Thursday, May 14, 2009

MUSCLE SHOALS STUDIOS- a short history

or how The Swampers and an Ex-Casket Factory changed your life and mine

MYSTR Treefrog

You know how you can have a moment of clarity about something you have been doing or saying wrong for 25 years? It is these realizations, though you are embarrassing and feel ridiculous, that make you look in the mirror and laugh at yourself-hard.

Rock lyrics- especially when lifted off an LP 25 years ago-and in an “altered state” can be inscrutable and tough to decipher. All these years when singing “ Sweet Home Alabama” I’ve sung the line -

:“ In Muscle Shoals They have the swamp huts, and they’ve been known to pick a song’er two..”

Uh…Duh. This is yet another case of making a laughable mistake and continuing it because you need to get on with the gig and you’re too cheap to go out and buy the songbook.

Doing background work for an article can be an invaluable education for the lazy.

The correct line is:
” In Muscle Shoals they have THE SWAMPERS..”

This lyric is in reference to the original Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section composed of guitarist Jimmy Johnson, keyboardist Barry Beckett, drummer Roger Hawkins and bassist David Hood who comprised one of the greatest and influential units in modern American music.

They were nicknamed “The Swampers” by Leon Russell, a mildly derogatory term used to describe the largely unskilled rural laborers who began moving to the fast growing Sheffield/Florance/Muscle Shoals area for work in the new ammunition factories springing up along the Tennessee River during the First World War.

The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section hit making sound and distinctive rhythm tracks made the music world hum with the warm funk of Southern soul and passion. The Muscle Shoals sound was responsible for the careers of Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, and Percy Sledge. It was this distinctive feel and sound of The Swampers that helped make producer Jerry Wexler and Atlantic Records one of the most successful labels of the ‘60’s and ‘70s.

In order to understand The Swamper’s influence on music history, we’ll need to back up a bit and follow the development of the great Muscle Shoals Studios.

In 1961, Rick Hall, owner of a tiny FAME Studios sought help from the first rhythm section , bassist Norbert Putnam, keyboardist David Briggs and drummer Jerry Carrigan-culled from the local band, Dan Penn and the Pallbearers, to begin recording a singing bellhop he had discovered in a local hotel. Hall had built a tiny makeshift studio in a few rooms above a drugstore in town in hopes of making a few regional hits. Hall scored a minor hit with the song "You'd Better Move On."

Soon the tiny studio was making hits by artists such as Arthur Alexander, Jimmy Hughes, Joe Tex and white teeny-bopper Tommy Roe. The records sold in the millions, Hall lost his first rhythm section to lucrative Nashville offers, but everyone wanted to know where these hits originated. It didn’t stay a secret for very long. When the word got out that this tiny Alabama Studio was cranking out that special sound more work began coming in. After making a few calls, Hall assembled the men who became The Swampers- the rhythm section that would, quite literally, rock the planet.

When Producer Jerry Wexler got into a disagreement with management at Stax Studios in Memphis, he needed a studio to continue his work with his roster of singers. Hits by Wilson Pickett ("Land of 1000 Dances" and "Mustang Sally"), Arthur Conley ("Sweet Soul Music") and Percy Sledge ("When a Man Loves a Woman") were made with the Swampers as the backing band. But it was the music made by a young woman, Aretha(Never Loved A Man, Do Right Woman), the daughter of the Reverend Clarence LaVaughn Franklin from Detroit, that put everything into high gear.
They sat her down at the piano, she raised her voice, and The Queen Of Soul was born.
( Aretha’s sister Erma was the first one to record a song called ”Piece Of My Heart”-later heard and re-recorded and made a hit by Janis Joplin.)

Wexler loved the sound, and though the Studio wasn’t near to any large metropolis or airports, and it was in a “dry” county with no nightlife, he brought his acts to FAME and began to score hit after hit. Black R&B was moving into mainstream and crossing over into radio success by Motown and Stax, but this little studio in backwater Alabama was turning heads. Few realized that the rhythm section laying down the funky arrangements were white.

The Swampers were in demand. These Funky Country boys were called to play sessions in New York and Nashville while still under contract to FAME Studios. The close ties, financial support and steady work from Atlantic and Jerry Wexler convinced the men to go forward into a bold new venture. In 1968 the four Swampers pooled their savings and bought an old abandoned Casket Factory that had been turned into a four-track studio out at 3614 Jackson Highway and Muscle Shoals Studios was born.

To fully understand the impact Muscle Shoals Studios had on the music world and the development of Southern Rock, one has only to look at the roster of artists who made the journey to record there. The list is mind-blowing and nearly impossible to compile in it’s entirety.
Here is the abbreviated list:

John Hammond(Southern Fried),Bobby Womack, Paul Simon(Still Crazy). Boz Scaggs. Joe Cocker. Lynyrd Skynyrd.(Skynrd’s First and Street Survivors), Blackfoot, The Staple Singers, Sanford-Townsend, Dr. Hook, Willie Nelson, Bob Seger, Leon Russell(Shelter People) Traffic(Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys)Tony Joe White (Train I’m On)Danny O’Keefe, Jimmy Cliff, Linda Ronstadt,. Bob Dylan and yes.. The Rolling Stones.

The next time you jump around the room to “Brown Sugar or listen to “Wild Horses” and close your eyes to sing along, know that that recording was made in a tiny ex-casket factory by Jimmy Johnson.

Sweet Home Alabama was recorded here. So was Freebird and Gimmee Three Steps.

There was Magic inside those walls.

If you are a Musician, and you know your music history and you revere the roots that make you the soul that you are, there are three Southern studios that you should realize started it ALL-

Sun and Stax Studios in Memphis- and a small non-descript looking grey brick building at 3614 Jackson Hwy,in Sheffield Alabama named MUSCLE SHOALS.

And -by the way-At Muscle Shoals Studios there was this quiet happy little ol’ Southern guitar player session cat that Wilson Picket
nick-named “Skydog” during his Hey Jude sessions. When Eric Clapton heard the lead break at the end of the song he exclaimed,

” Who Is this cat? I wanna meet him right away!”

You will find his soaring and searing melody lines in the song “Layla” and “ Tell The Truth” on the Derek and The Dominos “Layla and Other Stories” album. He went on to light the slide- guitar world on fire. There are few guitar players who haven’t been profoundly influenced by him.

You get two guesses who “ Skydog” is..

Eventually it was decided that he Original building was too small, and the Studios were moved to at 1000 Alabama Avenue in Sheffield. Changes in recording trends,digital technology and the use of Home Recording took it’s toll on the Recording Industry and Muscle Shoals Studios. The Second Muscle Shoals Studio closed it’s doors in the eighties.The original studio at 3614 Jackson Highway was bought and restored to it’s original condition by Noel Webster and has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is open for public tours.
As for “ Swampers”- they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of fame. They have all moved on to become sucessful producers and continue session work. Their names can be found in the credits of some of the most famous recordings in music.
Original” Swamper" Jimmy Johnson recently recorded tracks in the original Studio and the son of Swamper David Hood -Patterson Hood- is a member of The Drive-By Truckers.
So Musicians and Music lovers- next time you head South for a vacation,forget Disney World. After you see Graceland, make CERTAIN you make time to visit that grey brick Casket Factory in Sweet Home Alabama, lay your hands on the walls, and channel the vibrations of true original Southern Funk. And You too will see the light.
And Don’t it make you feel SO good…yes indeed it do.

The Muscle Shoals Studio is open for tours Tues-sat 12-6
Muscle Shoals Studio
3614 Jackson Highway.
Sheffield Alabama 35660

Suggested websites-

Suggested Reading :
Backstage Passes and Back Stabbing Bastards- by Al Kooper
Skydog-The Duanne Allman Story- by Randy Poe and Billy F. Gibbons
Lynyrd Skynyrd: An Oral History - by Lee Ballinger

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