The final verse of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s 1974 hit single “Sweet Home Alabama” — “Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers / and they've been known to pick a song or two” — probably confused generations of pre-Wikipedia radio listeners.
Swampers? Muscle Shoals? Both real, it turns out, and explained in great detail in Muscle Shoals, a new documentary opening at Hartford’s Real Art Ways on November 29.
Muscle Shoals — a near-mythical place at the intersection of four small- to mid-size northern Alabama towns bordering the Tennessee River — became an early-’60s hotbed of Southern Soul, thanks to the efforts of one angry man (Rick Hall, founder of Fame Recording Studios) and a group of young musicians he slammed together (the Swampers), who played on countless hits by Aretha Franklin, Percy Sledge, Wilson Pickett, Etta James, Paul Simon and dozens of other artists.
Hall is the film’s central, shadowy figure (he literally emerges out of the darkness). He’s driven to succeed after an impoverished childhood in the region’s Freedom Hills, riding his enemies’ ill-wishes to the top of the charts. “My whole life has been based on rejection,” Hall says, “and to be honest with you, rejection played a big role in my life because I thrived on it. I wanted to prove the world was wrong and I was right.”
Drunk and shiftless, the young Hall drifted through early failures and his first wife’s death by writing songs and chasing women. His first production, “You Better Move On,” was a recording of a song by singer Arthur Alexander, a local African-American bellhop, backed by a pickup group of local teenage musicians in a warehouse. It was a huge, surprise hit, sending ripples across the Atlantic and launching what became known as the Muscle Shoals sound. The Rolling Stones’ version topped the British charts, and the Beatles covered “Anna (Go to Him),” another Alexander/Hall collaboration. (They invited Hall’s Fame rhythm section out on tour in 1964.) “The rest of the world started looking at Muscle Shoals,” Hall says.
Of course, the good times didn’t last. Atlantic Records honcho Jerry Wexler no longer saw eye-to-eye with Stax Records head Jim Stewart. His R&B pipeline from nearby Memphis in need of a new source, Wexler flew Wilson Pickett and the newly signed Aretha Franklin down to Muscle Shoals to record with Hall, who had by then replaced his first rhythm section with the Swampers. After a drunken scuffle between Hall and Franklin’s husband, Wexler stormed back to NYC and promptly swiped the Swampers out from under Hall’s feet. With Franklin, they recorded a string of hits — “Respect,” “Natural Woman,” “Think,” “Chain of Fools” and other monsters — before returning to Muscle Shoals, where Wexler set them up in their own studio, across town from Hall.
Devastated, Hall soldiered on by assembling a new band — the Fame Gang — and signing any artist with a pulse. He soon scored hits with Candi Stanton, Bobbie Gentry, King Curtis, Lou Rawls, Little Richard, Joe Tex, the Osmond Brothers and Tom Jones, at twice his Atlantic royalty rate. “I started over again, and I believed I was as good as anybody,” Hall says.
Meanwhile, as the Muscle Shoals Recording Company, the Swampers hit their own mid-’70s stride, producing and backing Cher, the Rolling Stones, Traffic, Paul Simon, Jimmy Cliff, Bob Dylan, Bob Seger, Rod Stewart and Joe Cocker and churning out nearly 50 albums a year.
“The sound was the perfect sound,” Keith Richards says of the MSRC studio. “Those sessions [which ended up on Sticky Fingers] were as vital to me as any I've ever done… I always wondered whether if we had cut [the rest of the Stones’ output] in Muscle Shoals, they'd be a little funkier.”
You can read a more complete account of the Muscle Shoals story in Peter Guralnick’s excellent study Sweet Soul Music, but you won’t feel Hall’s full wrath, as when he recounts handing the Swampers a lucrative Capitol Records contract, only to watch them flee into Wexler’s arms. (“It was war, total war,” Hall says.) The film also adds a few original nuggets to the story, as when producer Jimmy Johnson ties the birth of Southern Rock to guitarist Duane Allman’s outro on Wilson Pickett’s cover of “Hey Jude.” (Hall eventually missed out on Allman’s vision, relinquishing the Allman Brothers cash cow to Phil Walden's Capricorn Records.) The Southern Rock connection becomes clearer toward the end of the film, as Lynyrd Skynyrd shows up on the Swampers’ steps to record a few sides. (Like Allman, they ultimately had to look elsewhere for piles of cash.)
Muscle Shoals adds to the growing library of studio-centric documentaries — Standing in the Shadows of Motown (2002), Tom Dowd & the Language of Music (2003) and Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story (2007) — aimed at rock history buffs, each with its own charismatic producer, a collective of amateur-turned-pro musicians, future-star vocalists who seem to walk in off the streets, and music execs with shady intentions. (A not-too-distant relative, perhaps, is Dave Grohl’s recent Sound City.) Like the other films, Muscle Shoals gathers a persuasive cadre of talking heads: Bono, Richards, Steve Winwood, former Grateful Dead backup singer Donna Jean Godchaux (who sang backup on Percy Sledge’s “When A Man Loves A Woman”), reggae star Jimmy Cliff, Gregg Allman and a few others. Muscle Shoals also closes the circle of a trio of gritty southern towns (with Memphis, the location of Stax Records, and Macon, Ga., home to Otis Redding, Capricorn Records and the Allmans) that shaped the future of R&B and rock, virtually in isolation from outside influences.
Rick Hall and the Swampers finally get the attention they deserve. At its core, however, Muscle Shoals is another collection of famous musicians mythologizing about the Deep South, and exactly what constituted the Muscle Shoals sound — a blend of country and R&B, white and black musicians coming together with a shared openness to all genres, heavy drums and bass — gets short shrift. But Muscle Shoals gets you psyched up to dig through your old records — some Etta James, Aretha Franklin or Wilson Pickett sides, perhaps — and groove out in your living room.
Nov. 29-Dec. 5, Real Art Ways, 56 Arbor St., Hartford, (860) 232-1006, realartways.org