On the Tennessee River, known by the local Native Americans as “the River that Sings”. He lost his brother to a scalding incident that drove his parents apart, and his mother walked out. His first wife died in a car accident. His father died in a tractor accident. Out of poverty and tragedy, Rick Hall turned to music….
He threw himself into a little recording studio in a tobacco warehouse on Muscle Shoals along the Tennessee River. The documentary, Muscle Shoals,tells the story.
It begins with Steal Away by Jimmy Hughes, and Arthur Alexander, a local bell hop,who had the first hit, You Better Move On.The documentary ends with Alicia Keyes.
One of the first songs the Rolling Stones cut was the Arthur Alexander song – You Better Move On – which became a number one hit in England. The Beatles played Anna by Arthur Alexander. They did not know anything about where the songs came from.
The original Muscle Shoals rhythm section opened for the Beatles in 1964 in their first American concert. They left and went to Nashville.
They were replaced by a bunch of white guys who looked like they worked in the supermarket around the corner, and they became the funk and the groove for the Muscle Shoals sound. They became known as the “Swampers”.
Percy Sledge, along with Jimmy Hughes and Arthur Alexander, were just local people. He recorded When a Man Loves a Woman. Atlantic Records picked it up. It went number one worldwide. Jimi Hendrix played behind Percy Sledge before Hendrix was famous.
They recorded all black acts in the beginning. This was happening at the same time that George Wallace was championing segregation. The black singers and the white musicians and backup singers were family. They had music in common, and music crossed the racial divide.
Atlantic Records and Jerry Wexler sent Wilson Pickett down and Land of One Thousand Dances, Mustang Sally, and other hits were recorded there. From then on, Muscle Shoals was the place for Atlantic Records to send its artists.
Aretha Franklin was next. She had a great voice, but her music was not taking off. They cut Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You within 15-20 minutes. That was the turning point for her and became a $Million dollar song. They finished the album, including R E S P E C T, in New York with the Swampers. In fact, they became her recording band for years to come, but Rick Hall and Jerry Wexler had a falling out.
Next came Etta James with Chess Records out of Chicago. They did Tell Moma, and it resurrected her career.
W.C. Handy was a local guy who popularized the Blues. He was the first person to write music for the Blues and became known as the Father of the Blues.
Sam Phillips was Rick Hall’s mentor. He recorded Elvis and is considered the father of Rock & Roll. He started recording black artists in Muscle Shoals. Helen Keller was also from Muscle Shoals.
Muscle Shoals melded white, black, hillbilly, funk and many sounds. Deep bass and drum were marks of the Muscle Shoals sound. The musicians were open to any genre.
The Allman Brothers camped out at Muscle Shoals until Rick Hall gave him a shot. They had come back from LA where they tried to make a go in a group called the Hour Glass without any success. Greg Allman learned how to play slide guitar after he broke his arm and used a Coricidan bottle as a slide.
Duane Allman played on the Wilson Pickett cut. He talked Wilson Pickett into playing Hey Jude and something happened – “all of a sudden there was Southern Rock. That was the beginning of the Allman Brothers sound.” But Rick Hall was not into it, and he “missed the boat on that one.”
Right after Rick Hall signed Capital Records, the Swampers decided to leave and go with Jerry Wexler. They set up a studio across town. Cher was their first client, but nothing happened.
Then the Rolling Stones showed up. The first cut was You Got to Move. They wrote and recorded Wild Horses on the spot with the “country” influence of Alabama. They also did Brown Sugar there. They Swampers brought the funk. The Stones would have recorded more stuff at Muscle Shoals, but they were politically exiled at the time (and did Exile on Main Street in France).
Meanwhile, Rick Hall put another band together called the Fame Gang at his studio. Candi Station, Bobbi Gentry, Lou Rawls, Little Richard, Mac Davis and Donny Osmond and the Osmond Brothers, Joe Simon, Alabama, Paul Anka, Tom Jones, Clarence Carter, Wislon Pickett, Bobby Womack, and others.
Across town, the Swampers signed Lynyrd Skynyrd. They had no money. They ate peanut butter sandwiches and got in fights with the truckers because they had long hair. Free Bird was cut there. Billy Powell, the roadie, was playing concert piano to the tape when they walked in one day, and he became a band member within a few months. No one knew he could play.
They had a hard time selling a nine minute single to the record company. Capital wanted them to cut Free Bird down to three minutes and thirty five seconds. They would not do it, and the Swampers lost the band. They want on a world tour with The Who, and rest is history. After the crash, Lynyrd Skynyrd went back to Muscle Shoals and did The First and the Last.
The Swampers were adaptable to any style. Jimmy Cliffe played reggae there before Bob Marley. He referred Steve Winwood and Traffic to them, and they learned how to jam together. They played on the road with Traffic, the first time they played on the road. That wasn’t them though; they were local, family guys.
The Swampers played in the studio with Bob Seger, including Main Street. For ten years, the Swampers played with Bob Seger. They also played behind Simon and Garfunkel, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan (Slow Train Coming), Rod Stewart, Boz Scaggs, the Staple Singers, Mavis Staples, Joe Cocker, Leone Russell, Willie Nelson, Carlos Santana, John Prine, Dire Straits, Joan Baez, Dr. Hook, Linda Ronstadt, Jimmy Buffett, Jose Feliciano, Helen Reddy and many others. They did 50 albums a year in the 1970’s!
The studios were humble shells, but what they did was legendary. The documentary finishes with Alicia Keyes singing, I Am Pressing On, with a black choir and the Swampers accompanying her.
Muscle Shoals You should watch it.
“Muscle Shoals has the Swampers…..” Sweet Home Alabama.
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