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 Stevie 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.
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.