Muscle Shoals

Updated: March 01, 2011

The small city of Muscle Shoals sits near the bank of the Tennessee River in northwestern Alabama, adjacent to three other cities: Florence, Sheffield, and Tuscumbia.

The small city of Muscle Shoals sits near the bank of the Tennessee River in northwestern Alabama, adjacent to three other cities: Florence, Sheffield, and Tuscumbia. The quad-city area, generally referred to as Muscle Shoals in music circles, emerged as an important regional recording center in the early 1960s, yielding a laid-back stylistic musical admixture of soul, country, rock, and rhythm and blues. Muscle Shoals’s musical culture grew out of its vernacular traditional music—spirituals, ballads, and blues—fostered in the area by African American and Scots-Irish settlers.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Florence-born William Christopher “W. C.” Handy, a composer and publisher, ventured to Memphis and became renowned as the “Father of the Blues.” Recording activity in the quad-city area dates from the 1940s, when Sheffield bassist Dexter Johnson opened his garage studio. Nevertheless, many of the area’s early talent, including Florence natives Sam Phillips, founder of Memphis’s Sun Records, and Buddy Killen, country musician, producer, and eventual owner of Nashville’s Tree Publishing Company, were drawn to more prominent and lucrative commercial music centers.

In 1956 songwriter James Joiner and guitarist Kelton “Kelso” Herston formed the first Alabama-based recording company, Tune Records, in Florence. That label released Joiner’s song “A Fallen Star” in 1957, sung by popular local singer Bobby Denton. Jud Phillips, brother of Sam Phillips, formed the short-lived Judd label in Florence, releasing Arthur Alexander’s song “Sally Sue Brown” in 1958. Tom Stafford, also of Florence, started SPAR (Stafford Publishing and Recording) Music in 1959. Soon, Stafford, teaming with local musicians Billy Sherrill and Rick Hall, changed the organization’s name to FAME (Florence Alabama Music Enterprises), recruiting aspiring local songwriters Dan Penn, Dewey Lyndon “Spooner” Oldham, and Donnie Fritts. In 1960 Sherrill, who later pioneered the “countrypolitan” sound in country music, moved to Nashville, and Hall then acquired FAME from Stafford.

In 1961 Hall moved FAME to a tobacco barn in Muscle Shoals and employed a house band comprised of pianist David Briggs, guitarist Terry Thompson, drummer Jerry Carrigan, and bassist Norbert Putnam. FAME’s first regional hit was Alexander’s influential “You Better Move On” in 1961. In 1962 Hall produced “Steal Away,” written and sung by Jimmy Hughes of Leighton, Alabama, which reached number seven- teen on the national pop charts in July 1964. FAME’s success as a recording studio soon attracted to Muscle Shoals such singers as Tommy Roe, Ray Stevens, and the Tams, as well as Felton Jarvis, later an Elvis Presley producer.

In November 1964, Killen produced singer Joe Tex’s top five pop hit “Hold What You’ve Got” at FAME. That song was released through Atlantic Records, initiating an alliance between Hall and that label’s artist and repertoire representative Jerry Wexler. In 1964 Carrigan, Putnam, and Briggs left for Nashville, where they had successful studio careers. Hall hired a new studio band for FAME: guitarist Jimmy Johnson (nephew of Dexter Johnson), Spooner Old- ham, drummer Roger Hawkins, and bassist Albert “Junior” Lowe. That band backed singer Joe Simon’s Vee-Jay Records single “Let’s Do It Over” in 1965, an early hit from the song- writing duo of Penn and Oldham. Concurrently, Quin Ivy, a local disc jockey, along with local guitarist Marlin Greene, opened Norala (later Quinvy) Recording Studio in Sheffield. In early 1966, Ivy produced Leighton, Alabama, singer Percy Sledge’s recording of “When a Man Loves a Woman.” Engineered by Jimmy Johnson and released through Atlantic Records, that song, backed by FAME’s studio band, became a number one pop hit. Thereafter, Muscle Shoals was identified nationally as a center for racially integrated “soul” music, a genre of popular music combining elements of blues, country, gospel, and rhythm and blues.

In 1966 Atlantic’s Wexler brought singer Wilson Pickett to FAME, where he recorded his chart-topping hit “Land of 1,000 Dances.” Memphis-based guitarist Lincoln “Chips” Moman and bassist Tommy Cogbill augmented the FAME band for Pickett’s hits “Mustang Sally” in 1966 and “Funky Broadway” in 1967. Wexler also produced Aretha Franklin’s single “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” backed with the Penn-Moman song “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” at FAME; the former became a number one rhythm and blues hit in the spring of 1967. In January 1967, Otis Redding and Jimmy Johnson produced singer Arthur Conley’s “Sweet Soul Music,” a major hit that attempted to summarize the genre. Shortly afterward, Hall produced two more influential hits at FAME: Clarence Carter’s “Slip Away” (released on Atlantic Records) and singer Etta James’s Carter-penned “Tell Mama” (Chess Records).

Meanwhile, Ivy, Greene, and songwriter Eddie Hinton continued producing local soul artists such as Bill Brandon, Tony Borders, and Don Varner for Quinvy’s Southcamp imprint. (David Johnson, Ivy’s assistant engineer, eventually took over Quinvy Recording Studio, renaming it Broadway Sound.) In 1966 Pensacola, Florida, promoter “Papa” Don Schroeder brought singers James and Bobby Purify, along with Birmingham, Alabama, keyboardist Barry Beckett, to FAME, where the Purify brothers recorded the number six pop hit “I’m Your Puppet,” written by Penn and Oldham.

In 1967 Beckett and local bassist David Hood joined FAME’s band, replacing Oldham and Cogbill. FAME’s new quartet (Beckett, Hawkins, Hood, and Jimmy Johnson) began freelancing for Atlantic Records, commuting to New York City and playing on recording sessions for Solomon Burke, King Curtis, Dusty Springfield, and Aretha Franklin. Often, additional guitarists appeared on Muscle Shoals sessions, including Hinton, Lowe, Duane Allman, Pete Carr, Will McFarlane, Wayne Perkins, Joe South, and Travis Wammack. Also in the late 1960s, trumpeter and arranger Harrison Calloway Jr. put together the Muscle Shoals Horns, a brass section featured on many recordings.

In 1969 the FAME rhythm section resigned from FAME to establish themselves as the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. They set up their own recording studio, Muscle Shoals Sound, at 3614 Jackson Highway in Sheffield. That year, singers Cher, Lulu, and Boz Scaggs recorded at the studio for Atlantic, while Jimmy Johnson engineered the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar” and “Wild Horses.” The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section’s 1969 production of singer R. B. Greaves’s number two pop hit “Take a Letter Maria” demonstrated the new studio’s viability. By the early 1970s, Muscle Shoals had become an internationally respected recording center, with artists from diverse genres making records there. The studio hosted sessions for Jimmy Cliff, J. J. Cale, Don Covay, Art Garfunkel, Linda Ronstadt, Leon Russell, Tony Joe White, and Bobby Womack, as well as Memphis-based Stax label acts Luther Ingram, Mel and Tim, the Staple Singers, and Johnnie Taylor. Concurrently, FAME produced Clarence Carter’s number four pop hit “Patches” (1970) as well as recordings for such nationally charting artists as Mac Davis, Paul Anka, and Lou Rawls. Hall’s work at FAME earned him Billboard magazine’s Producer of the Year award in 1971. The same year, Hall produced the Osmonds’ number one hit “One Bad Apple,” penned by FAME staff writer George Jackson.

As the Muscle Shoals scene diversified, a host of independent songwriters and producers emerged. Mickey Buck- ins wrote and produced the Osmonds’ hit “Double Lovin’” at FAME in 1971. The following year, Muscle Shoals Sound publisher Terry Woodford and FAME keyboardist Clayton Ivey formed Wishbone Productions in Muscle Shoals, signing a contract with Detroit’s Motown label to record the Commodores, Supremes, and Temptations. In 1976 Wish- bone signed Red Bay, Alabama, songwriter and guitarist Mac McAnally. Other 1970s-era Muscle Shoals–area songwriters included Ava Aldridge, also a background vocalist for many Muscle Shoals recording sessions, and Walt Aldridge, a guitarist at FAME who later became an influential country songwriter and producer. Increased recording activity in Muscle Shoals during the 1970s prompted the emergence of competing studios, notably Music Mill and Widget.

In 1972–73 the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section toured and recorded with British rock group Traffic. In 1973 Paul Simon’s Muscle Shoals–recorded There Goes Rhymin’ Simon received a Grammy nomination. White soul singer Bonnie Bramlett and southern rock artists Lynyrd Skynyrd (who immortalized the Muscle Shoals scene in the lyrics of “Sweet Home Alabama”), Blackfoot, Cowboy, and Wet Willie like- wise recorded at Muscle Shoals Sound in the 1970s, as did country singer Willie Nelson, who in 1974 made his ground- breaking outlaw country album Phases and Stages there. Rod Stewart recorded his hits “Sailing” and “Tonight’s the Night” at the studio in the mid-1970s. Bob Seger recorded often in Muscle Shoals, including the hit “Old Time Rock and Roll” (1978), also written by George Jackson. Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section members, Beckett and Johnson particularly, emerged as much sought-after producers. In 1978 the studio moved its facility to a vacant Naval Reserve building beside the Tennessee River in Sheffield. In 1979 Muscle Shoals Sound formed an independent label affiliated with Capitol Records, releasing recordings by Levon Helm and Delbert McClinton. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Amazing Rhythm Aces, Billy Burnette, Lou Ann Barton, Glenn Frey, and John Prine recorded at Muscle Shoals Sound, as did Bob Dylan, whose Grammy-winning album Slow Train Coming (1980) was recorded there.

In the 1980s, many country music stars recorded at Muscle Shoals, including Hank Williams Jr., the Oak Ridge Boys, Eddie Rabbitt, Sawyer Brown, and T. Graham Brown. Under Rick Hall’s guidance, local band Shenandoah emerged as a major national country music act. In 1985 Jackson, Mississippi–based Malaco Records purchased Muscle Shoals Sound, reinvigorating interest in southern soul through issuing discs by such artists as Bobby “Blue” Bland, “Little” Milton Camp- bell, Tyrone Davis, Dorothy Moore, and Johnny Taylor— often utilizing the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. In 1992 Etta James recorded The Right Time at the studio; the next year Dan Penn made his acclaimed album Do Right Man there. More recently, rock and pop musicians including Melissa Etheridge, the Decoys, John Hiatt, and George Michael have recorded in Muscle Shoals–area studios.

Although many studios that sprang up in the area during the 1970s have closed, FAME and Muscle Shoals Sound remain active, and there has been a resurgence of activity. The renowned 3614 Jackson Highway studio, the former site of Muscle Shoals Sound, reopened in 2001 under new management; it was refurbished to resemble the original. In 1998 Mac McAnally’s studio, one of several studios built in Muscle Shoals to serve its burgeoning publishing industry, yielded Jimmy Buffett’s album Beach House on the Moon. Jimmy Johnson, who chairs the nearby Alabama Music Hall of Fame, operates a commercial recording studio in Sheffield. Mark and Rodney Hall, sons of producer Rick Hall, initiated Muscle Shoals Records, an offshoot of FAME Music Enterprises, with 2001 releases by Russell Smith and the Decoys. The popular W. C. Handy Music Festival, held each August in Florence, attests to continued interest in the vibrant musical legacy of Muscle Shoals.

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