It’s about time someone told the story of that most unlikely music mecca, Muscle Shoals, Alabama. How could such an out-of-the-way place become a magnet that would attract the likes of Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Bob Seger, Boz Scaggs, Traffic, The Rolling Stones, Paul Simon, Jimmy Cliff, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and scores of others? The film attempts to address this question, and it gets it right by focusing on the men who made it happen: entrepreneurs like Rick Hall and Jerry Wexler and the musicians whose collective magic was the main ingredient.
The movie is mainly a tribute to Rick Hall, which gives it a rather limited perspective. It barely mentions Tom Stafford, the man who actually started the scene by forming Florence Alabama Music Enterprises (FAME), a publishing company in which Hall and his bandmate/co-writer, Billy Sherrill, became partners. Stafford discovered Arthur Alexander, a local bellhop whose song, “You Better Move On,” not only made the national top 20, but was also “covered” in England by the Rolling Stones.
The area was loaded with talent—but then music comes naturally to many in these foothills. Sherrill left for Nashville to become a multiplatinum producer and head of artists and repertoire for Columbia Records’ Nashville division. Bassist Norbert Putnam, another member of FAME’s inner circle, also became a successful Nashville producer. Buddy Killen of Tree Music—who also operated Dial Records, home of Joe Tex and the Allman Joys—was from the area, as was Quinton Claunch, founder of Memphis’s Goldwax Records. Not one of these was mentioned (as the movie acknowledges, Sam Phillips, who founded Memphis’s famed Sun Records, was from the area as well).
As Hall himself notes—he admitted elsewhere that he was indeed “a complete dictator”—he was deemed overbearing and subsequently ousted by Stafford and Sherrill. However, they allowed Hall to keep the name FAME. With financial assistance from his father-in-law, Hall built FAME studios, which attracted Atlanta impresario Bill Lowery, also not mentioned in the film. Hall said elsewhere that this was the phone call that changed his life. Lowery brought in such artists as the Tarns and Tommy Roe, who was pictured (in a still image) in the film, yet not mentioned. [End Page 5] Lowery even set Hall up with a distribution deal with Vee-Jay Records to distribute one of his early productions, Jimmy Hughes’ “Steal Away.” Lowery, too, was not mentioned.
Hall’s first house band (which included Putnam) left him for greener pastures in Nashville, only 125 miles north. Hall’s assistant, guitarist Jimmy Johnson, helped him put together a new rhythm section, which would be the key to his future success. Johnson brought in his bandmate Roger Hawkins on drums.
As the film acknowledges, it was Atlantic Records executive Jerry Wexler who put Muscle Shoals indelibly on the map. Appropriately, footage of Wexler, who died in 2008, is featured prominently. Wexler, a gifted ethnomusicologist, sought authenticity above all—he wanted to take R&B back to its southern roots. In 1961, he had put Memphis on the map by forging a partnership with Stax Records. He liked Stax’s funky “fatback” sound, in some ways the antithesis of the urbane Motown sound. Wexler sent Atlantic artists Otis Redding and Sam & Dave to Memphis to work with Stax’s house band, Booker T & the MGs and Isaac Hayes. When his deal with Stax went sour, Wexler needed another rhythm section that could play fatback. He soon found it in Muscle Shoals (a few musicians from Muscle Shoals had been involved in the Memphis scene as well). Wexler brought both Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin to FAME to record with Hall’s house band, and the results were astonishing. Few people realized that the band that played on some of Franklin’s funkiest tunes was entirely white.
A crucial part of the story of Wexler’s association with Hall is dealt with in a haphazard fashion, however. Local DJ Quinn Ivy, also not mentioned in the film...