Monday, October 28, 2013

Ripple Theater - Muscle Shoals

The story of how Muscle Shoals, Alabama became a powerhouse startig in the 1960's music business is a fascinating one. The term "Muscle Shoals Sound" is one I'd heard of for many years but didn't really know anything about it until I read Peter Guralnick's excellent book Sweet Soul Music. It's 400+ pages are required reading for any soul music fan but its appeal doesn't end there. Anyone who loves music or just a good story should check it out (same with all of Guralnick's other books). There are chapters devoted to Memphis (Stax, Hi, etc), Macon (Otis Redding) and James Brown. One of the best chapters is devoted to what happened in Muscle Shoals with an intense musician turned producer named Rick Hall and the FAME (Florence Alabama Music Enterprises) Studios.

Greg Camalier's documentary, simply called Muscle Shoals, does a great job of bringing the complex story to the screen. Located next to the Tennessee River, called the "Singing River" by Native Americans, Muscle Shoals has produced hundreds of songs you have heard your entire life. Rick Hall's early life was impoverished and marked with tragedy but filled him with an intense drive to become successful. If you know anything about Sam Philips and how he started Sun Records, Rick's story is pretty similar. Working with local artists Rick produced some major classics right off the bat - notably "You Better Move On" by Arthur Alexander and "Steal Away" by Jimmy Hughes. Both the Beatles and Rolling Stones recorded songs by Arthur Alexander. Percy Sledge's "When a Man Loves a Woman" helped Rick get the attention of Atlantic Records, who then started bringing Wilson Pickett to Muscle Shoals.  "Land of 1,000 Dances," "Mustang Sally" and "Funky Broadway" are just a few of the killer jams laid down with Rick's incredible studio band. Next, Atlantic's Jerry Wexler brought down his latest signing, Aretha Franklin. Prior to signing with Atlantic, Aretha's recordings for Columbia were jazzy pop numbers similar to Sarah Vaughan. After a rough start, they came up with the monster "I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You." But due to some alcoholic arguments, Aretha took off. Jerry then decided to fly the Muscle Shoals musicians up to New York to finish the album and the rest is history. Duane Allman's another talent that was nurtured in Alabama before he departed to form the Allman Brothers Band.

Rick's killer band, featuring the incredible musicians of Barry Beckett (keyboards), Roger Hawkins (drums), David Hood (bass), Jimmy Johnson (guitar), plus Pete Carr (guitar), Spooner Oldham (keyboards), eventually leave to form their own studio across town called the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. Needless to say, the ultra-competitive Rick is furious. Their new studio struggles at first but once they book some recording sessions with the Rolling Stones. They leave with "Wild Horses" and "Brown Sugar" in the can. After that the floodgates open and they're recording with mega stars like Bob Seger, Paul Simon, etc. Whether they're playing with Traffic or Jimmy Cliff, these guys are comfortable playing anything. Meanwhile across town, Rick Hall puts together yet another great band and wins Billboard's Producer Of The Year award in 1971.

Muscle Shoals is a very entertaining film. The story of Rick Hall and all of the great musicians is something that even non-music fans can relate to. The film makers do a great job of telling Rick's story and most of the key players are well represented. Songwriter Dan Penn is a very important part of FAME story but he doesn't get much screen time and his role is definitely understated. It also would have been interesting to hear from Al Bell of Stax as to why he started sending some of his artists to record in Muscle Shoals. The only part of the film I didn't care for was the amount of screen time given to U2's Bono. I realize he's a big star and will help sell a few more DVD's but, jeezus, his comments are incredibly annoying and totally uninformative. But, despite Bono and some major omissions, Muscle Shoals is a great film and worth two hours of your time.


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