On Sunday night I had the pleasure of seeing the documentary Muscle Shoals which was presented as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival. Muscle Shoals has a special place in the history of southern soul music, alongside Stax and Sun studios it was a unique centre of soul music. Young white musicians, devotees of rhythm and blues working alongside black vocalists to create music that helped to influence and shape a generation thereafter. At the centre of it all was a stubborn fiercely determined native of Franklin County Alabama, Rick Hall. This is a man that escaped unimaginable poverty and personal tragedy with a single mindedness to pursue a career in music. It also depicts a bond between a group of young musicians who loved R&B music and through their passion and determination found the groove that set people's feet moving. It's not just the story of men, it's the story of a river, the Tenneessee river that flows through the shoals, through towns like Florence and Sheffield. It seems that in the south, where there is a river, there is music, there seems to be a magic in the water.
It's a beautifully crafted documentary, careful to depict time and place but also capture the surreal beauty of the area. It's hard to incorporate all that were involved in shaping the music but time is given to all. Rick started with his partner Billy Sherrill in the late 50's, they started a studio with Tom Stafford whose family owned the drugstore, it was in the room above the drugstore that muscle shoals began. However Rick with his unrestrained determination to succeed alienated his partners and they soon bought him out. Rick purchased and built his own studio and in 1962 with his first record had a hit with You Better Move On, recorded by Arthur Alexander. It featured the first Fame rhythm section, Norbert Putnam (bass), David Briggs (keyboards) Earl 'Tiny' Montgomery (guitar), Terry Thompson (guitar) and Jerry Carrigan (drums). This group lasted about two years before money issues caused the group to move to Nashville where they would become giants in the session industry in the late 60'd and early 70's. Next in line were guitarist Jimmy Johnson, bassist David Hood, drummer Roger Hawkins and keyboard player Spooner Oldham. These guys had played in a number of local bands, Rick Hall had assiduously cultivated the group to ensure that when they started doing sessions they were ready to go. It's important to note the importance of Dan Penn, he helped engineer and produce some of the sessions but he was also an incredible songwriter and he helped to shape the burgeoning sound emanating from the studio.
The peak for the second rhythm section was their work with Wilson Pickett, Arthur Conley and especially Aretha Franklin. If you want to know why this band is so good listen to Chain of Fools, Say a Little Prayer, Respect etc to see how solid this group was. By the late 60's the second rhythm section with keyboardist Barry Beckett in tow decided to strike out on their own starting up their own studio Muscle Shoals Sound at 3614 Jackson Highway. Some amazing records came out of that studio, the Rolling Stones recorded some of Sticky Fingers at the studio, Paul Simon recorded there, The Staple Singers, Bob Seeger etc. Hall was hurt by the defection but not be deterred he put together another group and continued on with huge success into the 70's. Perhaps the most poignant moment of the documentary is when the muscle shoals boys return to FAME studios welcomed at the door by their old mentor, inside waits Alicia Keys and a gospel choir and the band then get down to work, what an amazing finish.