Beside the Singing River: The Extraordinary Musical Legacy of Muscle Shoals, AL
In the spring of 1967 record producer extraordinaire Jerry Wexler brought Aretha Franklin to Muscle Shoals, Alabama to record a single at FAME Studios. After recording the song, “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)”, FAME’s owner and head producer Rick Hall got into a fist fight with Franklin’s then husband Ted White. Jerry Wexler was so furious at Hall’s behavior he vowed never to record another record at FAME Studios, but that didn’t mean he was finished with Muscle Shoals.
As he later wrote in his autobiography:
The magic was in the music and the music was so deeply ingrained in Muscle Shoals … Music was in the air you breathed and the water you drank, coming at you so inexorably and naturally that I found myself returning to the place not simply a few more times but on dozens of occasions over the next quarter-century.
The Feeling of the Swamp
Listen to Franklin’s song and you can hear what attracted Wexler to Muscle Shoals, a slow, drawly saunter punctuated by bass and drums, accentuated by horns and scribbled over with a jangly guitar. It oozes soul and exudes the feeling of the swamp. Yet the musicians who were backing Franklin weren’t black. They were four white guys from Muscle Shoals who had grown up and gone to high school nearby.
They had already cut their teeth on recordings by Wilson Pickett and Percy Sledge, and had played alongside Duane Allman on Pickett’s cover version of “Hey Jude”. The four session musicians were well respected by everyone in Muscle Shoals, with the possible exception of their boss Rick Hall.
When Hall offered to put them on an exclusive retainer for $10,000 a year, they balked. They had already made more than that backing a variety of different artists at FAME. Sensing their discontent, Jerry Wexler, who longed to return to Muscle Shoals but wanted nothing more to do with Rick Hall, offered to set them up on their own. The four men, Roger Hawkins, David Hood, Barry Beckett, and Jimmy Johnson gladly accepted his offer. Thus the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio was born.
An Accident of Geography
Over the course of millennia as the Tennessee River wound its way through northern Alabama it cut reefs in the limestone bed that locals referred to a shoals. The shoals attracted mussels, which gave the town its name, except that somewhere along the line the name got misspelled as muscles, and, perhaps because the river bends like a flexed bicep nearby, it stuck.
Muscle Shoals is part of a trio of small towns that straddle the Tennessee River in Northern Alabama. The towns have a combined population of less than 65,000. The area was even less populated in the late 1950’s when FAME Studios opened, making it an unlikely place to make hit records with big name artists. But there was something in the air there. The native Chickasaws called the Tennessee “the singing river” and said that if you sat on its shores and listened closely you could hear the music.
The town also benefited from an accident of geography. Situated in the middle of a Bermuda Triangle of musical ferment with Memphis, Nashville and the Mississippi Delta surrounding it, Muscle Shoals couldn’t help but be shaped by the sounds of Rock, Country and Rhythm and Blues impacting it on every side.
Off the Clock and Dry
Artists loved Muscle Shoals for its laidback vibe and the freedom it gave them to achieve their visions. Unlike studios in Nashville or New York, the studios in Muscle Shoals weren’t on the clock. Instead, the primary goal was to get the sound right on each record, no matter how long it took.
Wilson Pickett came to FAME in 1966 and laid down two tracks, Mustang Sally and Land of 1000 Dances, that both reached the top 10 on the R&B charts. Today they are considered classics. Wilson credited Mussel Shoals with providing the creative environment he needed to get that done.
Another of Mussel Shoals’ unique qualities was its lack of distractions. The area was dry until 1981 so there were no bars or nightclubs to entice thirsty young artists away from the task at hand. This came in handy in December of 1969 when the Rolling Stones finished the southern swing of their North American tour and wanted to some undistracted studio time to work on a couple of songs for their next album. They were also trying to stay off the radar off tax authorities who were after them for back taxes and presumed, correctly, that no one would think to look for them in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.
Muscle Shoals Sound Studio
The Stones turned up at the former window blinds factory that was the first home of the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, the one Jerry Wexler had set up the four session musicians in. To call the place a factory conveys the wrong impression. The concrete and stucco building erected in the 1940’s was no bigger than a storefront dry cleaner. It consisted of a recording room, a control room and two offices. To reach the bathroom you had to wedge your body between the drum and guitar booths.
Today you can tour the old studio and see where history was made. It was a functioning recording studio for nine years from 1969 to 1978, producing a number of records that have earned a place on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest rock songs of all time. In subsequent years it became a stereo store and then an appliance store before being abandoned in the 1990’s.
In the early 2000’s the building was purchased by a local resident and revived as a fully functioning sound studio. In 2009 The Black Keys recorded their album Brothers there. In 2013 the property was purchased by the Muscle Shoals Music Foundation and returned to its late-1960’s appearance, including the original instruments and control board that were used on all those classic recordings. In 2017 it was opened for tours. Today, a tour takes one hour and is replete with interesting stories, the most interesting of which concerns the three days in December of 1969 when the Rolling Stones came calling.
Lulu and Cher
At the end of 1969 the Stones were poised to become the world’s greatest rock band. The Beatles were wrapping up their final album and on the verge of breaking up. The Stones’ last album “Let it Bleed” had achieved the impossible, knocking the Beatles out of the top spot on the UK album charts. All that remained for the bad boys of rock n roll was to record an album that would reach number one in the U.S. They had some ideas they wanted to experiment with, and the close quarters of the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio seemed like the perfect place to do it.
At first the four white session musicians Jerry Wexler had set up in the old window blind factory had struggled to turn out a hit, recording a poorly received album of cover songs for Cher, and a lackluster effort by Lulu, the British pop singer best known for her hit “To Sir with Love”. But when the Stones came to town all that changed.
Over three days in late 1969 the Stones wrote and recorded two of their most iconic songs at Muscle Shoals, “Brown Sugar” and “Wild Horses”, which provided the backbone for their next album Sticky Fingers. When the record was released it shot to number one, establishing the Stones as the greatest rock band in the world and putting Muscle Shoals Sound Studio on the map.
So pleased were the Stones with the result that they planned to return to Muscle Shoals to record Exile on Main Street, but ran into visa problems and couldn’t do it. But that didn’t stop other artists from making the trek to northern Alabama.
Sweet Home Alabama
In 1971 a Jacksonville, Florida bar band turned up at Muscle Shoals to record a few tracks. At the time they were so poor they slept in a shared truck stop room between sessions. While recording at Muscle Shoals, they penned a couple of songs that would later become monster hits, “Gimme Three Steps” and “Free Bird”. The name of that band was Lynyrd Skynyrd.
In 1972 Leon Russell came to Muscle Shoals to record Carny. It was during the recording of that album when the four session musicians got the nickname that would follow them forever. They were called “The Swampers” in homage to the sticky southern air and swampy environment that characterized their particular blend of rock, country and blues. A few years later Lynyrd Skynyrd memorialized their name in the rock classic “Sweet Home Alabama” when Ronnie Van Zant sings:
Now Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers
And they’ve been known to pick a song or two
Lord they get me off so much
They pick me up when I’m feeling blue
Now how ‘bout you?
I’ll Take You There
In 1972 the Swampers also recorded an album with the Staple Singers. Two of the songs on that album became instant soul classics, “Respect Yourself” and “I’ll Take You There”. Take a listen to “I’ll Take You There” and you’ll hear Mavis Staples singing to The Swampers as the band plays under her vocals. To David Hood she sings, “David, Little David, help me now…” and “Play it, Barry, play your piano now…” In 2017 the piano used in the song was tracked down and brought back to Muscle Shoals Sound Studio and can be seen there today.
Paul Simon was particularly taken with the sound coming out of Muscle Shoals and traveled there in 1973 in search of the black musicians who had given “I’ll Take You There” such soul. To his surprise, he found that the musicians where white. That didn’t stop him from hiring them to produce a number of tracks for his first solo album There Goes Rhymin’ Simon, including the hits “Kodachrome” and “Loves Me Like a Rock”.
In the mid-seventies The Swampers helped launch the career of Bob Seger when they contributed heavily to his breakthrough albums Night Moves and Stranger in Town, playing on a number of tracks, including “Mainstreet” and “Old Time Rock and Roll”. Also in the mid-seventies The Swampers worked with Rod Stewart on his album Atlantic Crossing. When Linda Ronstadt arrived with members of he touring band in 1972, Don Henley and Glenn Frey, future members of the Eagles, got to sit down with The Swampers. Later in the decade, Bob Dylan recorded his album Slow Train Coming in the old window blinds factory at Muscle Shoals.
The Magic of Muscle Shoals
Over the ensuing decades The Swampers worked with an array of other artists including Boz Scaggs, Willie Nelson, Joe Cocker, Julian Lennon and George Michael. In all, the studio has churned out more than 500 records, including seventy-five gold and platinum hits. And that doesn’t count the hits that came out of FAME Studios, which continues to operate as a sound studio to this day.
That such a prolific output should come from such a sleepy backwater as Muscle Shoals is extraordinary. Yet for all the success The Swampers enjoyed, they remained humble. As Swamper David Hood once put it, “We looked like guys that worked at the supermarket.”
It was just that sort of humility that so many artists found so refreshing. Maybe, too, it was a certain magic in the air, the singing river the Chickasaws spoke of, the Bermuda Triangle of American roots music located at the crossroads of the Blues, Rock and Country. Muscle Shoals left an indelible impression on popular music like no other small town in the world.
Previous Stop on the Odyssey: Bowling Green, KY
Next Stop on the Odyssey: Oxford, MS
My American Odyssey Route Map
Whitely, Cara Jean. Muscle Shoals Sound Studio: How the Swampers Changed American Music, The History Press, 2014, Website
Luch, Berry. “Foundation Purchases Original Muscle Shoals Sound Studio”, AL Business, 20 June 2013, Website
Wake, Matt. “Swamper’s Bassist David Hood Remembers Charlie Watts, Rollings Stones’ Muscle Shoals Sessions”, Alabama Life and Culture, 25 August 2021, Website
Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, Malcolm Logan
Aretha Franklin with the Swampers, David Gahr
Studio A at FAME, Malcolm Logan
Duane Allman at FAME, Vintage Guitar
Wlison Pickett at FAME Studios, City of Clarksdale.org
The Swampers, Muscle Shoals Sound Studio
Muscle Shoals Sound Studio side view, Daily Networks
Cher with The Swampers, Muscle Shoals Sound Studio
Jagger and Richard in the recording studio, Sound of the Hound
Lynyrd Skynyrd at Muscle Shoals, Jimmy Johnson at MSNHA
Original piano at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, Malcolm Logan
Rod Stewart at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, Muscle Shoals Sound Studio
Control room at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, Malcolm Logan