Deep Soul: Rick Hall's brand of integration in segregated Muscle Shoals
March 1, 2015 12:34 PM   Subscribe

How Muscle Shoals became music's most unlikely hit factory (previously, 2008) If you love music and musical history, you really owe it to yourself to see the superb "Must See" documentary Muscle Shoals now on NetFlix and other online venues - Trailer here. Rick Hall of Fame Studios is the quintessential American "rags to riches" story and the "peckerwood" group "The Swampers" (and eventually the competing Muscle Shoals Music Studio) that he unintentionlly spawned, are together responsible for many of the classic soul and R&B hits that are part of the very fabric of American Music.

Rodney ("Rick") Hall scored his first songwriting successes when George Jones recorded his song “Aching Breaking Heart” and Brenda Lee cut the Hall composition “She’ll Never Know”.
Rick Hall, Phil Campbell, and fellow musician Billy Sherrill became songwriting partners and later formed their own rock ’n’ roll and R&B band, the Fairlanes. After Roy Orbison cut the Hall/Sherrill composition “Sweet and Innocent” in 1959, the duo accepted an invitation from music enthusiast Tom Stafford to move to the Muscle Shoals area and launch a new publishing company – Florence Alabama Music Enterprises (FAME) – above the City Drug Store in downtown Florence. In 1960, the partnership dissolved and Hall took the publishing company to Muscle Shoals, where he established his own studio in a candy-and-tobacco warehouse on Wilson Dam Road.
A year later, Hall produced “You Better Move On,” written and recorded by Sheffield singer and hotel bellhop Arthur Alexander. The single climbed to No. 24 on the pop charts in 1962, giving Hall the proceeds to custom build his all-new FAME Recording Studios on Avalon Avenue in Muscle Shoals. (That song was later covered by The Rolling Stones, in 1964.) From there, Rick Hall's national success continued with Tommy Rowe’s “Everybody”, the Tams’ “What Kind of a Fool Do You Think I Am?”, Jimmy Hughes’ “Steal Away”, Joe Simon’s “Let’s Do It Over” and Joe Tex’s “Hold What You’ve Got.”
Forging an alliance with Atlantic Records in 1966, Hall further enhanced his reputation as a white Southern producer who could produce and engineer hits with black Southern soul singers. The long list of Southern soul classics recorded at FAME includes Wilson Pickett’s “Land of a Thousand Dances”, “Mustang Sally” and “Funky Broadway”, James and Bobby Purify’s “I’m Your Puppet”, Aretha Franklin’s “I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You)” and “Do Right Woman (Do Right Man)”, Clarence Carter’s “Slip Away” and “Patches” (which is actually Rick Hall's tribute to his own father), Arthur Conley’s “Sweet Soul Music” and Otis Redding’s “You Left the Water Running”. Hall also produced Etta James’ signature tune, “Tell Mama”, for the Chicago-based Chess Records and "discovered" Percy Sledge ("When a Man Loves a Woman").
Catching up with Rick Hall of Muscle Shoals and Rick Hall: Always Looking For That Song.
posted by spock (17 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
I heard the Swampers have been known to pick a song or two.
posted by entropicamericana at 12:48 PM on March 1, 2015 [3 favorites]

The documentary is in my Netflix queue; thank you for reminding me to watch it. (Then I'll come back and dig into this post.)
posted by immlass at 12:49 PM on March 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

I love when Wilson Pickett says, "Is that what I think it is?," looking at the cotton fields around the studio.
posted by Jode at 1:03 PM on March 1, 2015

If Rick Hall had done nothing else in his life but produce Etta James' "Tell Mama", he'd earn a permanent place in the pantheon. That song will get your mind right.

I forget who said it, and its probably in the documentary which I need to rewatch, and I'm probably misquoting, but: "Motown made R&B for a white audience, Stax in Memphis made R&B for a black audience. Muscle Shoals made R&B for everyone."

There's still some pretty good music coming out of there, even today. Check out Belle Adair, Doc Dailey & Magnolia Devil, The Bear (a bold choice of band name for an Alabama act), and Banditos (though they might be from Birmingham, I'm not sure).

And that's overlooking the obvious: Alabama Shakes (Athens, AL), St. Paul and the Broken Bones (Birmingham, AL), and Jason Isbell (raised in Florence, lives in NashVegas), and my personal favorite (though there's no connection to the Shoals other than inspiration), the mighty Lee Bains III and The Glory Fires, whose latest record is a slobberknocking buzzsaw of Stooges guitar laid over Swampers boogie topped with Lee's gospel howl. It's glorious.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 1:05 PM on March 1, 2015 [3 favorites]

I watched the documentary a couple of weeks ago - can't recommend it enough.
posted by COD at 1:07 PM on March 1, 2015

Michael O'Sullivan's review of Muscle Shoals in the Washington Post. Manohla Dargis' review in the NY Times. Christy Lemire's review on
posted by spock at 1:24 PM on March 1, 2015

Documentary is amazing. Great post!
posted by persona au gratin at 1:25 PM on March 1, 2015

I've watched this twice. Fascinating behind the scenes storytelling and the music makes me wanna dance.
posted by CincyBlues at 1:47 PM on March 1, 2015

I will attest to the excellence of this doc. I discovered it about a year ago on Netflix. Wonderful from beginning to end.
posted by hwestiii at 2:00 PM on March 1, 2015

Back from the dead with a great post, Spock!

Great doc, can't recommend it highly enough.
posted by nevercalm at 2:05 PM on March 1, 2015

Top notch post and yeah cool!!!
posted by spitbull at 2:22 PM on March 1, 2015

The making-of/oral-history aspect of the doc is so, so good. Maybe a little too much "there's a sort of magic in the water..." type of stuff thrown in for my tastes, but again, worth it for the history.
posted by stinkfoot at 5:10 PM on March 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

Indians first inhabited the lands bordered by the Tennessee River that we call the Shoals area today. No one knows when the name Muscle Shoals was first used for this area, however, there are many theories of where the name originated. One theory is that at one time there were piles of mussel shells found along the shoals in the Tennessee River. Another theory is that the shape of the river looks like the muscle in a man’s arm, therefore, Muscle Shoals. The last theory comes from several booklets that were published before Muscle Shoals incorporated. This theory states: “Muscle Shoals, the Niagara of the South, derives its name from the Indians, who, attempting to navigate upstream, found the task almost impossible because of the strong current.” Thus came the word muscle, symbolic of the strength required to “paddle a canoe up the rapids.” The Shoals area, including Florence, Sheffield, and Tuscumbia, was first known as the Muscle Shoals district.
posted by PixelPiper at 5:31 PM on March 1, 2015

Don't forget "Sweet Home Alabama".

For reals.
posted by clvrmnky at 6:15 PM on March 1, 2015

Speaking of session musician documentaries, the song clearances for distribution of The Wrecking Crew are finally done. Seven years later, it can actually be distributed to cinemas outside of film festivals.
posted by zamboni at 7:12 PM on March 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

I'd also like to recommend the documentary. It's fantastic, and I think that it's a good reminder that people can transcend a place and time in unexpected ways. They talk about going to eat with black artists in local diners, which surprised me in Jim Crow Alabama, but to them the musicians were just men and women they were working with. To me, that said as much about those guys as their musical work.
posted by wintermind at 7:17 PM on March 1, 2015

Yep. It's been a while since I've seen the documentary, but I remember him talking about it being very comfortable going to lunch with the black artists, but stressful (at first) going out to lunch with Duane Allman and his longhaired cohorts when they entered the scene.

Great movie, great people, great music.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 3:11 AM on March 2, 2015

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