The Singular Sound of Muscle Shoals, AL

Editors note: This Melody Maker article spotlights the recording studios of Muscle Shoals, AL. The list of artists who made some of their most recognizable records here is long and impressive, including: Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, The Rolling Stones, Paul Simon, Eric Clapton, and The Allman Brothers. In 2013, a fantastic documentary came out on the town and its studios. It’s a must-watch that will give you a new perspective on some of the best-loved music of a generation; find it here: Muscle Shoals. In addition, we’ve also curated a Spotify playlist entirely with songs recorded in Muscle Shoals. It makes for great background listening while you read. Enjoy!

MUSCLE SHOALS airport is the size of three bus shelters and you pick your luggage up on the steps outside.

Yet Muscle Shoals is the starting point of at least half a dozen gold singles and albums a year and countless national and regional hits since Rick Hall turned the local Holiday Inn bellhop, Arthur Alexander gold in 1960 with “You Better Move On.”

In the Cadillac from the airport into town Muscle Shoals reveals itself to be bigger than you’d imagine. It turns out to be a conglomerate name for the towns of Muscle Shoals, Sheffield and Florence which have grown out to meet each other, with the Tennessee River cutting Florence off from its neighbours. Total population: about 125,000 people, and not a bar in sight. This is dry country by law and you’ve got to cross the Tennessee state line if you want to taste a refreshing Budweiser. That is unless you run into bootleggers who deal in moonshine and standard beers at a few cents above the norm.

“I’ll tell you what makes the Muscle Shoals Sound so distinctive,” says Rick Hall, boss of Fame Studios.

“First there’s a relaxed atmosphere down here–nobody’s watching the clock. There’s one on the wall, but nobody ever looks at it.

“Two, you don’t have the distractions of the big city with people walking in off the street, supposedly talented people with nothing better to do than look for a place to hang out.

“Third, you don’t have nothing else to do here other than cut records and when artistes come here they’re not exposed to the public because they don’t care who you are! Anyone with long hair and a beard looks the same to them. Mick Jagger or Elvis could walk down the street and no more than two people would recognise them.”

HALL’S right. There is nothing to do in Muscle Shoals other than eat wineless meals or pass time with the Rednecks on the Main Street Friday night.

It’s sleepy. People don’t care. I tell the receptionist that Muscle Shoals is probably one of the best known Alabama towns besides Birmingham to kids in Europe and she smiles. It’s good to know she says. She’s pleased too for Rick Hall who used to have his office over the top of a drug store in Florence, but it’s really no big deal.

She asks me if I’m with Eagles, also staying at the hotel. I tell her I’m from London and writing an article on Muscle Shoals. London intrigues her. How big is it she asks? I tell her millions of people live there and that you can drive for hours and never get out of it, but my answer is meaningless to her. Birmingham’s big stuff. Or Knoxville, where the world’s biggest space museum exists, but London or New York is hard to comprehend when you live in a town of 125,000 and see a fair percentage of them every day.

Muscle Shoals was put on the music map by Rick Hall and like a proud self-made man he makes sure you know it. His studios, Fame–short for Florence Alabama Music Enterprises–on 603 Avalon Avenue are the most commercially-minded in town. Inside his studios you could be in Los Angeles with the shiny mixing board and well heeled professionally decorated walls. It’s very slick and the nearest thing in Muscle Shoals to the pure business end of pop music.

Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, 3614 Jackson Highway, is the home of famed Roger Hawkins, David Hood, Barry Beckett and Jimmy Johnson rhythm section who recently accompanied Traffic on their European tour and were the drive behind “Shoot Out At The Fantasy Factory.”

They were once at Fame with Rick Hall, but started up on their own on April Fools Day 1969 when they realised just what they had. There’s been many great studio musicians in Muscle Shoals at one time or another, but these guys are the best all round unit in the South. If the Meters took Booker T and the MG’s one step further with their New Orleans sound, then Hawkins,  Hood, Beckett and Johnson took it one step back to complete R&B simplicity.

Muscle Shoals Studios.jpgTheir studio’s simple too. The instruments and amplifiers seem to be slung in any old place, but everyone knows just where to get the exact sound they want. It’s relaxed, funky, down-home, with a board that contains the essentials and few extra toys.

Down the two-lane road next to Muscle Shoals Sound is Quinvy studios, simplicity itself. The studio is scruffy and cool and the recording equipment would be called primitive, but justifies itself through its immensely open sound. Just echo, top, mid and bottom equalisers, and volume controls. Nothing could be simpler but many a British sound engineer would be completely lost. Glynn Johns would die if he saw it.

Quinvy is Quin Ivy’s studio. The local DJ who discovered Percy Sledge and recorded his immortal soul hit “When A Man Loves A Woman.”

The studio is quiet at the moment. It’s summer and artists who record there prefer to work in the winter. Things aren’t that good for him at the moment, but when he’s worked out his own label deal he’ll be happy again. “I don’t think of this as a studio,” he tells me. “Think of Quinvy as a workshop for musicians.”

“It’s very relaxed here,” David Johnson, a staff producer and engineer on one cut on J.J. Cale’s last album, tells me. “There’s an attitude of let’s just work together and cut a hit record. That way everybody has fun–I’ve never been to a session where I haven’t enjoyed myself!”

“But Muscle Shoals is underrated in my opinion it is the R and B capital of the world. There’s people breaking out here and doing their own things, but I think R&B will always be here. We feel R&B, and that’s all R&B is, it’s just feel.”

There is a distinctive feel to the Muscle Shoals sound. They branch out and can get little Philly or New York as the Hawkins team did recently for Paul Simon, but mostly it’s wide open simple R&B. Listen to the first Osmonds album cut at Fame with Rick Hall producing and you can hear it even there.

S p a r s e instrumentation recorded with amplifiers right down and open-miked. Notes played when needed and the essence of rhythm with sparse drums led by the bass, a little clipped rhythm guitar, a stabbing piano and perhaps electric piano emphasising chord changes with full vibrato.

Most of all, with the musicians being staff studio men they are completely used to one another. Put David Hood on bass and Roger Hawkins drumming together and you’ve got one mind controlling four hands. They’re in complete harmony with one another, the other instruments just floating over the top and hovering in plenty of space. Horns stab occasionally, and female voices, but the essence is in the rhythm section.

Muscle Shoals Sound Team.jpg
The Muscle Shoals Sound team with their gold record for the Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There” (L-R: Jerry Masters, Jimmy Johnson, Roger Hawkins, Barry Beckett, David Hood)

What we call soul is called R&B in Muscle Shoals, and that is where their branch of soul has come from. It’s a continuation of the country R&B, without the hustle and bustle of the bigger city black music. It’s commercial, the gold discs it has earned tell you that, but it’s not half as flash as the more elaborate Northern or sophisticated Philly sound.

IT WAS RICK HALL who established the Muscle Shoals sound and Rick Hall who opened the first studios.

“I’m not a hard man like I’d come and beat you up, but I’m a fanatic when it comes to productions,” says Hall. “I’m a perfectionist to the point where I almost drive myself crazy,” he tells me.

“I’ll give you an example: the record I’m working on at the moment with Travis Womack. We’ve been recording for a week. I want a hit single and I’ll go on with it until it’s darn right, if it takes another week. I’ve already re-done the horns three times.”

Rick Hall started out as a local musician playing the clubs around Alabama at the weekend and selling used cars during the day. At night he’d write songs with two friends, one of them now vice president of Columbia records, Billy Shirrel.

Rick and Billy were writing songs together, but hocking them around Nashville they had very little luck. Theirs was R&B material and the A&R men in Nashville were redneck country. Black music was something they didn’t want to listen to, let alone understand.

“We had to stay here, there was no choice for us. Nashville didn’t want to know our material and LA or New York were too far away. We didn’t have the funds even to hitch hike there.”

Billy eventually left to engineer for Sam Phillips in Nashville, and Rick stayed with it and discovered Arthur Alexander, bell hop at the local hotel. He recorded Arthur’s “You Better Move On” which became a hit record and classic that’s been recorded by many R&B acts including the Rolling Stones. He carried the demo of “You Better Move On” to every A&R man in Nashville, including Chet Atkins at RCA Victor and not one of them wanted to know.

Finally he ran into Noel Ball who was a representative for Dot records, a hot label at the time. Noel liked the tune, signed it to a tape lease deal and subsequently produced Alexander.

“I started the lease tape deal going. I was one of the first producers to lease a tape to a major company. It was a real small basis then, I think it was two per cent. But because of my lack of knowledge about recording contracts I never got to produce another side with Arthur. The act was stolen from me.

“You Better Move On” gave him enough finances (with help from his bank) to launch Fame studios–originally just one small warehouse building, and now built up to accommodate a smaller eight track demo studio and extra office space for the publishing and record company. His next discovery was Jimmy Hughes and his million seller “Steal Away.”

Again it was turned down by A&R men, before he eventually leased it through his own label to one of the major companies. “I carried that record all over the Eastern States of America and made it a regional hit. I was selling five thousand a week through distributors on my own.

“This time it was the major’s calling me, ‘hey you’ve got a hit record we want to lease it from you,’ all that stuff. So boy I was smart by this time and went from two to eight per cent. I made a little money and got all elaborate.

“At that time I was chief cook and bottle washer here. I had no secretary, no nothin’. I did everything from sweep the floors, answer the phones and engineer through to repairing the equipment. The whole thing was a one man show.

Rick Hall at FAME Studios.jpg
Rick Hall at FAME Studios

“It was also a mono in those days. A strictly one take job. You either had it or you had to do it all over again. I was using amateur musicians, locals like myself. I’d pay them a dollar an hour, which was all the money I could afford.

“The deal was, if I could place the record I’d pay them the full session costs of 53 dollars a man, as it was in those days. But they didn’t mind; they’d be lookin’ to get on a record and get their licks together, so I ended up using the same guys all the time.”

SINCE THOSE DAYS Rick Hall has had a great deal of success in the soul field. He’s worked with Aretha Franklin, Arthur Conley, Clarence Carter and most recently with Carter’s wife, Candi Stanton.

It’s with the Osmonds, oddly enough, that he’s been most successful. In just one year the partnership produced six gold singles, six gold albums, and a sales figure of 11 million records before the Osmonds went on to produce themselves and get their own recording set up at home. They were professional and disciplined, he says. Nice kids who learnt fast.

“I was a very high price producer and that cost them a lot of money. They’re nice guys and they became infatuated with the Muscle Shoals Sound and they learnt quickly about recording from the people here. The Osmonds decided they wanted to produce themselves, and when you’ve reached their stage that’s a pretty normal thing to do.”

The overwhelming success of the Osmonds underlines his philosophy of “Be Ahead.” You’ve got to be ahead, he says, and that’s why he doesn’t listen to the new pop material for pleasure just to see the way forward from the successful ones.

“I’m not too tuned into what’s happening today: I just want to be ahead so the next dance craze fits my music, so that’s what the kids want to hear when it’s put out. You’ve got to be ahead. Also, I’ve always liked a challenge more than anything. I wanted to prove I could produce a hit record with the Osmonds when I took them on. I wanted to prove I could get a first hit with Aretha, and another hit for Bobbie Gentry. I wanted to prove I could do all those things and I did ’em.”

As him why he never moved out of Muscle Shoals when he first made it and his answer is simple: “I’ll never leave ’cause I like it here. I could take you to where I lived forty miles west of Muscle Shoals, as a sharecropper’s son. I grew up a pauper, I never had a buck, my father never had any money or property. I ploughed fields and picked blackberries and the family was living a few hundred dollars a year.

“Now I could go to the big city and live and become a big spending hero and the guys start catering to me and I’m hanging out with all the big presidents of companies. Pretty soon I’d be believing that I was something great. Back here I’m the same guy I was fifteen years ago with more money. It helps me keep a proper perspective on life.”

OVER AT Muscle Shoals Sound, across the road from an old Confederate cemetery and once a coffin factory, there’s a very different atmosphere. It’s cooler, rougher with the door from the sound mixing room to the porch outside left open for the hot fragrant heavy Southern spring air to drift in and help the air conditioning. If there’s a British equivalent to Muscle Shoals it’s Rockfield, but they don’t have a rhythm section like Beckett, Hawkins, Hood and Johnson thrown into the deal. There’s also a new boy, Pete Carr, at the studios who can play a pretty mean guitar.

Sleepy

Muscle Shoals Sound is where most rock groups record. Leon Russell recorded a good deal of his “Shelter People” album here and some of “Carney,” Jim Capaldi cut his solo album with the house rhythm section, and the Stones laid down three tracks in as many days. At MSS they recorded “Brown Sugar,” “You Gotta Move” and “Wild Horses” from the Sticky Fingers album.

David Hood was amazed at how slow the Stones were in recording.

“We thought ‘God they’re wasting so much time,’ ” Hood told me. “We were recording in the daytime with R.B. Greaves and they were taking over through the night. In the time they cut three tracks we’d finished an album.”

Gold

The Staple Singers Album “Bealtitude” was cut there in two days and from it came three gold singles including “Respect Yourself.” “We’ll cut the tracks in two days, overdub on the third and mix on the fourth,” JJ tells me.

“I think you can play a song so much that you lose the feeling for it. Our best cuts are in the first three. You can get good takes at thirty–but we don’t do that any more. We don’t get past ten and that’s a real long time.

“Bobby Womack does his stuff here first take and then it’s amazing if he goes for a second. Why, he cuts two albums in a week here. In a week he’s got his product for the year.”

Muscle Shoals Sound studios grew out of a need by the house musicians to create an environment that suited them after working with Rick Hall at Fame. It was a coming together of four disillusioned musicians.

J.J. was fixing to leave Muscle Shoals when Roger Hawkins called him up and asked J.J. if he’d fancy being a partner in the studios.

“I wasn’t fed up with Muscle Shoals,” he says. “It was just time for a growth and time for getting into something myself. I didn’t think at the time it would be possible to do it here because we were a very loose unit. We played together but we didn’t think together about anything other than music. We still don’t socialise at all together–that’s the reason we work good together.”

Dozen

Before becoming the house rhythm guitarist at Fame, JJ was one of the top engineers in Muscle Shoals, recording a good few dozen gold records after his first with Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman.” He joined Fame as a general flunkey and decided to become an engineer when he discovered the guitarists were so good there.

“When I started playing guitar on sessions here in 1965 there was no one else who could play. The earlier guys here had all split for Nashville, so there were about four half-ass guitarists around and I was one of them. Two of us took the place of the previous guitarist. I ended up specialising in rhythm.”

We talk about the Paul Simon sessions. It must have been hard working with him, I say, Simon being a perfectionist. “No, as a matter of fact he was one of the easiest we’ve ever got to play with.”

“We don’t have too many hard sessions any more. Everybody’s to the point of being able to communicate with the people that come in and it’s like if you can say what you want and describe it, we can get it.

Drag

“But we’re more selective over who comes in here now. We got on some bummer people who would just drag us down and in the last year we’ve been in the position of working with people we choose to.”

Touring with Traffic has given the rhythm section a realisation of music outside their own environment and their playing has benefited from getting out of the studio. Everyone I talk to in town tells me they’re in the hottest rhythm section in the Shoals area and possibly the States. It’s hard to argue when you watch them at work.

THEY INTERPRET music with great simplicity, but watching you realise there is a complexity to the rhythmic structure that few British musicians have ever understood. Theirs is quiet music with plenty of open space.

“In the studio the room itself is as much a part of the sound as the instruments,” says David Hood, “and we’ve learnt to play the room. In a concert hall it’s the same thing, but were never anywhere long enough to get acquainted with the acoustics on Traffic’s tour. Playing live is an art and we’ve got to know the studio so well because everything stays pretty much the same.

“But we did enjoy playing with Traffic in Europe. Their music goes off on so many planes that they need something solid underneath to keep it together. The only thing that got to me was not being able to play all day. Man, I got so frustrated not playing all day like we do at the studios here.”

Groove

“When we toured America last year with Traffic,” says Jimmy, “it took us a long time to get back into the groove in the studios here. But after the European tour we were itching to go. We’d got tired of the road, I was tired of mixing their sound in awful halls every night. The first day back here everybody was tuned in and we all really wanted to get back to playing sessions here.”

Muscle Shoals is now moving more and more into the main stream of contemporary white music, while still supplying the basics for the black R&B market. Is there a danger, I asked, that more studios will open and people will start cashing in?

“It’s hard to cash in. For one thing what makes this studio different is the rhythm section. If it wasn’t for us this would just be another studio in Alabama,” David Hood answered me.

“That’s true of Fame too. What makes that such an important studio is Rick Hall being a hit producer and he can produce hits with practically any musician–as long as he can get them to play his way. Quinvy isn’t exactly setting the woods on fire at the moment, but things’ll look up there soon again.” – MARK PLUMBER, MELODY MAKER – MAY ’73