Not since the sold out Drive-By Truckers/ Decoys concert during the 2011 W. C. Handy Music Festival have I seen such a huge and enthusiastic crowd at the University of North Alabama's Norton Auditorium. The occasion was the 16th anniversary of the internationally acclaimed George Lindsey Film Festival, and the event was the screening of the much touted documentary film "Muscle Shoals" by first-time flmmaker Greg "Freddy" Camalier. The audience began cheering and applauding during the opening credits, and the crowd was on its feet by the finale, "Sweet Home Alabama."
Since the Lindsey Film Fest announced that the film would be shown at this year's festival, everyone has been talking about exciting new documentary "Muscle Shoals." The film, a veritable who's who of the Shoals music business, made its debut this year in January at the celebrated Sundance Film Festival. Then it was screened at the Boulder International Film Festival in Colorado, home of the film's creator Gregg "Freddy" Camalier. The first Alabama showing of the film was on February 27 at a VIP event at the Shoals Marriott Conference Center. Following that star-studded gala, the March 1 screening at UNA was sold out.
We attended the Friday night showing at UNA and by 6:30 the auditorium was full. Thanks to the kindness of friends, we were able get seats on the second row directly behind my Elk River neighbor and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Spooner Oldham. We arrived too late to see the opening act, Holli Mosley & Billy Smart, but we did catch Angela Hacker teaming up with the legendary James LeBlanc. The pair closed the pre-show with LeBlanc's song, " I Ain't Easy To Love"--a perfect segue into the film.
John Paul White of the Grammy award winning Civil Wars duo introduced the documentary and moderated the panel following the film. The panel consisted of the film's cinematographer Anthony Arendt, David Hood, Rick Hall, Jimmy Johnson and Spooner Oldham. After introducing the panel, White turned to David Hood and said," I have been meaning to ask you. How did you get so funky?" (photo of panel members)
As the film reveals, nearly all the musicians who came to Muscle Shoals to record thought they were going to be backed up by Black musicians. Who else could possible create such a bluesy, funky sound?. Imagine their surprise when, according to Bono, they were greeted by a bunch of white boys who " looked like they worked at the grocery store around the corner." " Funky was what we did," commented Hood during the film." We did not know how to make it smooth."
So authentic and original was the music of FAME Studios and later of Muscle Shoals Sound that musicians came from all over the world to this tiny patch of earth to record Grammy award winning songs and albums. During one decade, fifty albums a year were being recorded in the Shoals. And the man who started this great revolution was Rick Hall, founder of FAME Studios in 1959. Wilson Pickett once said that you could see the studio from the cotton patch.
The first full-time group of back up musicians at FAME were David Briggs, Norbert Putnam, Earl Peanutt Montgomery, Terry Thompson, Spooner Oldham, and Jerry Carrigan. All went on to become major forces in the music industry. The second group, Johnson, Hood, Roger Hawkins, Barry Beckett and others, including Pete Carr and Oldham, later became known to the world as the Swampers, due to the success of Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama" and a comment made by Denny Cordell at a Leon Russell recording session.
Duane Allman also recorded in Muscle Shoals as a studio musician from November of 1968 through March of 1969, when he then returned to Jacksonville, Florida, to start the Allman Brothers Band. This was the birth of Southern Rock. Duane returned frequently to the Shoals until a tragic motorcycle accident claimed his life in 1971.
In 1969 Hood, Johnson, Hawkins, and Beckett split from FAME to start, with the backing of the VP of Atlantic Records Jerry Wexler, their own studio on Jackson Highway, Muscle Shoals Sound. The film "Muscle Shoals" catalogues the amazing and inspirational story that began with one man's dream and went on to rock the world.
Elegantly filmed and sensitively presented, the film opens and closes with halcyon scenes of the beautiful Tennessee river, known by the native tribes as the "Singing River." The story revolves around the triumphs and tragedies of Rick Hall, a brilliant man with an incredible ear who was so driven by his demons that he could never seem to hold on to anything he loved.
Hall, who grew up in abject poverty, lost his baby brother when the child was three as a result of his falling into a cauldron of boiling water, subsequently his grief stricken mother abandoned the family leaving Rick In the care of his bereft and hardworking father. Hall had been married for just over a year when he lost his wife in an unavoidable car accident in which Hall was driving. He lost his father in a tractor accident not too long afterward. Shortly after founding FAME, Hall had a falling out with the renowned producer Jerry Wexler with whom he had worked and also with the rhythm section, particularly Hawkins, Johnson, Hood, and Beckett. The four musicians, with the backing of Wexler, set up Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. Still Hall soldiered on recording such stars as Bobbie Gentry, Mac Davis, Jerry Reed, and innumerable others.
Rick Hall's first discovery was a bellhop named Arthur Alexander. The first hit song for Hall's new enterprise was Alexander's " You Better Move On" in 1961, and the soulful funky sound of the Shoals caught the attention of rock stars such as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.The Stones recorded a version of "You Better Move On" and the Beatles recorded Alexander's "Anna." Muscle Shoals had captured the ear of the music world.
It is impossible to list in this brief article all the hits that came out of that little studio on Avalon Avenue or even the artists that recorded there, but among the stars recording there in the early days of FAME were Arthur Alexander, Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge, Clarence Carter, Aretha Frankin, Etta James, Otis Redding, the Osmonds, Paul Anka,, Ronnie Milsap,and Candi Stanton to name only a few. The word is that Aretha Franklin "found her voice" in Muscle Shoals.
Meanwhile, across town at 3614 Jackson Highway, the rhythm section soon to be known as known as the Swampers was attracting mainstream rock and roll. During this time, Muscle Shoals Sound was recording such name artistis as the Rolling Stones, Traffic, Boz Scaggs, Willie Nelson, Paul Simon, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Bob Seger, to mention only a very few. Bob Dylan and Dr. Hook recorded when MSS moved to the studio on the river.
The film deftly weaves together the story of FAME and Rick Hall with the story of the Swampers and the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio by means of archival footage, original interviews with Bono, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Steve Winwood, Gregg Allman, and Alicia Keys, and music. It was always about the music. All the musicians who were interviewed seemed eager to talk about the allure and mystique of a little area of northwest Alabama where musicians could make magic.
In his introduction to the film, Grammy winner John Paul White, who grew up in Loretto, Tennessee, but who was born at Helen Keller Hospital in Sheffield and attended the University of North Alabama, said, "FAME ( Florence Alabama Music Enterprises) put the F in Florence, Alabama." He confided that "all the world will soon know. the secret of the Shoals. " As Keith Richards said in the film, the Shoals is "a place of alchemy," a place where "magic is made. "
Time does indeed heal all wounds, and to witness the gathering of old friends, once parted and come together again at the end, was heartwarming. The audience burst into applause upon hearing each name and following the panel discussion, was on its feet cheering each musician as he exited the stage. The energy in Norton Hall was electric.
Filmmaker Freddy Camalier himself was captivated by the magic of the shoals. In 2008 the Boulder, Colorado, real estate agent volunteered to help his best friend move from the East Coast to New Mexico. They decided to take the blue highways of the South, and during their 1,800 mile journey, they noticed that they had just passed near Muscle Shoals, Alabama. The pair turned around and headed back to Muscle Shoals because as Camalier says "some of our favorite music we had loved all our life was made there. " This U-turn was the beginning of the film "Muscle Shoals." " It is a huge American music roots story," said Camalier. "Musicians want to talk about it." And talk they did.
The film may have ended, but the story is not yet over. In 2009 The Black Keys recorded most of their Grammy award winning album at the old Muscles Shoals Sound Studio which had been shut down for many years. The curtain may have fallen over the screen but the music goes on and on.
I am deeply indebted to my fact-checking friends, especially music guru Dick Cooper (look for his name in the film credits) who always has my back and to C.S. Fuqua, author of Alabama Musicians: Musical Heritage from the Heart of Dixie.
by Penne J. Laubenthal