Muscle Shoals. It sounds like it could be the name of a legendary blues singer or a rock band, rather than a city in Alabama. This 16-square mile city lies along the Tennessee River consisted of mostly undeveloped farmland a hundred years ago. Even today its population tops out at just around 15,000. But Muscle Shoals became home to something remarkable that has generated another moniker for the small city. That other name?
The hit recording capital of the world.
The Early Days of Muscle Shoals
Just after the beginning of World War I, Muscle Shoals moved from a handful of scattered farmhouses to musical Mecca. This personality change was jump started by the construction of the Wilson Dam. The area needed a source of electricity to power two nearby nitrate plants used in ammunition and explosives.
This development sparked interest in the potential of the town, drawing investors from all over. In 1921, Henry Ford and Thomas Edison came to Muscle Shoals with dreams of developing it into a modern thriving city.
Ford’s interest alone precipitated a rush to buy land and parcel it out. People bought land sight unseen with plans to get in on the ground floor of the burgeoning town. And soon after, street lights and sidewalks started going up.
But, Ford’s plans to transform Muscle Shoals came to a halt when Congress declined his bid to buy the Wilson Dam. The Dam was still a work in progress and its future was uncertain when the war ended in 1918.
The Father of the Muscle Shoals Sound
In fact, it was another man who was destined to have a much bigger impact on the fate of Muscle Shoals.
Ten years after Ford made his $5-million dollar bid on the dam, Rick Hall was born in neighboring Mississippi.
Hall’s early childhood was marked by tragedy. The accidental death of his brother at just three years old and the ensuing departure of his mother drove him towards his passion. Those early losses are partially to thank—along with the gift of a mandolin from his father at the age of 6—for driving Hall’s determination to make some meaning out of his painful experiences through his growing love of music.
As a teenager, Hall played guitar in local bar bands and built his musical chops. However, trouble followed him into adulthood. His father and his new wife Faye both died within two weeks of each other. Hall plunged into a despair that would have him hitting the bottle and living out of his car. But also seeking relief in music. He played in bands, wrote songs, and struck up partnerships. These partnerships would eventually led to songwriting stints for Roy Orbison and Brenda Lee.
It was out of these collaborations that the FAME studio (an acronym for Florence Alabama Music Enterprises) was first formed in nearby Florence, Alabama.
The Founding of the FAME Studio
Those first collaborations Hall made in building FAME quickly fell apart in the face of his hard-driving working nature. Undeterred, he returned to Muscle Shoals and converted an old warehouse into a studio. And that’s where the magic really started to happen.
Hall’s first hit out of the Muscle Shoals studio was “You Better Move On” by Arthur Alexander. The single climbed to the number 24 spot on Billboard’s Hot 100 in 1962. Like Ford and Edison’s prospecting of the town nearly half a decade earlier, that early success was enough to trigger a wave of interest in FAME. And musicians and songwriters soon started flooding in.
Among those early musicians seeking to make a name for themselves was Percy Sledge. Sledge brought with him a recording of “When a Man Loves a Woman”. Hall knew a hit record when he heard one and reached out to Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records. And in turn They hammered out a deal that would ultimately send the single to the top of the charts in 1966. Wexler, having had some business troubles of his own, needed a new studio in the south to cut his records. And FAME became his studio of choice.
Hall’s house band was a dream team of Jimmy Johnson on guitar, David Hood on bass, Roger Hawkins on drums, and Spooner Oldham on keyboards. Together, they were known as the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, or The Swampers.
It was this confluence of fate, talent, and shrew business that marked the turning point for FAME and for the Muscle Shoals sound. Sledge’s single put southern soul on the map and marked Muscle Shoals as a hotbed of creativity.
The Muscle Shoals Sound
Muscle Shoals music is a fusion of blues, hillbilly, soul, country, gospel, and rock and roll. The style of playing, relaxed and joyful, was an audible departure from the straight-laced, professional sound of southern country music that came before it. The music was played by guys who looked like they had just come from shifts at the local factory. And it resonated with people.
Five years of recording for another label had done nothing to put Aretha Franklin in the spotlight. After being released from her previous contract, Wexler recognized her talent and took her to Muscle Shoals. It was there, with the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, that she turned out her first hit: “I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You).”
Before the 60s were through, Muscle Shoals welcomed another burgeoning superstar in Etta James. FAME produced her hit album Tell Mama.
After Etta James, Wexler sent Wilson Pickett to FAME. And it was through sessions with Pickett that a young musician, Duane Allman, was introduced to the studio. Pickett and Allman bonded over their shared “outsider” status. And the creative alchemy they generated led to one of the greatest Beatles’ covers of all time: Pickett’s rendition of “Hey Jude.”
Personalities and Rising Tension
All of Hall’s success at FAME studio did little to temper his intense personality. Consequently, cracks started forming in his relationship with his house band. And in 1969, The Swampers broke with Hall and established a studio across town that became a direct competitor with FAME. By years end, the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio had sessions booked with The Rolling Stones. These sessions produced recordings that would eventually become the Sticky Fingers album.
With that, the ball got rolling for the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio and it became a hit-making factory that drew the musical titans of the 1970s: Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, Rod Stewart, and Elton John. The success of the studio meant game on for the rival FAME, who in turn began pumping out hits for Joe Tex, Tom Jones, The Osmonds, Candi Staton, Bobbie Gentry, King Curtis, Little Richard, Paul Anka, Bobby Womack, and Clarence Carter.
Throughout the 70s, the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio both cemented its standing as a musical Mecca and expanded its sound to encompass multiple genres. Consequently, by the end of the decade, it had cut recordings for Joe Cocker, Bob Dylan, Dr. Hook, Millie Jackson, Elton John, Julian Lennon, Willie Nelson, Leon Russell, Boz Scaggs, Bob Seger, Paul Simon, Cat Stevens, Rod Stewart, The Staple Singers, and Dire Straits.
Muscle Shoals Today
The studio has moved locations and changed hands, but is still a functioning recording studio and tourist attraction today. Current artists recording at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio include Band of Horses and Cyril Neville.
FAME studio is still up and running. And the rift with Hall smoothed over with the passing of time. Both studios credit each other with helping define the sound of Muscle Shoals.