muscle shoals sound studios

Musical Magic of Muscle Shoals

photos_3614There’s no easy way to get to Muscle Shoals. From Memphis, it’s a three-hour drive. From Nashville, only a little less. The interconnected towns of Florence, Sheffield, Tuscumbia and Muscle Shoals, either side of the Tennessee river, could and sometimes do claim to be the most fertile ground in the history of popular music, but they’re not on the road from somewhere to anywhere. The people who come here are pilgrims, not tourists.

There have been a lot of them lately, thanks to Freddy Camalier’s documentary, Muscle Shoals, a hymn to the southern soul ringing out in these Alabama backwoods, sung by the stars who came in search of it: Aretha Franklin, The Rolling Stones, Wilson Pickett, Jimmy Cliff and Etta James.

Rock’n’roll visionary Sam Phillips was born here, as was the ‘‘father of the blues”, W.C. Handy, but the Muscle Shoals sound will always be defined by a handful of songs recorded in the mid-1960s and rinsed ever since by classic gold radio. If, like me, you’ve heard When A Man Loves A Woman, I’ll Take You There and I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You) so many times that they barely register any more, try putting them on and listening. Forget that Michael Bolton exists. Imagine being in the room.

Nobody can account for the magical resonance. It wasn’t the room itself – those three tracks were recorded in three different studios – although that’s certainly part of it. Perhaps it was the Tennessee, known to Native Americans as ‘‘the singing river’’. Atlantic Records mogul Jerry Wexler attributed it to the synergy of black vocalists and young white musicians. Keith Richards credits Rick Hall, the ‘‘complete maniac’’ at the controls, for many of the greatest recordings.

May 19, 2014
by Andrew Purcell
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