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  • Helping Pave the Road to FAMEBehind the Music of Muscle Shoals
  • Christopher Reali (bio)

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FAME Recording Studios, Muscle Shoals, Alabama, by Carol M. Highsmith, 2010, Library of Congress.

During the mid-1950s, several amateur musicians living in and around the Muscle Shoals region of Alabama made a leap into the music industry. A few, no doubt, had ambitions fueled by dreams of stardom, while many were simply taken by the sounds of r&b and rock ’n’ roll broadcast over the radio, and others were interested in songwriting and publishing. After initially funneling songs through Nashville, the closest music scene and recording center some 125 miles away, the fledgling Muscle Shoals music industry gained national attention in 1962 after the song “You Better Move On” by Arthur Alexander charted in Billboard, and it continued to grow in prominence throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s.

Like many other regional recording centers such as Nashville, Memphis, Cincinnati, and Detroit, the multiple recording studios in Muscle Shoals primarily relied on homegrown session musicians. Two different rhythm sections formed and initially worked as the house band for studio owner and producer Rick Hall at the Florence Alabama Music Enterprise, known as fame. The first group, active between 1961 and 1964, included bassist Norbert Putnam, keyboardist David Briggs, drummer Jerry Carrigan, and guitarists Terry Thompson and Earl “Peanutt” Montgomery. The second section, which worked for Hall between 1964 and 1969, included guitarist Jimmy Johnson, drummer Roger Hawkins, bassist Albert “Junior” Lowe (later replaced by David Hood), and keyboardist Dewey “Spooner” Oldham (later replaced by Barry Beckett). At times, other musicians, including [End Page 53] guitarists Eddie Hinton, Pete Carr, and Duane Allman, supplemented fame’s second house band.

fame’s prestige within the music industry and among fans grew through the repeated chart success of hits such as “Everybody” by Tommy Roe (1963), “What Kind of Fool (Do You Think I Am)” by the Tams (1964), and “Steal Away” by Jimmy Hughes (1964). After Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman,” a track produced by Quin Ivy at his Norala Studio in Sheffield, Alabama, reached number one on both the r&b and pop charts in 1966, the Muscle Shoals recording scene took off. Singers traveled to Alabama and recorded with the fame studio musicians because the artists heard something—a riff or a groove—in the sound of the rhythm sections that appealed to them. The session musicians working at fame during the early 1960s, followed by the session musicians first known as the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section—Jimmy Johnson, Roger Hawkins, David Hood, and Barry Beckett, aka, “The Swampers”—served as conduits for artists’ ideas, while at the same time providing singers with enough space to retain their own musical identity with more than a hint of the so- called “Muscle Shoals sound.” As Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section (msrs) bassist David Hood stated in 2011, “With the different artists that we would work with, we always tried to sound like we were that particular artist’s band.”1

In some instances, Rick Hall was the songwriter, but in most cases he was the recording engineer and producer. And in an effort to realize his sound for a song, Hall always relied on local and imported session musicians. In this way, the recording process at fame in Muscle Shoals was modeled upon the process at Stax in nearby Memphis, where Booker T. and the MGs were the house band, and at Motown in Detroit, where the Funk Brothers played on nearly every track. But popular belief—furthered by Magnolia Pictures’ 2013 documentary Muscle Shoals—deems Hall the single mastermind. As the formal press kit stated:

At [the] heart [of Muscle Shoals] is Rick Hall who founded fame Studios. Overcoming crushing poverty and staggering tragedies, Hall brought black and white together in Alabama’s cauldron of racial hostility to create music for the generations. He is responsible for creating the “Muscle Shoals sound” and The Swampers, the house band at fame that eventually left to start their own successful studio, known as Muscle Shoals Sound.

The documentary details Hall’s life—from his...


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pp. 53-74
Launched on MUSE
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