Along with more gender-appropriate gifts, I bought my wife Anna a copy of the 2013 documentary Muscle Shoals for Christmas. I felt slightly guilty about this because I knew I wanted to see it too. On the other hand, Anna’s a big fan of the soul/R&B music which this movie would definitely touch on, and then some. She also really enjoyed the similar music docs Standing In the Shadows of Motown and Twenty Feet From Stardom – how’s that for rationalization? Anyway, we watched the film last night and it was fascinating. It inspired and moved us beyond words, but I’ll attempt to write a few about it anyway.
Using a collage technique like the other two docs – weaving together music tracks, old and new footage, live interviews with the famous and not-so-famous into a narrative – this movie tells the story of the birth and evolution of what came to be known as “the Muscle Shoals sound”, forged in the tiny Fame Studios in the small, rural-Alabama town of the same name. Relative to its size, this backwoods hole-in-the-wall yielded as many famous records as any other place in the world.
Almost as much attention is paid to the unique environment of Muscle Shoals as the music made there. The stark beauty of the place is captured by some of the most clear and vivid cinematography I’ve ever seen, it almost makes your eyes hurt. Many comment that the area, which is surrounded by a lot of water – swamps, lakes and the Tennessee River – has magical and mysterious musical qualities, which inspired a lot of the local players. In the early going, this had my inner skeptic chafing a bit – yeah, yeah, enough with the woo-woo mystical stuff and pastoral shots already, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty of the music. But in pretty short order the film made a believer out of me, that the actual landscape, quietude and isolation of this place had a deep musical impact, a central theme of the movie. This makes sense when you think about it. The terrain and climate of certain areas have an impact on other things like wine, food, the way people talk and live, so why wouldn’t they affect something like music?
The central figures here are studio owner/founder Rick Hall, who also operated as its chief engineer and producer; and the rhythm section which formed the core of the house band – drummer Roger Hawkins, bassist David Hood, guitarist Jimmy Johnson and keyboard players Spooner Oldham and Barry Beckett, known collectively as “The Swampers”. Save for Beckett, they’re all still alive and going strong.
Hall tells his life story in a series of monologues throughout the film and he’s not a character to be taken lightly or soon forgotten. He grew up dirt poor in rural Alabama, his father worked in a nearby sawmill camp. The family lived in a ramshackle cabin in the woods with a dirt floor, sleeping in beds made of straw gathered from the fields. There was no toilet or running water and food was scarce; as he put it, “we lived like animals”. He endured some other unspeakable tragedies and setbacks, all of which made him bitter and strong-willed, but also gave him a fierce determination to succeed, to be somebody. A talented guitarist and songwriter, music was his way out, but his real gifts lay in his sharp ears and insight as an engineer and producer, his singular musical vision. He emerges as a single-minded workaholic – laid-back and backwoods, gently humorous at times, but also a tough taskmaster. Unlike many with a similarly hard upbringing, he didn’t clear out as soon as he could. He remained in Muscle Shoals, determined to use the amazingly rich musical talent on hand, to “go local”.
He knew that the R&B played around Alabama was different from that played in Memphis, Detroit, New Orleans or Chicago, it was more basic and stripped down, and he wanted to use this to make records with a distinct, soulful sound. He often placed the bass and drums more forward in the mix and was determined that everyone would play together in one room with no separation, a minimum of baffles, and over-dubs used only for the occasional back-up vocal harmony. He wanted the music to be as natural as possible, to feel right and have a groove. He had an unerring instinct of hearing when this was happening, or how to make it happen when it wasn’t. A take was often worked up from scratch with very little or nothing written down, the band coming together through trial and error with input from everyone. Having a group of good musicians who had played so much together on the local scene at dances and clubs made this much easier. When the studio started to get a name and attracted big names to come down and record, they often expressed surprise at how funky the band of then almost-unknown locals played. Guitarist Jimmy Johnson comments that this was because the band didn’t know any better, they played funky because they’d never learned to “play right”.
The movie is certainly on a par with the other two docs mentioned earlier, but is perhaps a little less depressing, more uplifting. It’s less sad because it doesn’t have as much of the ruthless and calculating exploitation of the record industry in it. This story is almost an anti-music business one of local guys who did things their own way on a small scale and waited for the world to catch up and come to them, which is exactly what happened. At one point, the present-day David Hood says it was never about the money, it was always about the music, and you believe him.
It’s uplifting because it has a strong and refreshing anti-racism element, which is built right into the music and delivered in a very unpretentious and practical way. It’s not that Rick Hall was on a crusade or anything, he just didn’t care about the colour of people’s skin, but about how they played. The guys in the original rhythm section were all white, but local black artists were also used – most of the horn sections, singer/guitarist Clarence Carter, early front-line singers like Arthur Alexander and Percy Sledge.
Quite a lot of humour comes out around this, because often visiting black artists like Wilson Pickett couldn’t believe that these “peckerwoods” (as he called them), could play with so much soul and groove. As he said, not only were these guys white, but they looked like they worked in the local grocery store and he’s right – in the early days “The “Swampers” were some of the geekiest-looking white guys ever. But Pickett was sold as soon as he heard them, and many of his best records were made at Muscle Shoals. Almost unbelievably, all this racial intermingling went on in a studio surrounded by cotton fields that were still being picked, during a time when the governor of Alabama was the virulent segregationist, George Wallace. No relation of mine, I hasten to add.
All of these musical and social values are epitomized in what was for me the most revealing and surprising sequence in the movie, one dealing with the recording of Percy Sledge singing “When A Man Loves A Woman”. It’s by far my favourite R&B record ever, almost a religion for me, and indeed it sounds like church. The song itself echoes the descending bass line of Pachelbel’s Canon, but mixed with a southern gospel-blues feeling. I’ve listened to it hundreds of times and know every inch of it, from Sledge’s beseeching, heart-rending vocal to the little details of the accompaniment, especially the jazz-inflected drumming. The sparse snare backbeat and light bass drum, the shimmering ride cymbal and simple, pithy fills all remind me of Connie Kay, which isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds. Before joining The Modern Jazz Quartet, Kay did a lot of this kind of playing on Atlantic’s early records with people like Ruth Brown and Bull Moose Jackson; he was a little-known but very effective R&B drummer. This explains why Van Morrison used Kay to play drums on several albums.
Anyway, I love “When A Man”. It came out when I was about ten, but I never had the original single, I just heard it on the radio a lot. Later I had it on a soul compilation album, but I never knew any details about the record. I just assumed it was on either Motown or Stax/Volt, but it was recorded in Muscle Shoals and eventually released on Atlantic. But here’s the thing: I’ve listened to an awful lot of music, and I would have sworn on a stack of Bibles that every single musician playing on this record was black, but no. Sledge of course is black, as are some of the horn players who enter near the end, but the three female back-up singers are white, as are the two key guys in the rhythm section – Spooner Oldham on organ, and Roger Hawkins on drums. (For some reason, David Hood and Jimmy Johnson were not on this session; the bassist is Albert “Junior” Lowe and Martin Greene is the guitarist. I’ve been unable to find out much about them including their colour, but it doesn’t really matter.) Another preconception shot down, thank God, and back to the drawing board.
We’ve all heard it before, but here it is again in all its glorious simplicity. Notice Sledge’s amazing dynamic control and the tasteful patience shown in the drumming of Hawkins, who was all of 21. He’s just deadly; when played like this, I love me some drums:
Percy Sledge himself was from Muscle Shoals and is interviewed in the movie, appearing alive and well, while coming across as a very warm individual. He started singing when he worked the cotton fields as a kid and later took a job as an orderly in the local hospital, where he would sometimes sing pain-wracked patients to sleep. Word of his amazing voice spread and he was approached about cutting this song. He comments that when he walked into the studio, he was shaking like a leaf, he’d never done any recording or even much professional singing. However, the guys in the band made him feel like he belonged and he said that they eventually became like his family. At that point, I wanted to reach inside the TV screen and give him a hug.
This record was the turning point for the Muscle Shoals gang, it put Sledge and the rest of them on the map instantly. Jerry Wexler, the head honcho of Atlantic’s R & B department, had heard of Rick Hall and the band through the grapevine and told Hall to call if he ever had what he thought was a hit record on his hands. Hall did call Wexler and played a test pressing of the record over the phone and within five seconds, Wexler was sold. This was the sound and feeling he’d been looking for and he said to Hall, “let’s make some records.” Atlantic released “When A Man” and when it became a chart-topper, Wexler began sending his roster of artists down to Muscle Shoals to record.
This started with Wilson Pickett and others, eventually culminating with Aretha Franklin. In the early years of her recording career she’d languished at Columbia, her producer John Hammond unsure what to do with the young singer whose voice reflected so many genres – gospel, pop, rock, blues, even jazz. They tried various styles of backing – jazz players, easy-listening choirs, strings, etc., but nothing seemed to work and her records didn’t sell well. This was actually the only failure in Hammond’s otherwise ground-breaking career as a producer and talent-scout. After five years, Columbia released her and Wexler snapped her up for Atlantic. He knew what to do with her, he wanted to make soul records that incorporated all her talents, sending her down to Muscle Shoals to cut “(I Ain’t Never Loved A Man) The Way That I Love You”.
It was almost a non-starter. The situation was uncomfortable; the band was in awe of Franklin and she felt out-of-place with these strangers, so far from home. But the biggest problem was that the band couldn’t find a hook, a way into the groove of the song’s greasy 3/4 gospel tempo, and several takes failed miserably. An uneasy, silent standoff ensued, which was broken by Spooner Oldham. He sat down at the Wurlitzer electric piano and, with the tremolo knob turned way up, played a simple churchy vamp. Everyone said “Ah-hah! – that’s it” and the whole thing fell into place. They had a finished take in twenty minutes and the rest is history. The majority of Aretha’s hit records in the ’60s were made with these guys. Spooner’s little vamp seems painfully obvious and simple now in hindsight, but how different might American pop music have been without his timely save? This, ladies and gentleman, is what finding the right tempo and the pocket are all about:
There are many more great stories and lines in the movie about other such signature musical moments that have been burned into our collective subconscious forever, but I don’t want to play the spoiler any further by revealing them. Suffice to say that there is more, much more: Clarence Carter, more Pickett and Aretha, Etta James, The Rolling Stones, The Allman Brothers, Candi Staton, Steve Winwood, Paul Simon, Lynyrd Skynyrd; the movie fairly teems with music.
Save for a really nice clip of Muscle Shoals saxophonist Harvey Thompson practicing alone in a pool hall, running some imaginary changes out of tempo, none of the music or musicians here have much to do with jazz, at least on the surface. But this is irrelevant, as any jazz fan or jazz musician I know would love this movie because the musical principles involved are all basically jazz-informed. Musicians of different races and backgrounds playing mostly blues-based music with real feeling, together in real time. Trying to find a rhythmically vital groove mostly through improvisation and listening, without a lot of preconception or heavily-arranged charts. The final take being selected on the basis of how it felt, rather than how correct or smooth it was. If these aren’t jazz values, then what are?
Several times in the movie, Rick Hall and some of the house musicians use an Alabama variant of what most of us would call “goosebumps” – they call them “chill-bumps”. Hall comments that when he felt these on his arms and neck, he knew a take was getting the right feeling. He says that these were what he lived for, and that despite being a perfectionist, he let small imperfections – which he calls “the human element” – remain in a take if this special feeling was there. He also concludes that in today’s techno-world, we need more of this than ever. Amen to that, brother, amen to that. The credits roll to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” – what could be more appropriate?
Anyway, enough. I urge everyone to see this movie, it will inform, entertain and lift you up, it’s worth every penny. It will remind you of a time when pop music had soul and feeling, coming from real musicians actually playing together – imagine. And it will serve to expose the mechanical gizmos of today’s corporately-controlled music industry – lip-syncing, pitch-correcting software, the click-track – for what they really are: fraudulent, soul-destroying, music-killing bullshit.
© 2015 – 2017, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.