the survivors had the Muscle Shoals sessions put out as an album titled Skynyrd’s First And… Last. The Muscle Shoals guys were immortalized in Lynyrd Skynyrd’s legendary single “Sweet Home Alabama”:
Now Muscle Shoals has got The Swampers
And they’ve been known to pick a song or two (yes they do)
Lord they get me off so much
They pick me up when I’m feeling blue, now how ’bout you?
The go-to studio for the biggest names
The Muscle Shoals sound may have been born out of R&B, but by the 70s, the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section were showing their adaptability across a number of genres. Acting as the house band at their studio, they gave Jimmy Cliff’s reggae a southern twist. They worked with Traffic on the album Shoot Out At The Fantasy Factory before heading out on tour with them – the first time members of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section had gone on the road. But it was in leaving Muscle Shoals for the bright lights of the live circuit that they discovered quite how much they valued their sweet life at home in Alabama.
The Muscle Shoals Sound Studio became the go-to studio for the biggest names in music. Bob Dylan’s Slow Train Coming, Paul Simon’s There Goes Rhymin’ Simon, Boz Scaggs, Joe Cocker, Rod Stewart, The Staple Singers, Leon Russell, Millie Jackson, Dire Straits, Dr. Hook, Cat Stevens, Bob Seeger, Elton John, Willie Nelson, and Julian Lennon all recorded there over the next decade.
In 1979, the studio moved to larger premises at 1000 Alabama Avenue, where it remained until it was sold, along with the Muscle Shoals Sound publishing rights, to their friend, Tommy Crouch of Malaco Records in 1985. Beckett headed to Nashville to work as a producer, while the remaining three members of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section continued to record at their old studio, as well as proving to be among the country’s most in-demand session players.
Today, the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio and the FAME Studio both continue to operate as working studios, as well as being popular tourist attractions, offering daily tours of the restored facilities. Among the more recent artists to record in Muscle Shoals are Drive-By Truckers, Band Of Horses, Bettye LaVette, Phish, Greg Allman, and Cyril Neville.
Though the split between Hall and the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section angered Hall like nothing else in his life, through the passing of time, they became close again. The musicians would credit Hall with having started the Muscle Shoals sound. For his part, Rick Hall later said of them simply that, “These are guys that I love with all my heart.”
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