I love documentaries, I especially love music documentaries, and Muscle Shoals is one of the best examples of both I have seen.
Muscle Shoals is a small city in Alabama, located on the Tennessee River. According to native American legend, the river sings and is mystical and magical.
Music from this area is now called the Muscle Shoals sound...and here's why:
In the late 50s, Rick Hall, a genius engineer opened his own studio, FAME Studios. His back story up until then was tragic, but with a songwriting and musical background he had a great ear and put it to use. He collected a super group of musicians from the area, who eventually became known as The Swampers, and were the tightest and funkiest sessions musicians...especially as they were white. An unassuming bunch of locals that soon became sought after by the biggest of the biggest.
Rick had a great ear for production, he would make artists do multiple takes until he got the sound he wanted. Almost always he couldn't actually articulate what he wanted, but said he'd know when he heard it. That is the sign of a true genius, the artists mostly didn't mind, as they always got hits out of his techniques.
Their first client was Arthur Alexander, a local bellhop. I had not heard of Arthur, but when he sung I knew the songs, they were covered by both The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.
The next local to drop by and want a recording of his little song, was none other than Percy Sledge with When a Man Loves a Woman. There is actual footage of Rick ringing Jerry Wexler of Atlantic records and playing the cut down the phone to him.
And so on it goes, Wilson Picket, Aretha Franklin, Etta James, the list is endless.
Aretha was originally signed to Columbia records, but with no real success, five years had gone by and they dropped her. Atlantic snapped her up and sent her to Muscle Shoals. She had this song, Never Loved a Man!! But, no one could make it work, the keyboardist play a few deep, funky chords that now make the introduction to the song and it was cut within a few hours, straight to No. 1 and she was a bona fide star! There is footage from this period...amazing!
Even Sam Phillips said Fame studios influenced Sun Studios, especially in the way they used both black and white artists.
Now this was at the time of segregation, so part of this film shows how music helped to break down barriers, the majority of the session band and indeed Rick himself were white, but there were some blacks playing with them. None of them cared, the were all communicating via music not the colour of their skin...it simply wasn't an issue.
The Swampers, named by Leon Russell, were Barry Beckett (keyboards), Roger Hawkins (drums),Jimmy Johnson (guitar), David Hood (bass). After a while, they split from Rick to form their own studio, Muscle Shoal Sound Studios. Soon The Rolling Stones arrived to cut Brown Sugar and Wild Horses, amongst other songsm there. Keith and Mick are interviewed for the film and rave about the place, especially Keith, wishing they had returned.
Paul Simon contacted them and asked for the black dudes who played on The Staple Singers, I'll take you there. He was surprised to learn they were white, but came down and recorded Love me like a rock and Kodachrome. The list that went through their studios is a who's who of blues/funk in the 70s. Bob Dylan recorded Slow Train Coming there.
My only criticism of the film is too much Lynyrd Skynyrd and Allman Brothers for my taste and a bit too much commentary from Bono. I love Bono, but am still unsure of his connection to the film!
Muscle Shoals was a complete revelation to me. I knew all the music, really well in fact. But I had no idea of the story behind it all and the links between it all, when you listen to them, as you do when watching the film, you can immediately see the connection to the Muscle Shoals Sound. It's remarkable.
Muscle Shoals has a great story, not just the music, but the characters, the history, the racial aspects and the most stunningly beautiful cinematography I have ever seen.
But it's ultimately about the music, with so much footage, interviews and the songs themselves, I found myself dancing in my seat and grinning from ear to ear. I wept tears of joy watching this and simply enjoyed hearing the stories behind some of the greatest songs of all time.
Here is a link to the trailer: