January is a great time to explore Muscle Shoals and Florence in North Alabama. The weather is good and there are smaller crowds of visitors. As I journeyed around The Shoals, I discovered North Alabama’s Music heritage and learned the true story of the unique Muscle Shoals sound.
Arriving at the World Famous Fame Studios (Florence Alabama Music Enterprises) was like walking back in time. This was my first introduction to the musical history of Muscle Shoals. Our tour guide Spencer, also an engineer at Fame, recommended the 2013 documentary on Muscle Shoals.
Fame was founded in 1959 by Rick Hall, Tom Stafford, and Billy Sherrill as a music publishing company. By 1961, Fame was producing music. Arthur Alexander’s “You Better Move On” put FAME on the map and introduced the producers to the world.
By the mid-1960s, Rick Hall and Fame was a known hitmaker, with artists like Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge, Etta James, and Aretha Franklin. In 1967, studio B was opened to accommodate more recording space for artists. The 60s saw a lot of R&B hits recorded at Fame. In the 1970s, it was Etta James, Tammy Wynette, Lou Rawls, Otis Redding, and the Allman Brothers Band recorded there. In the 1980s, country artists came to town. By the 90s, Fame focused on publishing with songwriters like Walt Alders, who created 63 hits songs in his seventeen years with Fame.
Spencer told our tour group that the creation of a hit song is always the same, “Song, Performance, Engineering, Always. That’s what Rick taught me.” He said. Rick died in 2018 and Rick’s wife, Linda, continues to run the family business. She has plenty of stories to tell.
It was four local session musicians, Barry Beckett on keyboards, Roger Hawkins on drums, David Hood on bass, and Jimmy Johnson on guitar who were known as the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section and were later dubbed the Swampers. These four, who came together at Fame, were an integral part of creating the Muscle Shoals sound.
Rick Hall was a driven man and a workaholic. The Swampers left Fame in 1969 because they did not approve of a contract that Hall proposed to them. The quartet of musicians left Fame to create their own studio at the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio just two miles from their former employer, with the assistance of music executive Jerry Wexler. Both studios survive and flourish today.
The Fame studio tour is a great introduction to the Muscle Shoals sound. By all means, see the Muscle Shoals documentary will give you many insights into the ‘Muscle Shoals Sound.’
Pulling in to the small parking lot of the Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, I didn’t know what to expect after having learned about Fame and the Swampers. Our tour guide, Chase, who is also an engineer at the studio, showed us around the small two-level building. Beginning downstairs in what had been the publishing department and the songwriters in the ‘hang out’ room. This busy, active studio is where the Allman Betts Band, the sons of the Allman Brothers, recently recorded.
Barry Beckett, Roger Hawkins, David Hood, and Jimmy Johnson were the ‘Muscle Shoals Sound.’ It was Denny Cordel that dubbed them The Swampers, for their ‘southern swamp sound.’ The four musicians made a deal with Jerry Wexler, a record producer with Atlantic records, when they decided to part ways with Fame.
The studio’s first recording session was in March 1969 with Cher. While the record was a flop, the album’s cover art, gave the studio its signature look.
During its heyday, there was a staff of songwriters in a small room in the downstairs of the building, turning out songs and pitching demos to record companies. Up until the 80s, the Sheffield Alabama was a dry county. The ‘hidden door’ in the songwriter’s room led to a speakeasy. Many an artist enjoyed a libation at the bar between song takes.
In the studio upstairs is where the magic happens. Because of the cramped control, the artists were encouraged to step outside on the small porch to listen to the playbacks of their music. If you happen to drive, you might have seen Marvis Staples, Mick Jagger, Linda Ronstadt, or Bob Seger standing outside, having a smoke, and listening to their nearly created track.
Inside the recording studio, each of the musicians had his corner; David the bass player, Barry, the keyboard player with a Wurlitzer organ and baby grand piano, Jimmy the guitarist, and Roger on the drums.
You don’t find many restrooms in the middle of sound studios, but you will here. It has played a key part in the creation of some iconic songs. Songs were written there. Keith Richards wrote “Wild Horses” for the Stones there. “Torn Between Two Lovers” was recorded in 1976 by Mary MacGregor, MacGregor recorded the vocals in the restroom.
Today, only two of the Swampers survive; Roger is 74, and David is 76.
Here are a few samples of the ‘muscle shoals sound’ recorded at the studio that you might remember.
The music studio tours are interesting, especially for the unindoctrinated. Do not miss this when visiting the area.
To continue my musical education, I visited the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, where I met curator, John Moseley, who was my guide. They broke ground for the Hall of Fame in 1989 and opened in 1990.
Gallery of Inductees
In the Gallery of Inductees, you will see portraits of 82 inductees. All were created by Ronny McDowell, a self-taught portrait artist. Country music star, Sonny James, was born in Hackleburg and country music star, Emmylou Harris, who was born in Birmingham and she has won more Grammies than any other inductee. Both Tammy Wynette and Rick Hall were born in Mississippi but lived much of their lives in Alabama and contributed much to the State of Alabama.
The showcase exhibit area is where you will find artifacts from many of the inducted artists. From the 2016-Grammy Awards given to the Alabama Shakes to Jim Nabors Marine’s uniform from his Gomer Pyle television show. Nabors was a classically trained vocalist.
The Sun Records display features the original recording equipment from the beginning of Sun records. The original contract where Sam Phillips sold Elvis to RCA. Phillips had connections.
Costumes are resplendent throughout the showcase, from Hank Williams outfit he wore on the Grand Old Opry to the Commodores touring costumes. Many inductees bring items in to donate things.
The Hall of Fame has tried to induct Jimmy Buffett, but he won’t do it until after he retires. Jimmy’s friend, Mac McAnally, a native of Red Bay, Alabama, and fellow guitar player was inducted in 2018.
The PR Car, a 1963 Pontiac Bonneville, was owned by WBRC radio. It was used to pick up artists for tours in Birmingham. There is a saddle in front, horseshoes on the peddles and all the guns are real. The ones in the back seat still work.
Superstar group, Alabama’s first tour bus, sits proudly in the center of the showcase. It was state of the art for the mid to late 70s, now kids ask what the strange box is. It’s a television.
Rhythm and Blues was an integral part of the Muscle Shoals sound. W.C. Handy, another native Alabamian, was the ‘Father of the Blues.’ Sun Ra was a performance artist in the 50s, (much like Prince and Lady Gaga). Arthur Alexander’s “You Gotta Move On” was the first international hit for Muscle Shoals and was covered by the Beatles.
Fame was the first recording studio in the Shoals, but by the late 1960s, there were ten recording studios in the area.
The Songwriters area is one of the largest displays about songwriters anywhere.
The Alabama Music Hall of Fame showcases the rich history of Alabama’s Musical Heritage. It is one of the not to be missed museums in North Alabama.
Here is a quick video look at the Alabama Hall of Fame.
To wrap up my music heritage journey, I visited the W.C. Handy Museum. The museum pays tribute William Christopher Hany, the ‘Father of the Blues’ who was born in a two-room log cabin on the outskirts of Florence in 1873. While his father insisted on getting an education, Handy went on to become a celebrated musician, songwriter, publisher, and teacher. He penned many songs including the St. Louis Blues, Memphis Blues, and Beale Street Blues. Handy was the first to publish music in the blues form. He and his wife, Elizabeth, married in 1896 and had six children. Elizabeth died in 1937.
In the 1920s, Handy was a heralded editor and published. In 1943 at age 70, a fall from a subway platform that took his sight. He learned Braille to continue working, and at age 80 married his secretary in 1954. Handy died in 1958 in New York, but his legacy lives on through the music he created.
The Florence museum is a testament to Handy’s creativity and perseverance. One artifact not to be missed is the Shaker, manufactured between 1901 and 1920, and there are only a handful of these machines in existence today.
If you love music, you will not want to miss these musical treats in Florence, Alabama. You can also enjoy the Alabama Music Trial throughout the state.