Posts Tagged ‘Wilson Pickett’

Muscle Shoals

Listen kids.  Back in the old days we used to buy our music in the form of LP records.  I agree it’s much better now; you can discover almost anything immediately and it doesn’t cost as much.  But there were a few things that were better then, and one of these was the album cover.  When you first bought a record, you used to pore over every single word and picture on that album cover and sleeve.  You could learn who played each instrument or sound; what each lyric was; and where it was recorded.  The dedications were usually a bit unfathomable, but the art work was usually cool.  Album covers were great and it all started to go downhill when CDs replaced them.

When I was an adolescent I remember noticing that quite a few of the records I liked were recorded in a place called Muscle Shoals, Alabama.  I’d never heard of the place and there was no internet to help correct my ignorance.  I recall looking in an atlas to find where it was, but I couldn’t find it either because it was such a small town or because I erroneously thought it must be on the coast.  My parents didn’t have the type of reference material that might include Muscle Shoals. If it had been a wild flower of Britain or a Greek myth or legend, I would have been fine but rock music just wasn’t my parents’ thing.  

Anyway today we were passing near so we visited.  I wanted to see where The Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart, Etta James, Aretha Franklin, Cher, Eric Clapton, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Percy Sledge, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and others all recorded music.

Muscle Shoals is a very ordinary town of 14,000 people near the Tennessee River.  The main drag has multiple strip malls on both sides and the usual array of franchised fast food joints.  There are two studios in town.  Fame Studios was the original, and Muscle Shoals Sound Studio the offshoot formed when the house band, The Swampers, left Fame Studios.  You’ve probably heard of The Swampers from the lyrics of Sweet Home Alabama:

“Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers.

And they’ve been known to pick a song or two.

Lord, they get me off so much,

They pick me up when I’m feelin’ blue”

Fame Studios is sandwiched between a CVS and a Walgreens (English translation Boots The Chemist and Superdrug).  As you can see, it’s a very ordinary building and it needs some updating.  The cars in the parking lot were 10-30 year old Toyotas and Chevrolets, not a Ferrari in sight.

I got talking to a man eating his salad lunch outside the building.  He was a London-based music producer.  I asked him why he had come all this way to record music.  He said the sound here was unique.  The musicians who lived in this part of Alabama just played differently from those elsewhere. The relative integration of the whites with their music traditions and the blacks with their different influences had created a richer sound here than elsewhere.  They also played more traditional versions of their instruments and the walls of the studio held the music better than studios elsewhere.  The result of these three factors meant that the sound created here was unique.  These musicians didn’t travel so if you wanted the sound you had to come here.  

We weren’t allowed to go into the studio.  Someone called Arkansas Dave was recording a song.  He will do well to beat the average of the songs produced here.