Having recommended the new Muscle Shoals documentary – see http://tinyurl.com/mal7a6o – I went to see it, in Bradford, and loved it.
I knew a bit of the Muscle Shoals story but there was a lot more to learn about just how influential that little place in Alabama became, thanks to Rick Hall and his Fame studio and then a rival, the Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, established by some of the session men he had brought on, known as The Swampers.
The film starts by making clear that Hall’s first hit, You Better Move On, written and performed by Arthur Alexander – http://tinyurl.com/mn2jfk/ – is The Version of that great song, although most of us have probably only heard it as covered by the Stones and many others.
The Stones picked up some of the local magic for themselves in a session at the Muscle Shoals Sound Studios in 1969, when they laid down some of their countriest tracks, including Wild Horses and, though I’d forgotten it, You Gotta Move – a well-bluesy cover of a Mississippi Fred McDowell number. You can hear it on the Sticky Fingers album at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xDU8lvn2TL4 – starting at 20.45 – and you can hear it by Fred at http://tinyurl.com/2cqyxec/
The original Muscle Shoals breakthrough was to get white country pickers and black soul singers sparking off each other – and then later to mix up musicianships as naturally and open-mindedly as any city studio. The unlikeliness of this happening in such a deep-south setting is underlined in the film by Wilson Pickett who, though born in Alabama, spent his teens in Detroit and recorded in New York before being flown down to Muscle Shoals to meet Rick Hall.
Hall’s first impression was that the sharp black city boy looked like “a dangerous man” and Pickett was comically aghast at finding himself back in cotton-pickin’ country.
As the film lingers on fields of cotton bolls, Pickett recalls: “I said – Is that what I think it is?”
Jimmy Cliff, on the other hand, being from rural Jamaica, felt at home down there right away and got a creditable reggae performance out of The Swampers for Sitting Here In Limbo.
Pickett also settled into a good relationship with Hall’s guys and especially with ace guitarist Duane Allman, who stopped by in 1968 to try out some tricks he had been trying since his brother Gregg bought him Taj Mahal’s first album.
One of the Swampers recalls that going into Muscle Shoals with a black man would get you “a look” – but nothing like the one you got in the company of Allman, who had been growing his hair long in the company of early hippies in Daytona, Florida. So Pickett and Allman stayed behind to jam a little one day when everybody else went out for lunch. The result was their version of Hey Jude – http://tinyurl.com/oq2k4ea/ – which includes Eric Clapton’s favourite guitar solo and which Jimmy Johnson of The Swampers identifies as an early example of “southern rock”, as later defined by the likes of Lynyrd Skynyrd – who were also, as it happens, appreciated and nurtured in Muscle Shoals when they were still unknown. In fact, The Swampers get an appreciative mention in Skynyrd’s biggest hit, Sweet Home Alabama.
It was Leon Russell’s manager who gave The Swampers their most excellent nickname, by the way.
Leon Russell? I know. We’ve heard of him but not sure why. Session man and songwriter, mainly, but he wasn’t bad as a lead performer. Catch him doing one of his best-known songs, in 1971, at http://tinyurl.com/2v2wdqv/
Here’s a 63-year-old’s confession for you. Got to say I felt some sympathy with the rednecks when the film played archive of the Allman Brothers and Skynyrd. The hippy look did not suit them well.
Greg Allman: picture borrowed from Wikipedia, with thanks.