Aretha, Otis, The Stones and the Musical Marvel that is Muscle Shoals.

Alicia Keys in "Muscle Shoals".

Ali­cia Keys in “Mus­cle Shoals”.

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.

Muscle Shoals.

Mus­cle Shoals.

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.

"The Swampers", the white guys that made that black sound.

The Swampers”, the white guys that made that black sound.

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.

Peter Guralnick's "Sweet Soul Music".

Peter Gural­nick­’s “Sweet Soul Music”.

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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