Hall of FAME

Andrew Hultkrans on Muscle Shoals

Greg Camalier, Muscle Shoals, 2013, color, sound, 111 minutes.

“THE RIVER THAT SINGS” was the name given to the stretch of the Tennessee River running through Muscle Shoals, Alabama, by its original Native American residents, who believed that a spectral young woman lived in the river and sang songs to them. A small town in the northwest corner of the state, Muscle Shoals is today world-renowned for its “big sound,” having been an improbable recording Mecca for R&B, rock, country, and pop artists from the early 1960s to the present. The town acquired this reputation through the tireless efforts of one man, the stern, indomitable Rick Hall—a “tough guy,” as Keith Richards massively understates it in his tubercular croak at the beginning of Greg “Freddy” Camalier’s moving, life-affirming documentary.

Raised in a ramshackle, dirt-floor house in rural Franklin County, Hall rose from extreme poverty and endured an almost unbelievable series of personal tragedies to become one of the greatest record producers of all time. Sheer force of will enabled him to transcend the following horrors, any one of which could permanently derail an ordinary man’s life: His younger brother was scalded as a child by boiling laundry water (when they removed his clothes at the hospital, his skin came off with them; he died days later); his parents separated, blaming each other for their son’s death; his mother became a prostitute in a nearby town, her family hearing of her new “career” within months; Hall’s first wife was killed in a car crash with Hall at the wheel; his father died in an accident on a tractor Hall had bought for him. Over the course of the film, Hall tells these stories in a stoic, matter-of-fact way. I don’t recall him smiling once in all of the interview segments shot for the project. He has many reasons to be proud, and he clearly is, but it’s a grim sort of pride.

After an abortive start in the late ’50s with two partners who fired him for being a workaholic, Hall singlehandedly moved FAME (Florence Alabama Music Enterprises) Studios to an old tobacco warehouse in Muscle Shoals. His first big success was “You Better Move On,” a 1961 recording by local bellhop Arthur Alexander, which the Rolling Stones covered early in their career. Hall used the proceeds to build the facility where FAME resides to this day. Having helped license Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman” to Atlantic Records, Hall forged a relationship with legendary producer Jerry Wexler, who brought Wilson Pickett and other Atlantic artists to record at FAME, resulting a series of R&B hits for the label. During initial sessions with Aretha Franklin, Hall got in a brawl with Ted White, Franklin’s husband at the time, after which Wexler refused to work at the studio. He did, however, poach Hall’s session band to finish the rest of the LP (and later to record many of her greatest hits) in New York.

The early history of FAME Studios paralleled the civil rights movement and was a microcosm of it. Even in George Wallace’s Alabama, racism was not tolerated on Rick Hall’s turf. Regular FAME recording artist Clarence Carter remembers that before working at the studio, he reflexively called white men “Mister,” but the color-blind camaraderie between the artists and musicians disabused him of the habit. “Music played a big part in changing ideas about race in the South,” Carter observes. The singers Hall recorded at FAME in the ’60s—Arthur Alexander, Percy Sledge, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Etta James, among others—were African American; his storied session players, eventually nicknamed the Swampers, were (like Hall) Caucasian and could have been called the Average White Band long before the ’70s funk combo existed. The Swampers were not merely white but, as Bono jokes in the film, they resembled “guys who worked in a supermarket.”

The Swampers’ core players were Barry Beckett (keyboards), Jimmy Johnson (guitar), David Hood (bass), and Roger Hawkins (drums), frequently augmented by Spooner Oldham (organ) and various horn sections. They weren’t Hall’s first session band, but they recorded most of the tracks for which Muscle Shoals is celebrated, first at FAME and later at their own studio, Muscle Shoals Sound, which they built with Wexler’s help in 1969. They were all exceptional musicians, but drummer Roger Hawkins stood out, not least because of the howling mismatch between his dorky looks (early ’80s computer programmer) and badass grooves.

Sonically speaking, Stax-produced R&B tracks were spare and dry; Motown’s were ornate and wet. Muscle Shoals productions were somewhere in between, but they were consistently funky, as many of the famous musicians interviewed for the film note. Not in a wah-wah pedal sense, but in terms of feel. You can hear it in Franklin’s “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” the track that launched her as the “Queen of Soul”; you can hear it in Pickett’s “Land of 1000 Dances,” with its driving breakbeats and horn stabs; you can hear it in the Etta James scorcher “Tell Mama,” which rekindled the peroxide-haired blues diva’s career; and you can hear it especially in the Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There,” with its heaven-sent drum and bass breakdown.

The Staple Singers, “I’ll Take You There,” 1972.

While planning sessions for his 1973 album There Goes Rhymin’ Simon, Paul Simon called Stax label head Al Bell and said, “I want those same black players that played on ‘I’ll Take You There.’ ” “That can happen,” Bell replied, “but these guys are mighty pale.” Camalier illustrates this with a funny, Sergio Leone–style shot of three surviving Swampers—schlumpy, middle-age honkies to a man—walking toward the camera over a slight hill in front of their studio as the song plays on the sound track. Franklin recalls of her first trip to Muscle Shoals in 1967, “We didn’t expect them to be as funky or as greasy as they were.”

After the split with the Swampers in 1969, Hall focused on country and pop artists, while Muscle Shoals Sound hosted an endless parade of rock stars, all drawn to the vibe the Swampers had created with Hall at FAME in the ’60s. During the ’70s, artists who made the pilgrimage to record at Muscle Shoals Sound included the Rolling Stones, Traffic, Elton John, Bob Seger, Rod Stewart, and Bob Dylan (who recorded his Christian albums there).

Muscle Shoals has the dubious honor of being the seedbed of Southern Rock. A young Duane Allman pitched a tent in FAME’s parking lot in the late ’60s and became a session guitarist at the studio, convincing Pickett to cover “Hey Jude,” among other contributions. After failing to interest Hall in recording “hippie music,” Duane auditioned musicians at FAME for what became the Allman Brothers Band. Several years later, Muscle Shoals Sound recorded an unsigned bunch of longhairs from Jacksonville, Florida called Lynyrd Skynyrd. These sessions went unreleased until after a plane crash killed half the band in 1977, but to this day, the first time most people hear the names “Muscle Shoals” and “Swampers” is in a tribute verse from “Sweet Home Alabama,” which accompanies the end credits of the film.

This is somewhat misleading for the uninitiated, as the superficial impression of Skynyrd (with their Confederate flag stage backdrop) is of unreconstructed rednecks, while the Muscle Shoals story is almost entirely about bridging racial divides through music. Sam Cooke didn’t record “A Change Is Gonna Come” in Muscle Shoals, but he might as well have, the song so perfectly capturing the spirit of the studio—the river, the hard knocks, the bruised optimism, the civil rights undertones. “It was revolutionary,” Bono proclaims near the end of the film. For once, he’s right.

Muscle Shoals opens in theaters on Friday, September 27.