Alabama’s R&B and rock powerhouse studio and session band is immortalized in new documentary, Muscle Shoals

Documentary pays tribute to the musicians of the South's great soul and rock studio

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Rick Hall with Clarence Carter.

Rick Hall with Clarence Carter. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

 

The Film

“The Road to Muscle Shoals Is Paved with Fame.” So says a T-shirt. Sure, the quote is filled with little entendres: an allusion to the great label and studio that resides in the small Alabama town and the stars who went out of their way to make music there. And make no qualms about it; there were a ton of them: Wilson Pickett, Duane Allman, the Rolling Stones, Clarence Carter, Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Little Richard, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and the list goes on. This film, though, puts the stars and those lesser-known into full focus to uncover the music that was concocted in the heart of the South.

Southern soul: it’s a subgenre of soul that typically encompasses a dirtier, rawer sound. Motown had a fantastic sound, too. No one will dispute that. However, you get a few Southern musicians in the room, color be damned, and you’ve got a party cooking. Muscle Shoals, intentional or not, does for Fame and the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio what Standing in the Shadows of Motown did for the Funk Brothers.

Names like David Hood, Barry Beckett, Roger Hawkins, Jimmy Johnson, Jesse Boyce, Harvey Thompson, Clayton Ivey, Peanut Montgomery, David Briggs, Norbert Putnam, Terry Thompson, and more helped shaped that Muscle Shoals signature sound. These aren’t household names, and even a lot of music lovers may not recognize them unless you’re an absolute music junky. But if you let their instruments do the talking, it’s a conversation that’s been held between many household and club walls over the last fifty years.

There are celebrity endorsements and interviews throughout the film from Bono, Keith Richards, and Steve Winwood among others who provide sound bytes for the music that came from there. And though they’re a nice selling point for a trailer (and certainly not untrue statements), nothing speaks better for that so-called magic than hearing a track like Wilson Pickett’s “Land of 1000 Dances” open the film. It’s raw and so filled with energy that you nearly forget that you’re supposed to be watching a movie. “Land of 1000 Dances” may not be the greatest song ever recorded (although it’s high on the list), but it’s difficult to think of another track that could’ve been more fun to be in the studio with its musicians than during those sessions.

The film focuses on Rick Hall, who founded Fame after personal tragedy, and his mission to find the best musicians in the area and record with them. It later dives into the house band (the Swampers) who left him during a crucial point of Fame’s legacy to start Muscle Shoals Sound. Music legend Jerry Wexler was so enamored with what Rick Hall and company were doing that Wexler called him to see if he could bring some artists down to record including Wilson Pickett and eventually Aretha Franklin.

Clarence Carter recalls, “Each time an artist came to Muscle Shoals, they came out with a hit record.” Much of that can be attributed to Hall’s drive for perfection and his ideal that on every record “his life depended on it.” Indeed it did, and it’s a story deftly told much better with the pictures and stories put together by filmmaker Greg “Freddy” Camalier from those who lived it. If you have any interest in music—and especially in R&B—add this film to your must watch list.

 

The Soundtrack

Universal Republic has put together the soundtrack for the film. Over its thirteen songs, it does a highly respectable job of incorporating songs important to Fame and Muscle Shoals Sound and blending it with artists who will help to drive sales of the soundtrack. They could’ve easily foregone including songs like Arthur Alexander’s warning shot “You Better Move On,” a Top 25 hit on Billboard’s pop chart in February 1962, and Jimmy Hughes’s “Steal Away,” a Top 20 hit on the pop chart and number two on the R&B chart. A new track, “Pressing On,” with the Swampers, Spooner Oldham, and a gospel choir fronted by Alicia Keys is also included, bridging the old generation with the new. Aside from R&B, the soundtrack touches reggae (Jimmy Cliff), rock (Lynyrd Skynyrd), and pop (Paul Simon) for a very representative sampling of what these incredible musicians and songwriters had to offer.

Further Listening

If you want to dive deeper into the catalog of Fame, Ace/Kent has been at the forefront of the Fame revival movement for the last few years. With titles from individual artists such as Jimmy Hughes, Candi Station, Spencer Wiggins, Dan Penn, George Jackson, Clarence Carter, and James Govan as well as a 3-CD set of the Fame Studios Story and a pair of compilations of Unissued Gems (soon to have a third volume in January 2014), there is no shortage of material to comb through.

For additional thoughts from the researchers and compilation producers from Ace/Kent (Tony Rounce, Dean Rudland, and Alec Palao) who brought you their reissue titles, be sure to visit Record Racks.

 

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