Muscle Shoals, directed by Greg “Freddy” Camalier, is one of the latest in a loosely-linked series of music documentaries – Standing In The Shadows of Motown, The Wrecking Crew, 20 Feet From Stardom — that zero in on the unheralded figures who helped make the records we all love.
Those musicians in Detroit, L.A., Muscle Shoals played on all those hits, the films tell us, those singers were in the background, so when you’re bobbing your head to “Baby Love” or “Good Vibrations” or “Respect,” give up some attention and reverence to the secret elements in the creation of the sound: The Funk Brothers, The Wrecking Crew, The Swampers, the girls who go “doo-dah-doo.” You walk out of these movies feeling enlightened, even if you already know 90% of this stuff (because there are always two or three anecdotes you haven’t heard before, like in this movie, how Duane Allman and Wilson Pickett cooked up the version of “Hey Jude,” whose outro, one talking head tells us, virtually invented Southern Rock), and elated, because each of these films plays us pieces of dozens of terrific records to illustrate the story it wants to tell.
I could watch any movie that follows the formula, so if anyone wants to make a doc based on Always Magic In The Air, the book about the Brill Building era by Ken Emerson, go right ahead. One on Stax, Hi and Memphis Soul would be appreciated also, and the sound of Bakersfield (get to know The Strangers and The Buckaroos).
These stories cover similar ground: how a place and a time drew together a unit of musicians at a label (Motown) or a studio (Fame) or in a city (Los Angeles) and how shrewd, savvy entrepreneurs and creative producers (Rick Hall, Jerry Wexler, Brian Wilson, Phil Spector, Holland-Dozier-Holland) coalesced the elements in a burst of sustained (for a while) inspiration. Always there’s a crystalizing moment, a span of a few years when the hits simply roll out of the room, so Muscle Shoals’s golden years are chronicled: Pickett (the first Atlantic artist Wexler brought to town), the Aretha “I Never Loved A Man” session (it’s legendary as much for the friction as for the inspiration, and we hear about how no one could find the way into the song until Spooner Oldham started doodling a keyboard intro), Percy Sledge, Clarence Carter, Etta James. Some MS music that doesn’t get screen time: James & Bobby Purify. side one of Laura Nyro’s Christmas and The Beads of Sweat, Lulu’s New Routes, Boz Scaggs’ Atlantic debut (we do hear some of “Loan Me A Dime,” one of the best tracks cut there or anywhere).
The Rolling Stones did do some exceptional sides in Alabama; “Wild Horses” might be their most soulful foray into countryish rock. But the footage of the band in the studio is familiar, and Jagger and Richards get to talk quite a bit about the mystical properties of this patch of ground in the southern United States (Keith also mentions that one of the earliest Stones cuts was a Muscle Shoals song, Arthur Alexander’s “You Better Move On,” but that’s sort of a slender thread).
I like the idea of rock myth, that everything has to click, the sound of the room, the players, the song, the “sonority” (as Wexler calls it) of the records, the timing relative to what else is going on. But I’m not completely sold on the whole something-in-the-soil theory. Bono, in particular, gets all poetic and florid about how the depth of the music has to do with the proximity to the river, and the stones and the mud and all that, and if you buy rock history as a combination of topography. sociology and economics (I sort of do), then the “singing river” legend will make sense. But Manhattan is bordered by two rivers, and can get gritty, and I’m not sure that explains New York doo-wop. And how to account for The Dixie Flyers? Soulful cats who cut records not far from Miami Beach.
Even though I’m more inclined to give credit to Rick Hall, for attracting the talent to the studio, and to Jerry Wexler, for seeing the big potential in this group of players, than to the Tennessee River itself (I’m sure it’s a very soulful river in its way), sometimes you do have to factor in the spiritual. In 1967-1968, when “I’d Rather Go Blind,” “I’m Your Puppet,” “I Never Loved A Man,” “Take Time To Know Her” and other timeless records were being cut by a bunch of white guys backing up black singers, Alabama’s Governor George Wallace was running for President on a segregationist platform. He also hated hippies. He carried the state of Alabama in the ’68 election with over 65% of the popular vote.
So what was going on at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals with Hall and The Swampers (David Hood, Barry Beckett, Roger Hawkins, Jimmy Johnson, Spooner Oldham…) was by Alabama standards, still radical. In the film, the players describe the looks they’d get when they and the black artists went to get some lunch (even worse later on when they walked into a joint with longhaired Duane Allman). They were an integrated gang making deep soul in the deep south. The story of Fame and Muscle Shoals gets less interesting in the ‘70s. After Hall and Wexler had a falling out, The Swampers set up shop at 3614 Jackson Highway, and although the hits still flowed from the south bank of the Tennessee (Paul Simon, Bob Seger, Jimmy Cliff, Traffic), it’s those records from the ‘60s, from Arthur Alexander in 1962 to Boz in 1969, that might make you believe there really was something in the water.
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