A Musical Journey Through Muscle Shoals

Clarence Carter, in Muscle Shoals

Clarence Carter, in Muscle Shoals

The word “magic” is mentioned a lot in Muscle Shoals, a mesmerizing documentary that tries to explain, or at least place in context, the extraordinary success of FAME (founded by producer Rick Hall in the late 1950s) and Muscle Shoals Sound (a competing studio spun off in 1969 by members of FAME’s original house band, known as the Swampers). It’s as good a word as any to capture the ineffable quality of the Muscle Shoals sound, which is a blend of hillbilly music, blues and spirituals, among other diverse influences.”  — Michael O’Sullivan, Washington Post

As Muscle Shoals premieres on Independent Lens this Monday, April 21 at 9 pm (check local listings) on PBS — and as the main subjects of the film Rick Hall, and The Swampers, were just honored at the Alabama Music Hall of Fame — it’s the perfect time to get yourself in the proper musical mood.

First of all, give our new Muscle Shoals playlist on Spotify a listen and a follow. It’s even more extensive than the film’s soundtrack and will keep you tapping your feet and singing along for a long while.

Now for some extra visual accompaniment for Muscle Shoals fans, here’s a collection of videos from some of our favorite artists to grace the cozy confines of the FAME and Muscle Shoals Sound studios, some featured in the film, some not.

Check out the recently released tracks from Dan Penn in The Fame Recordings, recorded at FAME studios between 1964 and 1966. According to Mark Deming in the All Music Guide, Penn “has been widely and justly celebrated by many music historians as one of the great songwriters to emerge from the 1960s soul music boom, penning classic tunes for Aretha Franklin, Percy Sledge, James Carr, Otis Redding, James & Bobby Purify, and many more. Penn is less widely acclaimed as a great soul singer, largely because so few people have heard his work.” [See more Penn tracks on that Spotify playlist.]

Blind musician Clarence Carter recorded several hits in Muscle Shoals, but our favorite remains the lovely “Slip Away.” Here’s an older recording, but you can also find some more recent Carter performances of the song on YouTube.

Glorious soul singer Etta James made a huge splash with her Tell Mama album, recorded at the FAME studios. The title track was co-written by Clarence Carter. [Also check out this lower-quality but priceless video from a late ’60s TV show of James singing the same.]

Paul Simon recorded some of the tracks from his hit record There Goes Rhymin’ Simon at the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, including the gospel-inflected “She Loves Me Like a Rock.” First, check out a wonderful recent live version with Simon joined by none other than Steve Wonder and the Dixie Hummingbirds. But here’s an older live version, with Simon performing on the Dick Cavett Show:

Dance along with 1970s TV show Soul Train in this fun salute to the Staples Singers’ “I’ll Take You There,” which was originally recorded at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio.

More Favorites

Bob Seger recorded some of his best work at the FAME studio, including this all-time favorite, made most famous for its memorable appearance in Risky Business, and still a staple of jukeboxes everywhere:

Bonus: For those of you who speak Swedish, check out this unearthed 1970 Swedish TV documentary on the FAME Studios. Actually, even if you don’t understand Swedish it is worth checking out, as there is some cool footage of behind the scenes music-making. (Warning: May be a few NSFW words in there.)

Extra Bonus: Enjoy this lovely tribute to the town of Muscle Shoals and both its history and musical heritage by the band Norma Rae:

Muscle Shoals film site on Independent Lens.

About Craig Phillips

ITVS/Independent Lens Interactive Editor and film nerd, based in San Francisco.
This entry was posted in Independent Lens Season, Online Viewing and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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  • NelsonRobison

    This is one of the most important films Independent Lens has ever hosted. It shows the progression of the Civil Rights Movement as well as the way in which blacks and whites learned to work together as one. It is an overwhelming view of the real rock and roll history.

  • klohry

    That Soul Train video with the Staple Singers – I think I see the beginnings of break dancing there…

  • cboulanger

    This is an incredible documentary. Happy I stumbled across this in my hotel room.

  • NJohnson

    Wow, what a great evening of musical transitions, sound history and social change. One of the best documentaries, it is beautifully composed and edited. Super, super educational and entertainment.

  • Heather Brown

    This show was brilliant. It was beautifully produced and directed! Thank you for sharing and airing it. The history from Muscle Shoals needed to be shown and you did a fantastic job!

  • David Duchene

    thank-you, Rick Hall

  • budhansen

    AWESOME documentary!!!!

  • mjgolch

    I want to know when the whole show of Mucle Shoals will be available on line!

    • http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/ Independent Lens

      Hi there,

      This particular film is not going to stream on PBS online, but quite a few PBS stations are re-running it all week (as of this writing). You can check here to see:
      Also recommend checking the film’s official site to see other options for viewing the film online (1-2 commercial streaming sites offer it) or acquiring DVD/Blu-ray. :)


    • kwisp

      It’s on netflix if you have that…

  • Van

    Wonderful show. Brings back old times growing up in the Mississippi Delta.
    too bad the song couldn’t say,”Sweet Home Down South” Wish the show could have been longer. So many of the music men done gone now. So many, even with all the recordings, will never know how it really was. All the Blues men that died dirt poor to bring Rock and Roll to the masses, when British kids started listening to music that we white kids in America had no access to. Shows like this keep a record for those that follow. Without the past there can be no future.

  • Veroniquea Torres

    I woke up at 4am, turned on the tv and this fabulous documentary was on the air! Not only was it mesmerizing but informative. I have known about and enjoyed a lot of Muscle Shoals music over the years;some known and some surprisingly unknown! What a great sound!

  • Ian M

    great documentary. Well done Mr. Camalier, You and your crew did a fantastic job.

  • ann1234ann

    One of the better comprehensive looks into the roots of funky soul and rock and roll, right here in America. A lot of hits with a sound that is unduplicated from that era.

  • Reuben Naranjo Jr

    Wonderful and powerful documentary, truly! bravo for your efforts.

  • robort1138

    I was particularly taken back by the life circumstances with which Rick was confronted.
    I’ve lost family members to less than favorable circumstances such that I note the following. I heard a war vet put his experiences something like this: “You’ll never get by this. You just see if you’re strong enough to live with it.”
    I totally love this film, the detailed history of events about the artists and their collective efforts that contributed so much to the industry.

  • bikeamtn

    A significant piece of music history, not only in terms the conquering the racial divide but also about a time when it was more about the music, where each had a unique relevance to their development in music. Today it’s not so much about their influence musically as it is their lifestyle and their influences as defined by the hype-machine and its relationship to marketing ability. A process that now feeds a media circus, use to be a contributor (in part) to the fundamentals within a creative music process.

  • Stewart Windsor

    Thank you for the great work; wonderful show!

  • Michael

    This is a very important social AND musically historical account of a very turbulent era in our country. It would be a shame if more people could not experience this due to reasons of profit or licensing rights!
    Please make this show available to see online!

  • Stewart Windsor

    Can someone tell me who the woman is who sang (I think) Pressing On?

    • http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/ Independent Lens

      The very talented Alicia Keys sang Pressing On (a cover of a Bob Dylan song which was also recorded at Muscle Shoals) at the end of the film.

  • Steve Bennett

    I watched this the other night and it was EXCELLENT! I was genuinely moved by this film. A must see for any music buff. A powerful statement what people of different races can accomplish together when they put their hate and intolerance aside.

  • ibikici .

    I loved the documentary! To capture that much musical history and to hear so much of it relayed by those who were there is incredible. Was there a lag between production and airing? I think I saw a 2012 copyright at the end, but this site makes it sound as if the first airing was April 2014. Now for a little criticism… After watching, I was left feeling like the original plan for this piece was that it would be a multipart, maybe three 2-hour segments. It seems as if the first 100 minutes was done as planned, and then somebody pulled the plug on the project, so the remaining content that could have/should have filled 4.5 hours was distilled into the remaining 15 minutes. The production was beautiful, but there was so much material that flew by – specifically the rapid succession of album cover art that depicted all of the music that was somehow related to Muscle Shoals (but how? who knows!). The length of time that each album cover was shown was so short that you couldn’t really even tell what it was or who the artist was- something like 60 album covers in 22 seconds. I guess it would have taken 6 hours (or more) to give equal treatment to all of that musical history, and maybe the later years just weren’t as interesting as the formative years. Knowing that so many other epic artists used Muscle Shoals (Bob Seger, for example) left me wanting even more! It’s a fantastic story, beautifully told. Thank You! Please do a Part 2!

    • http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/ Independent Lens

      Thanks for the wonderful comments and feedback. To answer your question at the beginning, the film did indeed have its television premiere this April. There is frequently a gap between when a film first receives its copyright and when it’s actually released; even theatrical films (especially independent features and documentaries) have a gap between first completion and first theatrical release + broadcast.

      And I’m sure many others here who loved the film, too, would’ve liked it to be even longer as well! :)

  • jimmy

    this was such an entertaining and informative film. i recorded it on dvr, and will not erase it. what an amazing man, rick hall.

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  • Andre D. Williams

    I was totally unfamiliar with this documentary. I love it, and even called my dad to share it with him. As a child we shared an apartment with one of the artist mentioned here who has since passed. Great work PBS, great work.

  • randy bruce kendrick

    hi I loved the information about two of favorite groups

  • randy bruce kendrick

    I wanted to hear the song Alicia key does keep pressing on