on 14 July 2016
“Sweet home Alabama” is what Lynyrd Skynyrd sang, a sentiment meant to be ironic. Jim Crow and much else about the South was backward, and that’s what they wanted to say. But it’s true they also sang of a certain sweetness there — the sweet life found in music.
The film begins with the singing river, the Tennessee, a tributary of the Ohio that flows through northern Alabama and the town of Muscle Shoals (pop. roughly 13,000). The river was formerly called the Cherokee, so named by the native inhabitants long before the pale faces arrived. The Cherokee heard voices in the river that sang to them. It contained spirits. It also contained mussels, a staple of the Cherokee diet. Muscle Shoals was named after these shellfish. Tennessee, the white man’s name for the river, comes from the name of a Cherokee village called Tanasi that was located along its banks.
The Trail of Tears dispossessed people of their ancestral homelands, among them the Cherokee and Yuchi tribes. Many couldn’t adapt to the dry, flat, alien landscapes of Oklahoma. The rivers or streams in Oklahoma didn’t sing. There were no spirits in them. Some of the dispossessed walked back. It took one Yuchi woman five years to reach the Tanasi again, the place of song for her, her home. There she could live and die in peace among the ancestral voices. Or so we are told through elements of legend, myth and magic in the film.
Song is the South, its soul. It’s found in the land and soil, in the mud and swamps and rivers there. Negroes sang their hosannas and spirituals in the cotton fields. Hillbillies played their banjos and fiddles in the hills. Ragtime and jazz were played on riverboats and steamships. And in the Delta wise men sang the blues, the origin of everything worthwhile in American song. You cannot know anything important culturally about America without knowing this.
The blues were an honest response and testament to the social, economic and political conditions blacks were forced to endure in the Deep South. As Alan Lomax writes in The Land Where the Blues Began (1993):
“The tales and songs [of the blues] return again and again to a few themes — to the grievous and laughable ironies in the lives of an outcast people, who were unfairly denied the rewards of an economy they had helped to build. One black response to this ironic fact was to create the blues — the first satirical song form in the English language — mounted on cadences that have now seduced the world.”
Lomax (1915-2002) was a musicologist who made the first field recordings of blues and gospel singers in the South in the 1930s and ‘40s. His recordings are priceless, a national treasure now housed in the Library of Congress as an important cultural asset.
This film pays tribute to the seduction Lomax wrote of, showing how a modest recording studio in a small backwater berg in the swamplands of northern Alabama became a beacon, shrine and Mecca for modern music. For a time in the 1960s and ‘70s the music industry tilted southwards on its axis (bold as love) from London, New York and Los Angeles toward Muscle Shoals. This extraordinary event, chronicled here, turns out to be “a long, strange trip” indeed, as Jerry Garcia once said in another context.
It begins with a man named Rick Hall (b. 1932), son of a sharecropping woodcutter who grew up dirt poor in a mountain shack in the woods. The house had no electricity or indoor plumbing. There were no nearby houses, neighbours, kids to play with when he was a child. “We slept on straw pulled up from the fields and lived like animals,” he says in the film.
Poverty branded and embittered him. He felt himself a pariah, a marked man. His younger brother died at age three in a home accident, scalded to death in a tub of hot water. Papa blamed Mama for the death. In turn, she hated him for the accusation and never got over it. One day she said to Rick, “I’ll never live with you again. Forget about me.” She left and didn’t come back.
Music would be his redemption, his salvation from loss, rejection and bitterness. “Music is all I had to cling to.” He came down from the mountain, learned to play instruments and write songs. He joined a band and got married. One night he and his wife Fay-Marie were driving to a gig, Rick at the wheel, Fay-Marie at his side. High beams from an oncoming car on the highway temporarily blinded him. His car skidded on loose gravel, ran off the road, turned over in a ditch. Fay-Marie was killed but not instantly. She died three hours later in a hospital, Rick at her side. He took to the bottle thereafter and wandered the swamps, a penniless nomad.
The will to survive is a powerful and mysterious force. What had Hall to live for? Two ideas repeated themselves: the will to be somebody, to slay his demons, and the means to do it — through music. So he kept on writing. He had a knack for jingles and hooks. He just had to convince others of it, to get his foot in the door of a recording studio.
His luck turned when he met Tom Stafford, a recording engineer with a small studio above his father’s chemist shop in Muscle Shoals. There Rick learned the rudiments of sound recording in a studio. Though he and Tom later had a falling out, Rick was confident he could make a go of it in the music business. In the meantime he continued to play in a band in nearby Hamilton, Alabama to keep body and soul together, pay the bills, save a little. It took him five years to save enough money. The songs he wrote and sold also helped him do that. George Jones, Brenda Lee and Roy Orbison recorded some of his songs. This was in the late 1950s. By 1960, FAME Studios was open for business.
His first client was a local lad named Jimmy Hughes. He had a song called “Steal Away” that needed R&B backing. Rick formed a studio backing band from local musicians he knew. He also knew they would work for little pay. Jerry Carrigan, a member of FAME’s first rhythm section, says “if it [Jimmy’s song] hadn’t been a hit none of this [the Muscle Shoals sound conquering the world] would have happened.”
But it was a hit — just barely. It made local radio airplay. This was enough to get Rick noticed. His next find was Arthur Alexander, a bellhop at the Sheffield Hotel in nearby Sheffield, Alabama. Arthur had written a bittersweet ballad called “You Better Move On”, the everyday story of a teenaged boy telling his girlfriend to leave him and find someone new. Rick liked it and recorded it. He thought it would be a hit. It was. He recorded other Alexander singles such as “Anna” and “Chains”. These records made their way to Ireland, the U.K., and other remote parts of the world people in Muscle Shoals had never been to. The Rolling Stones recorded “You Better Move On.” It appears on their first LP in 1962. The Beatles recorded “Anna” and “Chains” that same year. Without exactly knowing it, both bands were among the first to introduce the Muscle Shoals sound to a wider audience.
As if taking a cue from the title of Arthur Alexander’s first hit record “You Better Move On”, Rick Hall’s rhythm section moved on to Nashville for more lucrative studio-session pickings (pun I guess intended). Rick replaced them with a collection of young, fresh-faced local musicians he knew, all of them white Southern country boys from Muscle Shoals or towns nearby. They weren’t even adults yet (late teens) but could play as a group. Their strength was unity, not standout individuality. This suited Rick. He wanted them to reproduce the sound he sought. He was 29 and they looked up to him. They would be loyal to his vision. In maturity these boys became known as the Swampers, a nickname given to them by Denny Cordell, a producer friend of Leon Russell’s. They also became known as some of the finest session musicians in the world. They were Jimmy Johnson — guitar; David Hood — bass; Barry Beckett — keyboards; Roger Hawkins — drums. Their strength, apart from unity, was a strong driving bass line that went with heavily miked drums, the heart of the Muscle Shoals sound. Listen sometime to Wilson Pickett’s “Land of a Thousand Dances” to understand what this means.
Chance, circumstance, timing, luck — the key contingencies that go into the mix. Talent is needed as well, but it’s not always the main ingredient. The stars in the heavens aligned when a contact of Rick’s told him about a young man he’d heard singing at the Elk’s Club in Sheffield. The young man was named Percy Sledge and he had a song Rick’s friend thought he should hear. Rick did — he heard it. He couldn’t believe his ears. Percy could wail. He sang from some deep well within. A hit, the breakthrough hit Rick had been looking for all these years. A goldmine right on his doorstep. Straight away they recorded Percy’s “When a Man Loves a Woman.” But Rick sat on it for a while, unsure what to do with it, how to move and market it. It was too good to waste, to squander on faulty distribution channels. So Rick called Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records in New York. “What’s up?” Jerry wondered. “This is”, Rick said. “Just listen.” He held the phone over the turntable. From the Alabama cotton fields Percy sang his heart out in NYC. Wexler was floored. They did a deal. So Jerry Wexler, hotshot A&R man at Atlantic in New York City, put Muscle Shoals on the world map of music. Nothing would then be the same for Rick after Percy had conquered the world. Nor for the Swampers. When people heard “When a Man Loves a Woman” no one believed the R&B backing band was white. How could it be?
That’s the deal though, of course. Soul has no colour. You’ve either got it or you don’t. When Etta James, that sassy girl who came down from Chicago, first met Rick Hall in Alabama she was appalled. In effect: “You’ve got to be kidding me. This honky hillbilly recorded Percy Sledge?” Wilson Pickett thought the same. He thought Wexler had pulled his leg. This can’t be the place where Percy’s soul flowed out of him. But by the time Pickett left with “Land of a Thousand Dances” and “Mustang Sally” in the can, he and Rick Hall had become soulmates.
Happened every time artists went south, the time with Aretha perhaps the most famous. Aretha was stuck in a contract with Columbia. She signed on for three albums. But Columbia didn’t know what to do with her, ignorant of what they had. They tried, with zero success, to turn her into a black Doris Day or Patti Page. This was never going to work and didn’t. Wexler knew how stupid Columbia were. He saw what they couldn’t, a diamond in the rough. Columbia dropped her, tired of her tepid sales. One week later Wexler pounced, signing her to a long-term Atlantic deal.
Now, Aretha had got used to city life. She recorded everything in New York City, which seemed to her a sensible thing to do. But Jerry had other ideas. “You’re going down to Alabama,” he said. She thought he was joking. He wasn’t. Cats down there, all bleached white, will make your music work. But she wasn’t buying it and turned up short tempered and surly, her attitude disbelieving. Wexler of course travelled with her as a kind of chaperone.
The sessions weren’t working. Aretha wasn’t happy and nobody knew how to change this. She was set in her ways. She was used to musicians who had defined roles and read sheet music. She needed fixed order around her, not experimentation, jamming and chaos. But Jerry knew what she needed, even if she didn’t. These were the cats who would deliver if only she could open up, let go and have faith in the chaotic process.
Truth is, the Swampers were R&B men on the surface, but deep down they were jazzmen, even if they didn’t play jazz per se. They loved freedom, exploration, improvisation. Out of this came great and beautiful things, as every alchemist in the jazz world knows.
In the studio they had reached an impasse, a dead end. Nothing was happening and a great silence fell over everyone. Tensions were high, nerves frayed. Spooner Oldham was a sidekick friend of the Swampers. He was there that day fooling around on the keyboards during the lull. Then suddenly, out of nowhere, he conjured the magical chords, the phrasing that kicks off the song. He leads Aretha into it and there, in her element, she lets wail, rattling the rafters as they say. They recorded the thing in two takes which lasted only 15 or 20 minutes. That song, “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You”, became an R&B classic, probably the greatest song Rick Hall ever produced.
In the film, years later, meaning now, Aretha reflects:
“That was it. That was the moment. Muscle Shoals was the turning point in my career. It made me.”
She isn’t alone in confessing what the place means. Muscle Shoals made a lot of people, and that’s why they came to it — first in a trickle, later a flood tide.
Jerry Wexler looked back too:
“It all worked out incredibly well. It’s one of the anomalies of the era that Aretha’s greatest work came with a studio full of Caucasian musicians. How do you figure it? This is the Queen of Soul acknowledged. And here we have Roger Hawkins, David Hood, Jimmy Johnson, Barry Beckett and Spooner Oldham coming out with the deepest and most intense R&B of the era.”
The Swampers would later set up a studio of their own in nearby Sheffield — Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, now on the U.S. Register of Historic Places. Why? Because “Brown Sugar” and “Wild Horses” by the Rolling Stones were recorded there, not in England, Europe, New York or L.A. The list of those beyond the Stones who followed them goes on and on: Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Simon and Garfunkel, Joe Cocker, Rod Stewart, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Allman Brothers, Steve Winwood and Traffic, Cat Stevens, Linda Ronstadt, Glenn Frey, Bob Seger, et al.
Rick Hall is still at it. In the old days he worked with so many of the legendary R&B greats: Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Otis Redding, Clarence Carter and many others. Over time he gravitated to country, working with well-known artists in that genre as well: Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Bobbi Gentry, Mac Davis, Alabama, the Dixie Chicks, et al. He’s 84 years old now and is what’s commonly called a survivor. In the film he says rejection and bitterness were always with him, driving him on, pushing him to prove himself. He says a day doesn’t go by, even now, when he doesn’t miss his mother — the one he never truly had. The mountain shack they lived in had a dirt floor and wood fire in winter. All the riches in the world can’t erase those early memories, evidently. Freud thought our characters were fully formed by age seven. Maybe he was right.
Rick Hall’s demons could have devoured him. Instead, he soldiered on and prevailed, and in so doing filled the world with timeless beauty.