In 1967 the 25 year old Aretha Franklin was a spent force. She’d been with Columbia for over five years and they hadn’t known what to do with her. So in desperation she left Columbia and signed up with Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records.
Wexler sent her down to a Mickey Mouse studio in Hicksville USA at the back end of beyond. He’d fallen in love with the sound he’d stumbled upon down there. It had a muscular depth and a primal resonance that was unlike anything he’d ever heard before.
The first song she cut down there was I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You). Its B side was Do Right Woman. A little later they recorded her version of Otis Redding’s Respect. And then (You Make Me Feel) Like a Natural Woman.
Wexler sent the fiery Wilson Pickett down. He arrived incandescent with rage to discover that this Palookaville studio was, literally, next door to a cotton field. What’s more, inside he found five skinny white guys who looked like they’d be more at home behind a bank desk than in a recording studio. These were the guys that were supposed to be making that sound! And then they started to play. He recorded Land of 1,00 Dances, Mustang Sally and his extraordinary version of Hey Jude. He was sold.
So was everybody else who arrived there. Otis Redding, Etta James, Candy Staton and Clarence Carter. The Stones recorded Wild Horses and Brown Sugar there.
When Wexler encouraged the rhythm section to set up a rival studio across the road, far from causing its downfall, Muscle Shoals now had two competing studios desperately looking for the next hit. And everybody wanted to record there.
Dylan, The Stones, Rod Stewart, Paul Simon, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Allman Brothers, Jimmy Cliff, The Osmonds, Paul Anka, Tom Jones, Any Williams, Linda Ronstadt, Willie Nelson and more recently George Michael, Band Of Horses, The Drive-By Truckers and The Black Keys. And many, many more.
Rick Hall was the skinny white kid who set up Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama in 1963, inviting four or five of his white friends in their early twenties to come in and record with him. It became a rare racial haven in the heart of the South. And, together with Stax and Atlantic Records, they produced some of the best and most important American music of the 20th century.
You can read about it in Peter Guranlick’s seminal Sweet Soul Music (you should read anything you can get your hands on by him), which marries social and musical history to perfection. And you can see and hear about it all in the wonderful documentary “Muscle Shoals”, which is part of the BBC’s Storyville series. You can see the trailer here.
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